It's wild card weekend for the NFL playoffs and the Dolphins are still in the game as they travel to play the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here are ten thoughts on the team and the NFL heading into the game.
1. I note that running back Jay Ajayi is playing the “disrespect card” this week.
“We hear a lot of talk about the other team and who they have and the players that they have,” Ajayi said. “And it’s kind of starting to get to me where you have to understand we have players too, you know?
“We have guys that are playing at a high level and are showcasing their abilities. And I think it’s time people need to respect that we have players on our offense, too, and we can get some stuff done when we’re on our game.”
I ordinarily scoff at things like this. But in this particular case, I think Ajayi has a bit of a point. The Dolphins are ten-point underdogs to a team that they actually beat earlier in the season.
I don’t think the Dolphins are exactly being “disrespected” so much as they are being underestimated. In particular, I don’t think national commentators have really been paying attention to what has been happening on Ajayi’s side of the ball.
This has become a very, very good, diverse offensive unit. Anyone who believes that the Dolphins have to have success running the ball in order to succeed against the Steelers hasn’t been watching. They need to commit to the run, yes. But they don’t necessarily need five yards per carry from it in order to score points.
Kenny Stills, Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker have become a handful and the Dolphins are getting more every week out of their tight ends. Though I don’t agree with it myself, there’s an argument to be made that Matt Moore is actually a better quarterback than Ryan Tannehill.
Offensively this is as good of a playoff team as there is out there.
2. Defensively this is a different story. From the beginning of the year, the team has been in trouble at cornerback and it looks like Byron Maxwell, the only one they’ve got that you could call “solid,” might not play. Injuries have hurt them at safety and they haven’t had a dropoff at outside linebacker only because their starters aren’t any better than their backups.
The last time these teams met, Roethlisberger had a particularly bad game. He got hurt but he wasn’t throwing well even before that. I don’t think anyone is counting on that happening again.
This is a defense that has, to an extent, been exposed late in the year. But all is not lost…
3. I am personally going to love watching every minute of this game because success for the Dolphins, indeed for each team, will be determined right where it should be - at the line of scrimmage. The Dolphins need to do exactly what they did last time these teams met in Week 6. Push them around up front.
The offensive line needs to protect Moore and they need to block for Ajayi. If they do both adequately, this is going to be a great matchup.
The defensive backfield might be a disaster and the linebackers might not be good. But if the defensive line plays like they did last time against one of the best offensive lines in the league, none of that will matter as much.
And the great thing if you’re a Dolphins fan is that the defensive line is playing about as well as they have all season. I’m still not a Jordan Phillips fan but Ndamukong Suh is peaking at the right time and Cameron Wake has been dominant all year.
This was a defense built to win up front. Phillips only flashes and hasn’t developed into a consistent force and Mario Williams is a shadow of his former self. But Suh and Wake are still leading the way and that might be enough to win.
I really can’t wait to see what happens.
4. I am going to start this item by apologizing to those of you who consider Williams to be irrelevant and are tired of me hammering him (which I did relentlessly during the first half of the season). If you are, skip this one because I can’t resist taking one more shot at a guy that I have come to dislike so much.
Williams was the biggest-name free agent acquisition of the 2016 offseason. He carries the sixth-highest salary cap number on the team and he reportedly will be waived this offseason. Some would call him a “salary cap casualty.” I call him a thief for stealing the Dolphins’ money.
Williams was a starter for the first five weeks of the season and managed only one sack. At the time defensive coordinator Vance Joseph called him out for needing to play harder. Eventually Joseph came to realize that he was wasting his breath because “playing harder” was only part of the problem. Williams couldn’t play dead.
Williams spent 2015 taking his failures out on former Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan by bashing him for playing him out of position and the Dolphins front office, headed by Executive Vice President of Football Operations Mike Tannenbaum, bought it.
They should have known better.
Predictably, it turned out to be just one of a series of excuses that Williams would use to explain his lack of production, now with the Dolphins, from blaming teammates in the defensive backfield who didn’t give him time to get to the quarterback to claiming that he couldn’t play due to injury long after he’d been benched.
The truth is – and even if Williams can’t face it, every other team in the league knows it now – Williams' skills have declined. He can’t help that and I certainly don’t blame him for it. But I simply cannot abide players who make excuses for failure.
The best players in the NFL are mentally tough people who overcome adversity and emerge from the other side as better human beings, if not always as better players. Williams was a huge disappointment because in Miami, just like in Buffalo, he couldn’t look within and blame the real cause of his problems - himself.
5. I find the fact that Vance Joseph is such a hot head coaching candidate to be very interesting. The Rams, 49ers and the Broncos all appear to be interested.
The Broncos aren’t a big surprise because Joseph interviewed with them before they hired Gary Kubiak and they were reportedly impressed. But why other teams would be interested given the state of the Dolphins defense is a bit of a mystery.
The comments from Dolphins head coach Adam Gase on the matter are almost ironic.
"Our players on defense should be proud because one of the reasons he's getting these opportunities is they've played well, and did some things people didn't expect us to do," Gase said of the Dolphins defense. “It is a credit to him and our defensive coaches.”
Hmmmm…the Dolphins defense allowed a franchise record 6,122 yards in the regular season and ranked 29th in total yards allowed per game (382.6) and 18th in total points allowed (28.3).
Yes, there were injuries, as documented above, especially to the safeties. But the poor defense pre-dated most of them and, when you look at the big picture and what was lost and what it was replaced with, I didn’t think what happened hurt them much more than injuries hurt most teams over the course of the season. I definitely don’t think injuries justify what was at times a really poor defensive performance.
I think it is a lot more likely that teams look at Joseph’s situation in Miami and they see it for what it is. They think he did a good job coaching a poor roster (except for the defensive line) with little depth (including the defensive line) and they think that a bad Dolphins defense would be even worse statistically without him.
I admit that’s a grim and somewhat cynical assessment for a defense that was at least good enough to be part of a playoff team. But that doesn’t make it wrong.
6. And now for our weekly look at the current state of the New York Jets.
Todd Bowles won the battle and survived the week. But his chances of surviving the war look grim right now. The team has struggled at the most important position in football since Brett Favre left in 2008. That puts them in the same boat with most of the bad teams in the league.
The Jets are apparently hanging their hats on the development of second round pick Christian Hackenberg, who they decided in the offseason had a higher upside than Bryce Petty and selected in the second round. The Jets will need to find a veteran starter this offseason because, coming out of Penn State, Hackenberg was so raw (read “bad”) that the Jets decided he needed, not one, but two years to develop and they therefore aren’t counting on him to contribute until 2018.
But potential gets you fired in the NFL and the Jets might be finding that out right now.
One Jets coach, quoted anonymously in an ESPN report, said Hackenberg is so inaccurate that he "couldn't hit the ocean".
Bowles had a different take. "He just needs to play, he has to play. There's nothing wrong with Christian, he just needs to play."
But apparently not this season where they were so afraid to put him on the field that they played Ryan Fitzpatrick, already with one foot out the door, rather than expose their future to the ridicule that almost certainly would have followed any effort to play him.
Even 2018 is uncertain but if Hackenberg doesn’t emerge from the miserable depths of ineptitude that he showed in the college ranks and fails, it’s unlikely that Bowles will survive to see 2019 with the team.
Hackenberg was over-drafted as a far too risky second round pick. Now it appears that Bowles and the rest of the organization will live or die with it.
7. It looks like the Dolphins won’t be getting much competition from the Buffalo Bills very quickly either.
In one of the oddest and funniest events of the year, things couldn’t have gone much worse for Bills GM Doug Whaley during his season ending press conference. To say that Whaley failed to inspire much confidence that the Bills are internally healthy and ready for a turnaround would be something of an understatement.
In a stunning revelation, Whaley said that he wasn’t involved in the initial decision to fire Ryan."I wasn't privy to the conversation so I cannot get into the details." When asked if he got any explanation from ownership for the firing Whaley said “I didn’t need any.”
OK. So what made him decide on Anthony Lynn as the interim head coach? Well apparently he didn’t decide that, either. Believe it or not, Whaley claimed that Rex Ryan recommended Lynn (apparently after being informed that he was fired) and so that’s who they appointed.
Predictably reporters reacted with incredulity.
Honestly, like the reporters who were there, I just don’t know what to make of this. Half of me believes that Whaley was out right lying. But if he was, then he was effectively throwing ownership under the bus because his denials clearly suggested a dysfunctional organization where no one knows what anyone is doing.
Which is, of course, probably what it is.
If only explaining the Patriots success was as easy as explaining the failures of the Dolphins' other AFC East foes. Then the Dolphins would really have some answers.
8. Speaking of dysfunctional franchises, let’s look in on the Cleveland Browns as they enter the post season. In so doing, let me address a report in the Chronical-Telegram that pretty much sums up my problem with how this franchise is being run.
The Browns are apparently doing their due diligence in investigating the top quarterbacks coming out in the draft. In the process, executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown and vice president of player personnel Andrew Berry made the trip to El Paso, Texas to get a look at North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky in the Sun Bowl.
Andrew Berry, OK. Sashi Brown, most certainly not OK.
Brown is a lawyer who has never worked in an NFL personnel department. What in the world is he doing going to a game to “scout” a quarterback?
Brown has no business evaluating an NFL prospect. He, in fact, has no business being anywhere near a NFL draft room at all. But for some reason, the owner of the Browns, Jimmy Haslam, has decided to put his franchise into Brown’s hands.
It was a year of havoc in 2016 where head coach Hue Jackson was practically the only football man making these personnel decisions. Jackson, predictably, was focused on game preparations at the time of the report. He didn’t even know Trubisky was playing.
“But since you said that, I will definitely take a shot and look if I can,” he said. “We are going to see all of these guys as we move forward, all the prospects that are out there and evaluate them accordingly.”
To his credit, the near miss on an 0-16 season may have finally made Haslam see the light. According to Ian Rapoport at NFL.com the Browns may be searching for a little more scouting muscle. The expectation is for Cleveland to hire a top scout to serve as the main football voice and be charged with finding the kind of players Jackson wants.
Unfortunately, the potential hire would still be below Brown. Nevertheless, let’s hope for the sake of all Browns fans that there is some truth to this rumor and that Brown has the common sense to step away from the process and let those who know what they are doing make the decisions.
Otherwise, I can’t imagine we’re going to see anything but more misery in “factory of sadness.”
9. Despite reports to the contrary, it looks like the Baltimore Ravens will be sticking with Marty Mornhinweg as their offensive coordinator.
"In my heart, in my gut and in my head, this is the best way to go," head coach John Harbaugh said.
Why he thinks that’s true, I don’t know.
The Ravens finished 8-8 largely because they ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in rushing (29th), third-down efficiency (21st), red-zone efficiency (19th) and scoring (18th) after Mornhinweg took over for Marc Trestman for the final 11 games of the season.
More to the point, the Ravens had the same issues that led to Trestman getting fired. Baltimore simply failed to commit to the run.
"I believe we're going to be physical," Harbaugh said. "I believe we're going to run good, solid concepts that Joe can execute efficiently and I believe, within that system, there's room for a lot of creativity. That's what we got to chase."
I get it. You can’t just fire your offensive coordinator every year and there’s value in continuity. But the key to continuity isn’t hesitating to fire the wrong guy. It's finding the right guy in the first place.
Terrance West is a talented running back who ran for four yards per carry. The Baltimore Ravens can run the ball. They just need a coach who will do it.
The evidence indicates that, despite his assertions, Harbaugh hasn’t found one yet.
10. "Do you want to know what they’ll say next?” Apparently not enough people do.
In a hilarious development, Skip Bayless, who has partnered up with Shannon Sharpe for a new show on FOX Sports 1 (slogan above), revealed both a huge ego and a huge degree of sensitivity to social media.
A “fan” apparently posted comments on a recent Facebook Live stream that contained over-the-top praise of Bayless. The problem? It turns out that Bayless was the poster. He apparently intended to do it under a dummy account. Apparently he’s the dummy.
I can’t imagine what it’s like having such a raging urge for the approval of others that you actually have to fake compliments and do it yourself. But I can’t say that I’m surprised.
The guess here is that Bayless actually doesn’t have too many fans, per se. He might have people who want to hear whatever outrageous garbage he will forcefully spit out of his mouth next. That’s their problem. But I think few people, if any, actually take it seriously.
Apparently not seriously enough to post compliments on Twitter so Bayless doesn’t have to do it, himself.
This column was written by Tom Shannon. Follow him on Twitter: @bearingthenews
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