The Miami Dolphins showed a lot of progress this year and had a chance to make a push for the postseason, but they fell short of their goal.
No one particular person or factor played any more or less of a role in them coming up short. In general, the defense played better than the offense, but there were plenty of bright spots and tough stretches for both units.
Head coach Joe Philbin took a moment to briefly reflect on the 2012 season in his final press conference of the season:
Obviously, we had a plan in place for this season and I thought it was a good plan. However, you’ve got to learn and you’ve got to make adjustments and changes and improvements and we’ll do that. That’s part of the process, listening to some of the guys that you work with on a consistent basis and seeing if they have ideas that may or may not benefit the program. So there will be changes and adjustments and I certainly plan on improving myself.
What should the Dolphins be focusing on? In order to make strides going forward, they must know what held them back in the past.
Here's a look back at where things went wrong, so that maybe the Dolphins can avoid the same shortcomings next year.
When It All Ended: At 49ers, Week 14
The Dolphins watched their playoff hopes go up in smoke at Candlestick Park in a 27-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. I wrote at the time that the game was a microcosm of their season in multiple ways, and that while their postseason hopes were grim (as it turned out, dead), their long-term future was bright.
They gave all they had against one of the best teams in the NFL, and they entered the third quarter down just seven points.
That being said, they were already inside the red zone at the tail end of what would end up being an 83-yard touchdown drive. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick went 4-of-6 for 44 yards on the drive, and the 49ers rushed seven times for 39 yards and the touchdown.
The backbreaker, though, was an eight-yard pass-interference penalty on cornerback Sean Smith on 4th-and-1. It was nothing special, just a simple quick slant route from wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
It's unclear whether it was actually interference—it looked like Smith had solid coverage when watching it at full speed. The screen shot shows Smith's arm on Crabtree's back, but it doesn't appear to be tugging in any way.
Regardless of the validity of the penalty, the play allowed the 49ers to extend the drive. Five plays later, the 49ers would score a touchdown and go ahead by what proved to be an insurmountable 14-point lead.
Offensive Playcalling Improved, but Too Little, Too Late
The Dolphins had a hard time utilizing Ryan Tannehill's skill set early on, but they showed an increased willingness to maximize his athleticism toward the end of the season by drawing in bootlegs, zone reads and other plays.
It's too bad it took so long for the Dolphins to do this, because the offense went anemic for a three-game stretch in the middle of the season. The Dolphins scored just 20 points in 10 quarters of play, playing a role in three losses that ultimately led to their fall from playoff contention.
It began against the Colts, with the Dolphins scoring just three points in the second half after leading 17-13 headed into halftime. It continued with just three points at home against the Tennessee Titans, with the Dolphins committing four turnovers. It ended with a 14-point performance against the 31st-ranked Bills defense, in which the Dolphins had not one but two opportunities to put together a late drive to take a lead, and failed both times with Tannehill throwing a pair of picks.
The Dolphins were consistently banging their heads against a wall with the running game, sending their speedy backs with breakaway ability up the middle time after time. Running back Reggie Bush averaged just 2.2 receptions per game (the lowest single-season average of his career) despite averaging 8.3 yards per reception (his highest average in four years).
The receivers also had a hard time getting separation from man coverage, but the Dolphins rarely called the plays to help them get open with stack formations, built-in pick plays, etc.
The playcalling, though, was only part of the problem.
Stuck in the Red-Zone Offense
It was a glaring weakness headed into the season: The Dolphins offense lacked playmakers at wide receiver all season long, and no one on the roster did enough on their own merits to fix it. They ranked 24th in the league with 42 pass plays of 20 yards or more.
There are multiple reasons for the Dolphins' lack of big plays.
The first and foremost is their lack of explosive threats at wide receiver. Davone Bess and Brian Hartline are nice wideouts, but only in their roles. They could be a lot better if the Dolphins had a receiver that could consistently test the safeties and run the length of the field.
Even when there were downfield throws to be had, though, the quarterback had a hard time hitting his receivers.
A great example happened on a missed deep throw against the Patriots.
Everything happened just right for the Dolphins: Safety Steve Gregory bit on the play-action fake, wide receiver Brian Hartline got inside and deep against cornerback Aqib Talib and was wide open down the field.
The ball was just not placed appropriately, and it fell incomplete.
Had he connected here, the game may have gone much differently.
The Dolphins, a lot of times, were stuck in a red-zone offense because of their lack of explosive threats. That puts a lot of stress on the quarterback to fit the ball into tight windows, on the receivers to get off jams and on the running backs to beat a stacked box.
When your offense lacks a big-play threat, the execution down the field has to be flawless. They ranked in the 20s on a per-drive basis in nearly every one of Football Outsiders' drive efficiency indicators, and were in the bottom half of the league in both rushing and passing efficiency.
Tannehill made strides, but he finished the season ranked 27th in passer rating (76.1) and 23rd in completion percentage (58.3). Those numbers won't cut it from an efficiency standpoint.
The struggles with efficiency stemmed partly from a lack of big plays, but the two combined were their undoing on offense.
Offensive Line Struggles
The offensive line is loaded with first-, second- and third-round talent, but as a whole, the unit came up short in 2012.
The Dolphins averaged a meager 4.1 yards per rush attempt. Tannehill was pressured on 30.6 percent of his drop-backs, 15th-most in the NFL (via ProFootballFocus.com).
Keep in mind, though, that the Dolphins were installing a brand-new scheme on the offensive line. They were running a zone-blocking scheme, but using an offensive line that had been built for a man-blocking scheme.
"Now we have our systems in place on offense, defense and special teams," Philbin said. "Obviously, we have a lot of work to do and we need to take a thorough evaluation of the entire program. When these guys get back from the offseason we'll hit the thing running and take it from there."
The play of several offensive linemen could factor into the evaluation process.
We know center Mike Pouncey had one of the best seasons for a center—he graded out as ProFootballFocus.com's eighth-best center overall, and was not outside the top 10 in pass blocking, screen blocking and run blocking.
Veteran guard Richie Incognito played fairly well, but young guard John Jerry struggled quite a bit in his first season as a starter.
Their play on the outsides is what was most concerning.
After a down year (by his standards), left tackle Jake Long is set to become a free agent in 2013. The Dolphins drafted offensive tackle Jonathan Martin in the second round. He finished the season on the left side of the line when Long went down with a season-ending triceps injury.
Did Martin play well enough to inspire confidence in a switch to the left side of the line, where he played at Stanford protecting Andrew Luck? Or will the Dolphins feel their lack of options necessitates a long-term contract for Long? Is Jerry a fit for the zone-blocking scheme?
The Dolphins have a lot of questions to answer, but with over $40 million in free cap space for 2013 (via NYJetsCap.com) and five draft picks in the first three rounds, there will be plenty of opportunities for the Dolphins to address whatever they find to be the biggest needs this offseason.
For once, though, those needs do not include a quarterback or a head coach.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.