Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle is on the hot seat and rightfully so. After seeing a defensive collapse in the second half of the 2014 season, many people in the front office want answers. In addition to those front office people, head coach Joe Philbin wants answers too and that’s what he has been researching the past week, according to someone close to the situation.
At the time this column was published, I can tell you that Philbin still has not decided whether or not he wants to keep Coyle. While we know that Philbin is loyal – sometimes to a fault – he knows that his job is on the line and if his players aren’t happy with the way that Coyle has schemed throughout the season, then a change needs to be made. Let it be known that there are many players on defense that aren’t happy either. According to the Sun-Sentinel, many became frustrated with the rotations on defense, the schemes and the fact that it is so complex that it takes a while for young players to get on the field.
So, as of today, that’s where Philbin stands. We don’t know who was injured on the defense, although we can suspect that Randy Starks and Earl Mitchell were playing through injuries since the majority of their second half of the season showed them playing much worse than the first half. Not coincidentally, the rest of the defense struggled when those two could no longer contain the line in the trenches.
The Dolphins were thin at defensive tackle with just Starks, Mitchell and Odrick. Undrafted rookie Anthony Johnson had been placed on injured reserve on December 14 and AJ Francis, a promising young player, was placed on injured reserve before the season began on August 26. After that, they had no one. Therefore, Starks and Mitchell were forced to fight through their injuries if in fact they were battling them.
In addition to that, the Dolphins lost several members of the secondary throughout the course of the season. There was Louis Delmas, Michael Thomas, Will Davis, Jamar Taylor and even Cortland Finnegan missed several games. Then, at the linebacker position, the Dolphins dealt with injuries to Koa Misi, Jelani Jenkins and Chris McCain throughout the course of the season. That’s not even talking about the fact that Dannell Ellerbe was placed on injured reserve before the season began.
With that said, did the Dolphins defense regress because of the injuries or was it the schemes that didn’t put them in the best position to succeed? Has this regression been an ongoing trend over the past three years or have the Dolphins shown improvement in all areas of the defense? In order to find that out, I took an in-depth look at the defensive stats over the past three years. While of course stats don’t tell the whole story, it gives us a good solid foundation to either advance our argument or shoot it down.
In 2012, Coyle came on board as the defensive coordinator when Philbin was named the head coach. Coyle was replacing Mike Nolan, who is currently under contract as the defensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons. Coyle was taking over a pretty good defense, although it wasn’t as dominant as most people are making it out to be. Let’s look at the team rankings from 2011, courtesy of ESPN.
Of course, we can’t get a good idea of what we are looking at without looking at the next season in 2012.
If you look down the line, you can see that the Dolphins regressed in every area when Coyle took over with the exception of their pass defense. This isn’t a surprise because Coyle was a secondary coach for the vast majority of his coaching career. The biggest disparity is the run defense, where the team dropped from number three in the league to number 24. That big of a drop does not happen by accident in just one season. Instead, it starts to show us that it is more scheme and play calling than it is the players. Let’s look at 2013 to get a better idea.
At first glance, the rankings in every category are the exact same as 2012. However, if you look at the numbers, you will again see the Dolphins regressed in every area except their pass defense. This is now two seasons in a row where the defense has regressed. Let’s look at 2014 just to be sure.
In Coyle’s third year, we finally see improvement. The Dolphins improved in the yards allowed category and became a top ten team in pass defense. However, they regressed big in total points allowed and stayed about the same in total rush yards allowed.
What’s the most important category in terms of wins and losses? The number of points scored and the number of points allowed. Coyle has regressed each year in the points allowed category. In fact, if it wasn’t for 2014, he would have regressed in all areas each year with the exception of pass defense, which improved each year under his direction.
Now, I mentioned earlier that the Dolphins secondary was riddled with injuries. Why then did the Dolphins still hold their own in the secondary? It’s because Coyle was a secondary coach and his ability to teach and scheme in that part of the game is great. It’s his lack of ability to scheme and game-plan up front and in the middle that has been his downfall for the past three years and will continue to be his downfall if he remains the defensive coordinator.
Besides total team stats, I also went a little more in-depth and looked at the first half compared to the second half of each of the past three seasons. While it’s hard to put this data into perspective since this data isn’t readily available in terms of team rankings, it does give us an idea of how Coyle has adjusted the second half of the season compared to the first.
Here in 2012, we actually see a big improvement in every area except turnovers forced and points allowed. The improvement in the other areas was likely due to the fact that Coyle was really understanding the personnel he had and started to feel more comfortable in his role. Strength of schedule also could’ve come into play. However, the most important stat – points allowed – showed regression. Let’s look at 2013.
Based off this data, we see an improvement across the board with the exception of rush yards allowed per game and turnovers forced per game. However, this is good progress and again, a nice adjustment in the second half of the season.
And here is where everyone is focusing on – the huge regression in the second half of the 2014 season. The numbers and data don’t lie and here it is right in front of us. However, again, we have to wonder – were the defensive linemen fighting through injuries that we didn’t know about? How severe were they? The Dolphins are very secretive when it comes to injuries so even if it was a painful injury, we wouldn’t know much about it.
The question then becomes whether or not Coyle could’ve done something to adjust his scheme and get the players on the field in the best position to succeed. Based on comments from players after the season, it seems that this didn’t happen.
In addition, throw in the fact that all the Dolphins had to do in three games – Green Bay, Detroit and Denver – was to stop the opposing offense from driving down the field just one time at the end of the game. If that had happened, the Dolphins would win those games. Even if the Dolphins lost one of those games, they still would’ve had two extra wins and would’ve been in the playoffs. Thus, it’s fair to say that the offense held up their end of the deal in the vast majority of games. It was the defense that broke the back of the team and forced them into another 8-8 season.
I can see the dilemma that Philbin is facing. While the data shows a mixed pattern of regression and improvement, he has the injury information and all of the behind the scenes stuff that we don’t know about. However, he must believe that a fresh voice would be good for the defense. Does he make the change or does he stay with Coyle another season and work on getting the right players for his defense?
If I’m the head coach, I fire Coyle. The defensive collapse was just too much and the regression in the key categories is just too much to ignore. In addition, this team needs a fresh voice on the defensive side of the ball. We have seen the defensive line get dominated the past three years and while the linebackers did slightly improve this season, they still are getting pushed around. Based on the data, I believe that this has to do with scheme and not the players.
If the right coach with the right scheme comes in that understands the importance of the defensive line, I believe that with a few tweaks, this defense can be a top ten unit in the 2015 season.
This column was written by Matthew Cannata. Follow him on Twitter: @PhinManiacs