Despite a 2012-2013 season that was much more positive than expected, the Miami Dolphins still have a lot of work to be done.
The time for growth is at hand.
Miami flashed a handful of signs of greatness, but before it can realize its full potential, the entire organization must improve in certain areas.
That's right, this isn't just about the on-field product (which obviously needs some improvement). Everything from general manager Jeff Ireland's philosophies and strategies for acquiring players to head coach Joe Philbin's hard and fast rules to the brand of socks punter Brandon Fields wears must be made better.
Okay, maybe Fields' socks don't matter much. But you can bet the rest of the team's performance needs to improve.
To be the playoff contenders Miami wishes to be, and to ensure that Miami can remain consistent contenders—here are six things that must improve for the Dolphins in 2013, in no particular order.
Jeff Ireland has developed an unfortunate reputation as a conservative general manager who rarely takes risks.
You know the old story. The Dolphins drafted Jake Long in 2008 with the first overall pick. They could have taken Matt Ryan (4,719 yards, 32 touchdowns in 2012-2013) or Joe Flacco (2013 Super Bowl MVP).
Long was not a bad pick, as he quickly became one of, if not the best left tackle in the league. But Long did not win the Dolphins any games. He is not the impact player that Flacco or Ryan are.
This may be the most glaring example of Ireland's conservatism, but it's only one of many.
With over $40 million in cap space this year, Ireland cannot afford to play it safe again. Too many marquee players like Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings, Jared Cook and Brent Grimes will be available. Any one of these players would instantly improve Miami's roster.
Ireland cannot be afraid to pull the trigger this offseason. The time for thrifting in Miami must be over. If the Dolphins expect to make the playoffs in the next year or two, their roster must be stuffed with big-time playmakers.
Ireland reportedly broke his own principles when he drafted Ryan Tannehill last year. Let's hope he's willing to break them again this year to bolster Miami's roster.
Joe Philbin did a fine job in his rookie year as head coach for the Dolphins. He morphed an unimpressive roster into a tough football team that played far beyond its limits for most of the season.
But there are a few areas in which Philbin needs to improve.
Philbin's adherence to discipline has mostly served the Dolphins well: They shed problem personalities like Brandon Marshall and Vontae Davis and now enjoy a relatively drama-free roster.
But it's also troubled the Dolphins, specifically on the field. When Reggie Bush fumbled early in Miami's Week 10 game against the Titans, Philbin responded by benching Bush for most of the remaining three quarters. The Dolphins' primary offensive weapon was shelved, and Miami lost 37-3.
A few weeks later, during a crucial late-game drive by the New England Patriots, two of Miami's premier defensive linemen Cameron Wake and Jared Odrick were not on the field. The Patriots methodically moved down the field and scored one final touchdown to seal a 23-16 victory. Philbin justified the decision as part of a predetermined rotation.
Philbin must become more flexible in these instances in 2013. If a player makes a mistake, let him know you're not pleased with the blunder. But don't make an example of him to the detriment of your team. And position rotations that are made in an office on Wednesday should not overrule the flow of the game on Sunday.
Ryan Tannehill may not have hit the same highs as his fellow rookie compatriots, but he showed enough to engender hope. It's still uncertain whether Tannehill will be the franchise quarterback the Dolphins need, but it's looking pretty good.
That being said, Miami's passing statistics were stunningly awful this past season. The Dolphins averaged 199 passing yards per game (26th in the NFL). Tannehill's 12 touchdowns tied him with Michael Vick for 27th most in the league.
In a league that leans heavily towards the passing game, Miami doesn't stand a chance with these numbers.
Not all of it is Tannehill's fault, of course. His stable of receivers was pretty weak, despite a breakout season by Brian Hartline.
Miami must amp up its passing game for 2013. With a year of NFL experience under his belt, Tannehill should feel more comfortable making reads and making smart decisions. The Dolphins should allow him to cut loose more often.
Additionally, more bootlegs that utilize Tannehill's athleticism to get him outside the pocket will also help to stretch the field.
Miami is expected to add a big-time receiver or two this offseason, so the talent should be there. It will simply be a matter of putting it together.
Aside from just the passing game, the Dolphins offense as whole needs to generate more big plays—plain and simple. Miami's offense was bland, generic and toothless last season. That must change.
According to Sporting Charts, who define a big play as any rushing play over 10 yards and any passing play over 25 yards, only 64 of Miami's 981 plays classified as big plays. That's 6.52 percent, and it puts Miami at 23rd in the league.
This isn't a recent issue. Miami's offense has been stale seemingly since Dan Marino retired. If this franchise is to be turned around, let alone become playoff worthy in 2013, the Dolphins must add the required talent and call the proper plays to turn its slow, shuffling offense into an explosive touchdown-generator.
With Reggie Bush reportedly confused by the Dolphins' absence of a contract offer, it's becoming clear that Bush likely won't return to Miami next year.
Lamar Miller, take note. That means you're about to be the star of the show.
Ireland has already professed his adoration for the young running back, and perhaps rightly so. Despite having a very limited role in the offense last season, Miller picked up 250 yards on just 51 carries for a 4.9 average.
If Bush departs, it's very likely that Miller would slide into the top role at running back. To ensure there is no regression at the position, Miller would need to make good on his potential and have a killer sophomore season.
Even if Bush does return to Miami, the former Miami Hurricane will still need to step up. Bush could see more work at receiver, allowing Miller more time to carry the ball.
If Miami's passing game evolves the way it should, Miller's explosiveness out of the backfield as a runner could make the Dolphins' offense very difficult to defend.
Miami's defense was one of the brighter spots of the 2012 season. The unit started out the season as a fierce run-stopper and a scrappy secondary. Players like Sean Smith looked like they were finally starting to turn it around. The defensive line was straight up mean.
The defense couldn't keep up the high level of play for the whole year, but it still performed admirably. Well, except for one area: turnovers.
Through 16 games, the Dolphins only created 16 takeaways. Only three teams forced fewer turnovers than the Dolphins.
Of Miami's 16 turnovers, 10 were interceptions. If you've wondered why the Dolphins need an improved secondary, there's your answer. Miami's defense needs to find a way to get the ball back in the hands of its offense in 2013. If Miami needs any further proof, just look at division rival New England.
The Patriots had a turnover differential of plus-25, far and away the best last season. It's suddenly no surprise why Tom Brady and company could shred opposing defenses—they rarely got to leave the field.
Winning teams find ways to get the football. Miami wants to be a winning team. The solution is simple. It's the execution that could prove tricky.