Who Must Pay the Price for Miami Dolphins' Ineptitude?

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Who Must Pay the Price for Miami Dolphins' Ineptitude?
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Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross used words such as "nightmare" and "embarrassment" to share his feelings Monday on the turmoil that has surrounded his team over the past two weeks.

With those two words already taken, he might need to bust out the thesaurus to find different ways to emote on his team's performance against the hapless, formerly winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 22-19 loss on national television.

Changes may be coming to the organization at the end of the season, but with more performances like the Dolphins had on Monday Night Football, the changes could begin even sooner.

We can already see the wheels spinning in that regard.

It wasn't hard to see the direction of Ross's intentions through his words to the media before the game, but it was the words he didn't use that may have pulled back the curtain on his rebuilding plan nearly seven full weeks before the season ends.

Effusive in support and praise of head coach Joe Philbin. Reluctant to even utter the name of his general manager, Jeff Ireland. A recent report from Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald indicated that Ross would keep Philbin over Ireland, which seemed to be confirmed in how Ross spoke of the two men (Philbin, glowingly; Ireland, barely at all):

Joe is a man of high character who routinely communicates to our players our expectations of behavior and he espouses the values that we stand behind. He genuinely cares about our players—you can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice.

From this perspective, it's easy to draw the conclusion that Ross is distancing himself from Ireland, whose name didn't even appear in Ross' opening remarks. As always, though, it's not that easy, and hardly ever is one person to blame for the shortcomings of the whole organization.

Let's take a closer look at everyone who could feel the effects of big changes that appear inevitable for the Dolphins.

 

Jeff Ireland

Ireland's ability as a general manager has been questioned time and time again over the years. Many were surprised to see him retained after the 2011 season following the in-season firing of former head coach Tony Sparano.

The fact of the matter is, Ireland has failed to consistently find and retain talent on the Dolphins roster.

Current starters drafted by Jeff Ireland
Player Position Year drafted Round Pick
Ryan Tannehill QB 2012 1 8
Lamar Miller RB 2012 4 97
Brian Hartline WR 2009 4 108
Charles Clay TE 2011 6 174
Mike Pouncey C 2011 1 15
John Jerry G 2010 3 73
Olivier Vernon DE 2012 3 72
Koa Misi LB 2010 2 40
Nolan Carroll CB 2010 5 145
Chris Clemons S 2009 5 165
Reshad Jones S 2010 5 163
Caleb Sturgis K 2013 5 166

Pro-Football-Reference.com

The Ireland era began in essence in 2008, when Bill Parcells was brought on as the Executive Vice President of Football Operations and named Ireland as his GM. Since then, the Dolphins have drafted 11 starters for their current roster. "Starter," however, is a dubious title on a team that's gone 42-47 (.472) since Ireland took control and just 31-42 (.425) in the past four-and-a-half years.

Talented players have continually been allowed to walk away. Former Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall continues to torment defensive backs in the NFC North as a member of the Chicago Bears. Running back Reggie Bush proved to be the missing ingredient for the Detroit Lions' offense—and lo and behold, they're actually using him in the passing game. Cornerback Vontae Davis has been up-and-down but continues to make big plays for the Indianapolis Colts.

There have been a number of questionable decisions on Ireland's watch, but trading up in the second round to grab running back Daniel Thomas may prove to be one of the draft blunders that defines Ireland's career as GM. At present, Thomas has the lowest yards-per-attempt average of any running back with over 250 carries since 2011, per Pro-Football-Reference.

Aside from kicker Caleb Sturgis, not one of the 2013 draft picks has played a significant role this year. That includes defensive end Dion Jordan, who they traded up to get yet for whatever reason still can't find the part of the field between the sidelines.

Given that the Dolphins were built to execute Sparano's scheme, Ireland was put in a sticky situation when they made the change at head coach and therefore a change in schemes and philosophies.

That being said, the Dolphins are still in Year 2 of a 4-3 defense playing with 3-4 personnel and a zone-blocking offensive line playing with power-blocking personnel. The Dolphins have made some moves, and it's hard to fault Ireland for failing to make the full-on switch in only two offseasons, but it's been done before.

He's far from the only one to blame.

 

Coaching Staff

The unfolding scandal in the locker room put the spotlight on the coaching staff, whose job it is to police their players, but truth be told, there were developing concerns about their competence well before those events were even reported.

If Ross really believes in Joe Philbin as the head coach of the future, it's his prerogative to keep him around. This has to be about more than just Philbin being a high-character guy with values. As of right now, though, it doesn't look like Philbin has much else going for him.

He routinely makes bad decisions when it comes to managing the game:

  • The Dolphins were winning 21-17 against the Bills when the play-calling suddenly took a turn for the worse. From that point on, the Dolphins called 13 passes and three runs, gaining a total of four yards on those runs, completing five passes for 35 yards and being sacked on another of those pass plays.
  • In the fourth quarter against the Ravens, Ryan Tannehill had just hit Brandon Gibson for a 46-yard gain to the Ravens' 34-yard line, down 26-23 with one timeout left. There was 1:01 left, and the clock was ticking. Philbin didn't want to burn his final timeout, so he instructed his quarterback to spike the ball. However, there was plenty of time left for the Dolphins to keep running plays, and the Dolphins would have caught the Ravens unprepared if they were to run a play instead of killing the clock.
  • Against the Buccaneers, Dolphins cornerback Jimmy Wilson intercepted a pass and returned it to Tampa Bay's 7-yard line. In the most conservative sudden-change possession you'll ever see, the Dolphins called a stretch run to Daniel Thomas for a two-yard loss (more on that later), threw incomplete at the first-down marker on the next pass with Tannehill under pressure and capped it off with a tight end screen for a three-yard loss to bring out the field-goal unit.

Through Week 5, the Dolphins were averaging 19 rush attempts per game and 69.6 rushing yards per game. Their imbalance and inability to stay committed to the running game came into focus in that time, and the Dolphins made a concerted effort to run the ball more coming out of the bye.

They had 28.7 rush attempts per game (nearly 10 more attempts per game) and 144.3 rushing yards per game (double their average in the first five games) in the three games following the bye, but the old Mike Sherman came out to play with 14 rush attempts for two yards against the Buccaneers.

Bleacher Report colleague Thomas Galicia voiced the concerns of many with regards to the Dolphins and their addiction to the stretch run:

Usually they break it out on first down or in short-yardage situations. It fails when Lamar Miller gets the ball. It's completely pointless when Daniel Thomas gets the ball. They ran this play out of the end zone at their own one-yard line. A play that has always ended in failure for the Dolphins. When will they stop running it? Just take it out of the playbook so that Mike Sherman doesn't have the temptation to call it?

The problem with the stretch run is it's a staple of the West Coast offense because the offensive line is presumably built for mobility. However, the stretch doesn't work quite as well with an offensive line built of hulking power-blockers. At its very core, this is square peg, round hole.

Just like expecting positionless Michael Egnew to be a successful lead blocker on the safety in the first quarter.

Hindsight is 20-20, but the Dolphins coaching staff lacks the foresight to make the key adjustments to help fix the woes of the team.

The problems go well beyond simple in-game management and play-calling.

The Dolphins have come out looking unprepared and lacking energy for important games on their schedule, even when given extra time to prepare. To this point in the season, the Dolphins have blown two chances to really turn their season around. The Dolphins had 11 days to prepare for the winless Buccaneers and two weeks to prepare for a haphazard Buffalo Bills team with its third-string quarterback. They lost both games.

They were down 17-7 in the second quarter against the Bills and down 15-0 in the second quarter against the Buccaneers. They've been out-adjusted by their opponents at halftime as well, squandering a seven-point lead over the Ravens and a 14-point lead over the Patriots.

All of this points back to a coaching staff that is in over its head.

 

Offensive Line

Ultimately, the poor play has to fall on players at some point. On the field and off the field, this has been the biggest problem for the Dolphins. Even if we set aside the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying/harassment/hazing situation, the Dolphins offensive line has been surrounded with turmoil all season.

Again, Galicia with a nugget of gold: "The offensive line was bad, and now it's worse. But it's not much worse, because it was terrible to begin with."

They do well in spots, but they show up in the worst ways at the worst times:

  • On the play after the aforementioned spike against the Ravens, linebacker Terrell Suggs logged a sack of Tannehill, knocking the Dolphins out of field-goal range.
  • As mentioned previously, Tannehill was strip-sacked at the 50-yard line against the Bills, and the fumble was returned to the Dolphins' 34-yard line. The Bills just needed a few runs to set up an easy field goal for former Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter, who gave Buffalo the 23-21 win.
  • Zero sacks allowed in the first half against the Patriots on their way to a 17-3 halftime lead, six sacks in the second half on their way to a 27-17 loss.
  • Tannehill was not sacked at all for the first 58 minutes against the Buccaneers but then was sacked twice in a row on the final possession, setting up 3rd-and-28 and all but ending the Dolphins' hopes of winning the game.

You shouldn't judge the Dolphins offensive line based on their bad performance against the Buccaneers, but history says you don't have to.

In opening holes for a measly two-yard rushing performance—the lowest output in a game by any team since 2007—the Dolphins reopened the wounds of a rushing attack that's been under fire since Week 1.

It's hard to expect those running backs to get any kind of yardage when the defense is consistently in the backfield, as was the case on Monday night.

The Dolphins appeared to have other things on their mind besides opening up holes in the running game.

NFL Game Rewind

At least one of them, center Mike Pouncey, was thinking about opening a hole in Akeem Spence's helmet.

How could Pouncey, after the week the Dolphins have been through, let himself go like this? Pouncey is supposed to be one of the leaders of the offensive line; as the center, he is the signal-caller and the orchestrator of blocking assignments.

And this is how he helps the team move on from Incognito? By embodying the player who was long considered one of the dirtiest in the league?

This is emblematic of the frustration the entire team must be feeling, but Pouncey's the only one letting it out in ways that hurt his teammates on the field.

Of course, the on-field plight of the Dolphins offensive line has only taken a back seat because of the off-field circus of the same group.

Irrespective of any infrastructure changes the Dolphins undergo this season or offseason, team-wide changes are coming, and those will likely start with the men up front.

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.

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