7 Positive Lessons the Miami Dolphins Can Take Out of the 2012 Season
For the Dolphins to even garner a shot at a Wild Card berth, they'd have to win out. This means they'd have to defeat the 49ers in San Francisco on Sunday—which would be nothing shy of a miracle—then beat the Bills, Jaguars and Patriots.
Anything is possible, sure, but I'm not getting my hopes up.
Not one bit.
Instead, it's time to start reflecting back on the season that was and start looking ahead toward what the future holds for this young Dolphins team. Although 2012 won't be a year to remember for Miami, there are actually plenty of positive takeaways.
Here are some of those positive lessons to be had from a season that featured the arrival of the quarterback of the future, a new head coach and the emergence of some future stars.
Ryan Tannehill's Surprisingly Impressive Performance
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Every scouting report out there cast Ryan Tannehill as an underdeveloped, unpolished and raw prospect that needed a great deal of grooming before he'd be ready to quarterback an NFL offense.
For example, take a look at Pro Football Weekly's pre-draft breakdown of Tannehill:
"Having only converted from receiver midway through his junior season, Tannehill is far from a finished product and his mechanics still will require refinement. Clearly possesses NFL starting-caliber physical talent but will need a few years of seasoning before he’s ready to handle live bullets. Struggled to find rhythm in a timing passing game and could be best suited for a vertical attack. Would be best entering a situation where he could be patiently groomed, yet based on the need for quarterbacks, is a strong candidate to be overdrafted and forced into action earlier than he should be."
We'll never know if Tannehill was actually best suited entering a situation where he could be patiently groomed, but there's no reason to criticize the Dolphins for tossing him into the gauntlet right away. He has handled himself like a veteran since Day One despite playing behind a makeshift offensive line and with virtually no weapons at his disposal.
Tannehill's recent play is cause for concern, though. The Dolphins have faced three bottom-five defenses in the last four weeks, yet he's has completed 68-of-122 for 797 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions. Offenses have figured out how to defend Tannehill, and his lack of weaponry doesn't make things any easier.
Overall, though, Tannehill has been a pleasant surprise in an otherwise depressing Dolphins season. It's hard not to be excited about his long-term potential—let's just hope Miami makes a concerted effort to surround him with some viable targets.
Mike Pouncey's Development into an All-Pro-Caliber Center
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The NFL is a fast-paced game, so it's not always easy to recognize greatness in the trenches—but the Dolphins have just that in Mike Pouncey. The second-year center is having a sensational season, good enough to earn a spot on Pro Football Weekly's Midseason All-NFL Team:
"Though his twin brother, Maurkice, earned All-Pro recognition from PFW in 2011, Mike has been the better performer this season in just his second year in the league. The Dolphins’ run game has been up and down, but Pouncey deserves credit for rookie QB Ryan Tannehill’s smooth transition to the NFL game. Meanwhile, Pouncey’s own growth has been steady since Day One."
Entering Sunday's loss to the Patriots, Pouncey had played 730 snaps and yielded just one quarterback hit, which helps explain why he grades out as the league's best pass-blocking center. Dolphins running backs have been at their best running into the A-gaps (on either immediate side of Pouncey), collectively rushing for 410 yards on 90 carries (4.5 yards per carry).
There are few truly stable and reliable players on this Dolphins roster, but the team won't have to worry about the center position for a long time.
Reshad Jones' Emergence as a Top-Flight Safety
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Considering he was a first-round draft pick who enjoyed a decorated college career, it's not all that surprising to see Mike Pouncey emerge as one of the NFL's preeminent players.
The same can't be said for Reshad Jones.
A fifth-round pick in 2010, Jones played sparingly his rookie season and then filled in for an injured Chris Clemons last season. It wasn't pretty. Jones was a liability in both pass and rush coverage, but for one reason or another, the light bulb flipped on this season.
Entering Sunday's game, Pro Football Focus ranked him the NFL's No. 2 safety behind only Buffalo's Jairus Byrd. After his 10-tackle, 1-interception performance against the Patriots, Jones has a good shot at claiming the No. 1 spot.
Jones has been spectacular in all facets of the game this season. Opposing quarterbacks have a dismal 57.1 rating and 50 percent completion percentage when throwing into his coverage. Though he hasn't been quite as efficient against the run, he's still on pace for a 97-tackle year.
There's no doubt Jones deserves a Pro Bowl berth, and it could be the first of many to come.
The Front Seven's Dominance
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The Dolphins run defense may have softened as this season has progressed, but let's not be hypercritical: this is still a dominant unit.
Even though Miami surrendered more than 100 rushing yards to the Patriots, Bills and Titans in the last four weeks, it still boasts the NFL's eighth-best run defense. And, this is despite Karlos Dansby playing with a torn biceps and Tony McDaniel appearing in only six games.
Only one player—Chris Johnson—has rushed for more than 100 yards on the Phins this season, which is a wildly impressive feat. The Dolphins also shut down Arian Foster and Darren McFadden earlier this year and limited Marshawn Lynch to just 46 yards on 19 carries two weeks ago.
This run defense has every reason to retain its dominance for the next few years, but here's the thing: Karlos Dansby is 31 and Kevin Burnett turns 30 in a few weeks. By the time the Dolphins are able to field a competent and championship-caliber offense, these two may be on the decline.
For the immediate future, though, Miami can rest easy knowing it has an elite run defense.
Joe Philbin Has Accomplished a Lot with Very Little
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Joe Philbin and his staff have made their share of questionable decisions: benching Reggie Bush for three quarters for one fumble, keeping Cameron Wake and Jared Odrick on the sideline for the Patriots' game-sealing drive on Sunday, and consistently abandoning the run at odd times.
But, taking a step back from it all, the fact that Philbin managed to keep this team in the playoff hunt for 13 weeks is very impressive.
Sure, the Dolphins schedule isn't exactly daunting, but look at the roster Philbin entered the season with. A rookie quarterback surrounded by a shoddy offensive line and virtually no threatening playmakers aside from Reggie Bush. One of his starting cornerbacks was traded in August and another placed on IR after four games.
The Dolphins lack depth at almost every single position, they're the NFL's 12th youngest team, and they lack a legitimate home-field advantage. And, Jeff Ireland essentially overhauled the roster in August.
Despite all of this, Joe Philbin kept his team in the hunt for a vast majority of the season. The verdict is obviously still out on him, but his debut campaign should be considered a success.
Marcus Thigpen's Emergence as One of the NFL's Premier Kick Returners
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Jeff Ireland might not be the best evaluator of collegiate talent, but the man does know how to find diamonds in the rough across the border.
Four years after signing Cameron Wake from the BC Lions, Ireland signed ex-Hamilton Tiger-Cat Marcus Thigpen this offseason. Thigpen hasn't only established himself as one of, if not the best kick returner in recent Dolphins history, he has established himself as one of the NFL's most efficient and deadly return men.
In fact, Thigpen ranks as the best kick returner in the league per Pro Football Focus. He's averaging just a hair fewer than 30 yards per kick return and 13.6 yards per punt return. Beyond that, he has returned a kick and a punt for a touchdown.
Having a returner like Thigpen adds an entirely extra dynamic that opposing teams have to game-plan for.
Thigpen also received his first offensive touch during Sunday's loss to the Patriots. Given how explosive he is on special teams, the Dolphins ought to see if he can provide a similar threat out of the backfield or as a slot receiver.
Contributions from Unlikely Places
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Whether you believe Jeff Ireland should be fired following this season, give him some credit for finding contributors in the unlikeliest of places.
Aside from Marcus Thigpen, Ireland also signed fullback Jorvorskie Lane off the street, drafted Kheeston Randall in the seventh round and picked up Derrick Shelby as an undrafted free agent.
Lane got off to a scorching hot start this season, and although he has cooled down, he has maintained a positive grade from Pro Football Focus.
Randall hasn't been spectacular by any means, but he has definitely exceeded his draft billing. In 139 snaps, he has registered two stops, six tackles and two quarterback hurries.
Finally, Shelby has quietly become a valuable player for the Dolphins defensive line, contributing eight stops and eight quarterback hurries in 152 snaps.
Ideally, all four of these players will develop into marquee players as they grow and progress. Their respective emergences may not be enough for Ireland to justify keeping his job, but they will help the Dolphins down the road regardless.