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TGS 2012 PRO FOOTBALL PREVIEW... MIAMI DOLPHINS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Sometimes we think Miami fans forget that Don Shula coached for another 22 seasons after winning his second and last Super Bowl for the Dolphins in 1973.

Can it be that long ago since Griese, Csonka, and Warfield were winning Super Bowls? Can it also be possible that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the “perfect” 17-0 Dolphins of 1972?

(Can it also be possible that THE GOLD SHEET was already into its 16th season of publishing when the Dolphins went 17-0? Time sure flies when you’re having fun!)

Still, they’ve been chasing memories for several decades in Miami, although we think a more appropriate demarcation point in the franchise's modern era was after QB Dan Marino’s retirement following the 1999 season. True, the Dolphins never won a Super Bowl with Marino (and only appeared in one, Super Bowl XIX at Palo Alto vs. the 49ers, with Marino at QB), but they were usually a serious contender when Marino was in the fold.

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Indeed, Miami has won just one playoff game since Marino retired after the 1999 season, four years after Shula coached his last game.

And as the Dolphins prepare to transition to another new post-Shula/Marino regime this fall, oddsmakers hardly expect the title drought to cease. Most Las Vegas wagering outlets are posting a season-win total at a modest 7 or 7 ½ for the Dolphins in 2012. They’re also the longest shot on the board (16/1) to win the AFC East.

Those looking to take a walk on the wild side might be interested in Miami’s prices to win the AFC title (35/1) or Super Bowl (80/1).

Any takers?

After Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, Nick Saban, Cam Cameron, and Tony Sparano all tried and failed to recreate the old Shula magic in South Florida, Joe Philbin (left) gets his shot this fall. Recently the offensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers, Philbin will be the tenth head coach (including a couple of interims) in the franchise’s history that began as an AFL expansion franchise under George Wilson way back in 1966. Those were also the days when Flipper was a big deal on TV and moonlighted as the Dolphins’ mascot, swimming in his own pool by the scoreboard in the old Orange Bowl, during the franchise’s first three years.

Despite the latest coaching change and last year’s 6-10 record, expectations are suprisingly buoyant in Miami. That’s partly because there might be room to make a move in the AFC East, especially with the Jets trying to reboot under Rex Ryan and the Bills struggling to gain traction under Chan Gailey.

Some Dolphins fans, however, have justified concerns about the direction of the franchise under owner Stephen Ross, who bought out Wayne Huizenga’s interest in 2009 and has seemed more interested in rubbing shoulders with South Beach socialites and celebs ever since. The likes of J-Lo, hubby (or is it ex-hubby?) Marc Anthony, Gloria Estefan, Fergie, and Venus and Serena Williams have all become small minority owners in the Dolphins.

Although we can’t say this is a first in Miami, as entertainer Danny Thomas was one of the original partners in the franchise during the Flipper days of the 1960s.

As for new coach Philbin, he was the conclusion of Miami’s head coaching search that effectively began well before the end of last season when Tony Sparano was canned with three games remaining. The Dolphins finished 2011 with d.c. Todd Bowles (now with the Eagles) as the interim coach.

Philbin’s appeal was mainly related to his offensive expertise from a decorated stint as offensive coordinator on the Packers staff. Philbin is also considered a sage play-caller and QB tutor after helping Aaron Rodgers achieve greatness in short order at Lambeau Field.

Philbin, however, has never been a head coach at any level, and he would hardly be the first distinguished coordinator who failed in the role. As is the case with most first-time head coaches, we recommend a wait-and-see attitude before considering Philbin the right man for the job at Sun Life Stadium.

For what it’s worth, Philbin insists this isn’t a rebuilding situation he inherits in Miami, and the Dolphins did close with a rush last season, winning six of their last nine games. The only problem was that Miami didn’t hit stride until it broke 0-7 from the gate, effectively terminating Sparano before Halloween, although the guillotine didn’t fall until December.

Offensive inconsistencies were the main problem a year ago, especially when erratic work along the offensive line proved problematic in protecting Dolphin QBs, who were sacked 52 times.

Philbin’s first order of business is to install an uptempo West Coast offense similar to the one he coordinated in Green Bay. Finding a proper pilot for the attack, however, figures to take all of the preseason, and perhaps even longer, before Philbin decides who should be taking snaps.

And the QB could be Texas A&M rookie Ryan Tannehill, Miami’s first-round selection last April’s NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall. Tannehill had moved up the boards dramatically in the preceding weeks when impressing in the pre-draft workouts. A one-time WR at A&M, Tannehill seems to possess the athletic intangibles necessary to succeed in the NFL. Whether the fundamentals and other factors develop as needed remains to be seen.

It is also not pure coincidence that Tannehill’s former A&M coach, Mike Sherman, is also the Dolphins’ new offensive coordinator, and was running a variation of the West Coast at College Station that was similar to Philbin’s. Sources say Sherman’s presence and recommendation helped sell the organization on Tannehill.

The adjustment phase for Tannehill, goes the thought, could be smoother because of these unique dynamics.

We, however, are among many AFC East observers who believe Miami could also win with holdover Matt Moore at QB as the Dolphins did late last season. Moore (right) certainly provided an upgrade from Chad Henne, whose injury problems last October ironically triggered a turnaround when Moore subsequently took over the controls. Moore then passed for 2427 yards with 16 TDs and 9 picks a year ago and became more comfy in the cockpit as the season progressed.

Still, as camp commences, the QB derby remains undecided, as not only did Miami add Tannehill, but also added veteran free agent David Garrard, who figures to compete for the job in August as well. (Henne, by the way, left for Jacksonville in the offseason.)

And in early days of training camp, Tannehill (left) was taking the majority of reps with the first string, suggesting that Philbin is open to the idea of going with the rookie right out of the gate.

A lot of other AFC insiders, however, think Moore or Garrard are more likely to be at the helm, at least at the outset this fall. If the Dolphins would fall out of playoff contention, many believe, Philbin might then be more apt to put the rookie into the lineup. Stay tuned for further developments.

Whoever is on the field at QB will have plenty of help from a RB corps now bursting with capable and diverse options. Reggie Bush (right), finally rid of Kardashian-itis, experienced a long-overdue breakout campaign in 2011 when rushing for 1086 yards, and 2nd-year ex-Kansas State RB Daniel Thomas suggested bigger things are to come when gaining another 581 YR in his rookie trip. Explosive Miami Hurricanes rookie Lamar Miller, a fourth-round draft choice, adds another dimension to the infantry.

More serious questions offensively have to do with the receiving corps and the forward wall. In particular the former, which seems to lack a field-distorting threat after Brandon Marshall (who led Dolphins receivers by a wide margin last year when catching 81 passes) was traded to the Bears.

The late-spring addition of diva Chad Ochocinco (or is it back to Chad Johnson these days?), who from all indications is past his sell-by date, appears nothing more than a desperate roll of the dice. Holdovers Davone Bess (left) and Brian Hartline are serviceable yet lack the homerun dimension Marshall provided.

Meanwhile, the offensive line, stung by injuries a year ago, remains filled with issues. Including the belief that it lacks sort of athleticism and mobility that Philbin would prefer for his zone-blocking schemes. Indeed, the entire right side of the line is undergoing a rebuild. Despite the presence of established sorts such as LT Jake Long and C Mike Pouncey, the Miami offensive line again appears to be a work in progress.

On the plus side, Philbin does inherit a capable defense from the previous regime. Miami’s robust stop unit ranked sixth-best in points allowed a year ago, and prospects are encouraging for the fall.

There remains some room for adjustments, however, and new d.c. Kevin Coyle will be switching the Dolphins to a 4-3 base from their previous 3-4 looks. The most important offseason development was retaining Pro Bowl NT Paul Soliai (right, vs. New England last September), who will anchor the front from a more-traditional DT spot this fall.

Yet Coyle appears to be asking much from 3rd-round draftee Olivier Vernon, another former Miami Hurricane but already penciled into a starting role on the other side from big-play DE Cameron Wake, who has 28 sacks the past three seasons.

Coyle is also hoping that the alignment modifications will help to better unleash the potential of LBs Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, who each recorded 100-plus tackles last year but whose ceilings suggest more upside.

There are some questions at the safety spots, especially at FS where someone has to emerge to complement emerging SS Reshad Jones. But fourth-year CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith (left, vs. Cleveland last September 25) have collectively matured into a pair of competent corners, and the FA addition of vet CB Richard Marshall provides extra options, especially in nickel looks.

Special teams-wise, the Dolphins have Pro Bowl-caliber kickers in P Brandon Fields and PK Dan Carpenter, but the return units have needed upgrades since Ted Ginn Jr. left town a few years ago.

Note that the Dolphins developed several curious spread patterns during the Sparano years, including 2011 when their spread performance (not surprisingly) reflected their straight-up pattern that reversed at midseason; Miami was 7-1-1 vs. the line its last nine games in 2011 after covering just one of its first seven outings.

Sparano’s Miami was also one of those rare “inside-out” teams that performed better vs. the line on the road than at home. Over the past two seasons, the Dolphins posted an eye-opening 12-4 spread mark away from Sun Life Stadium but were just 5-10-1 vs. the mark at home. Correspondingly, Miami was 13-7 as an underdog and just 3-8-1 as chalk. Will those juxtaposed spread patterns continue under Philbin?

With the recent inconsistencies on offense, and the solid defense, it was also no surprise that Miami recorded a 12-4 “under” mark last season, and is “under” 16-5 in its last 21 games since late in the 2010 campaign. Yet Philbin’s arrival, and his offensive emphasis, could alter those “totals” dynamics.

Summary...If Philbin is right, maybe Miami isn’t in a rebuilding phase, as the Dolphins were playing playoff-quality football for the last half of the 2011 campaign. But Miami was rallying last season behind QB Matt Moore, not Ryan Tannehill. And while we’re aware of Tannehill’s upside, we’re not convinced the Dolphins will be better this year with the A&M rookie at the controls than they would be with Moore. Moreover, there are other issues at the receiver spots and along the line on the offensive side. And the defense, while good, wasn’t enough to carry the team to the playoffs a year ago and probably wouldn’t be enough to do it alone again this year, either.

If Tannehill gets the call from Philbin, it’s a move that will more likely help the Dolphins in a year or two down the road...not 2012.


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