Written by Chris Perkins of the Sun-Sentinel
Before you get all starry-eyed thinking of the Dolphins’ possibilities with their fancy new offense, ask yourself one question.
What’s the most realistic identity for the Dolphins this season: being a high-scoring offensive machine, or a defense-led team that uses offense to supply what’s necessary? I think it’s clearly the latter. Again.
That might be a bit disappointing considering new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s system is supposed to usher the Dolphins into the high-scoring era of the NFL. But that’s not realistic for this year’s Dolphins team. This year’s Dolphins team needs to be led by a butt-kicking, turnover-producing, play-making defense. That needs to be this team's calling card.
The Dolphins were eighth in points allowed last season (20.9 per game). That’s playoff-caliber. Unfortunately, the offense (19.8 ppg) ranked 27th in points scored, and only managed seven points in the final two games. The Dolphins should be better, but don’t expect a major improvement this year. Also, consider this: The Dolphins’ strength is their defensive line. At the tackle position the three-man rotation of Randy Starks, Jared Odrick and Earl Mitchell is probably capable of handling anything thrown its way. On the ends, Cam Wake, Olivier Vernon, Dion Jordan and Derrick Shelby combine to form the best playmaking unit on the team.
Combine that defensive line with cornerback Brent Grimes and you’ve got a great starting point for a playoff run. Starks, Wake and Grimes have all been to a Pro Bowl in the last two years, and the defense, which returns most of its key players from a year ago, has shown that its formula can be fairly successful under the guidance of coordinator Kevin Coyle.
Of course, much of the defensive success will hinge on how well the linebacker trio of Dannell Ellerbe, Koa Misi and Philip Wheeler plays, and how well the rest of the secondary plays. Those remain big wildcards.
The defense also has to improve from its 24 takeaways of a year ago, which was only tied for 19th in the league.
But the Dolphins are much closer to making the playoffs as a defense-led team in the mold of Seattle rather than an offense-led team in the mold of Denver.
Offensively, there are way too many questions for the Dolphins. Start with the new system. Lazor’s offense, highlighted by lots of pre-snap motion that ideally results in mismatches, looked pretty good during OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and minicamp. But that was without pads.
This is still a first-year system. Expect the normal hardships of a learning curve.
Then look at the offensive line. There will likely be five new starters on opening day because center Mike Pouncey’s hip surgery will sideline him three months. It’s hard to believe they’ll be playing playoff-caliber football until mid-season, at the earliest.
There’s also a degree of uncertainty with quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and to a lesser extent running back Knowshon Moreno, who had knee surgery that might not allow him to return until early in training camp.
The good thing about the offense is the depth and quality of the wide receivers, and the skills of tight end Charles Clay. The wide receiver crew, led by Mike Wallace, Brain Hartline and Brandon Gibson, is legitimately good. If they remain healthy, they could become the best playmaking unit on the team.
But they need help from Tannehill and the offensive line to be effective. That’s a wait-and-see proposition, at best.
The Dolphins’ offense should be improved, but most likely it won't be strong enough to lead this team into the playoffs.
That’s a job for the defense. They’re grown men. And for the most part, they’re proven NFL veterans.
That’s why the defense is better equipped to forge the identity for the Dolphins this season. Again.