The Miami Dolphins started the 2013 season filled with optimism, riding high off of a 3-0 start.
What followed was a roller coaster that saw the Dolphins lose four straight games, then alternate wins and losses before getting on a three-game winning streak to put themselves at the front of the line in the race for the AFC's final wild-card spot with two games to go. They then lost those two games.
The end result was an 8-8 record, and an upcoming offseason filled with doubts about the team from the front office all the way down to the players.
Today we're going to look at some of the biggest mistakes made by the Dolphins this season, in an attempt to figure out why a season that started with so much promise ended with so much pain for the Dolphins and their fans.
It was no secret that Miami had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL this season.
The line was at its worst in the middle of the season, when the Dolphins were on pace to allow a record number of sacks. Said sacks cost the Dolphins pivotal games against New Orleans, Baltimore, Buffalo and New England early in the season that eventually prevented the Dolphins from reaching the playoffs.
The blocking scheme employed by offensive line coach Jim Turner and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman had a lot to do with many of those problems, but it wasn't like there was an overflow of talent on the line to begin with, especially after the Dolphins allowed Jake Long to leave for St. Louis.
This isn't about why the Dolphins should've re-signed Long (I will defend that move due to Long's injury history), but why they didn't make a deal with the Kansas City Chiefs to bring in Long's replacement.
Throughout last spring, leading up to the draft, the Dolphins were in talks with the Chiefs to acquire left tackle Branden Albert. Albert was given the franchise tag by the Chiefs, and he looked to be on the way out, especially after Kansas City used their No. 1 overall pick on Eric Fisher.
The thought was that Fisher would supplant Albert at left tackle, while the Chiefs could use the tag on Albert to acquire a second-round pick to make up for the one they traded to San Francisco in exchange for quarterback Alex Smith.
Luckily for the Chiefs (and unluckily for the Dolphins), Miami said no to the deal, as NFL.com's Dan Hanzus reported that Miami only offered a third-round pick in exchange for Albert, while Kansas City wanted a second-round pick.
Albert only played in 12 games in 2013, as he was kept out of the season's last four games as a precautionary measure after hyperextending his knee, per Randy Covitz of The Kansas City Star. In those 12 games, Albert was rated as the sixth-best pass-blocking left tackle by Pro Football Focus, according to Rotoworld.
Instead Miami played its first seven games of the season with Jonathan Martin at left tackle. In those seven games, Martin was graded as the 55th best pass-blocker by Pro Football Focus (h/t to The Palm Beach Post).
Acquiring Albert would've kept Martin at right tackle, thus providing him with some stability. Had Martin had stability, who knows if the bullying scandal would've occurred, especially since it would've meant that Martin wouldn't have played alongside Richie Incognito.
The Dolphins likely wouldn't have signed Tyson Clabo during the offseason either if such a trade had been made.
Every "could've" is merely speculation at this point, especially with the Martin and Incognito mess being a non-football issue in the end. Better blindside protection for Ryan Tannehill would've been the result, which could've meant one or two more wins for Miami in the end.
Not trading for Branden Albert could be one of those things that everyone saw biting the Dolphins in the rear in 2013, especially due to the lack of production from the second-round pick not traded to the Raiders for Dion Jordan.
The decision to go with Caleb Sturgis over Dan Carpenter this season, however, made sense at the time.
Miami used its fifth-round pick to select Sturgis out of the University of Florida. Sturgis' career with the Gators gave fans every reason to believe that he would make the transition to the NFL. In his senior season at Florida, he made 85 percent of his kicks, going 8-of-9 from beyond 40 yards.
Those stats and his rookie salary, mixed with Carpenter's struggles in 2012, meant that Carpenter—due $3 million on his contract with the Dolphins in 2013—already had one foot out the door when camp began before he was officially released.
At first, this plan looked like it would work.
In the first five games of the season, Sturgis was perfect, making each of his first 10 kicks. Against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5, however, Sturgis missed a 56-yard field goal to end the game. Considering how far out he was, it was understandable that he missed such a kick, but otherwise, it was proof that he was indeed mortal.
Sturgis didn't have to spend the rest of the season proving he was mortal though, as he did that during the next home game against Buffalo, missing his lone field-goal attempt of the afternoon.
The Dolphins lost that game due to a field goal made by none other than Carpenter himself.
The final tale of the tape between the two kickers went like this: Sturgis finished the season hitting 76.5 percent of his field goals, including only 3-of-7 attempts from more than 50 yards.
Carpenter hit 91.7 percent of his field goals, including 4-of-6 attempts from more than 50 yards.
While bringing in competition for Carpenter was a smart decision, what backfired on the Dolphins was using a draft pick (especially as high as a fifth-round pick, when help could've been had at other positions) for said competition, while also not attempting to renegotiate Carpenter's deal to lower his base salary. The team also allowed him to make additional money through incentives, which is what the Green Bay Packers did with kicker Mason Crosby, who bounced back in 2013 after a turbulent 2012 season.
If I had to do it all over again, I'd still trade for Dion Jordan.
I'd also fire Kevin Coyle (and Joe Philbin, of course) for practically making this trade worth a lot less than it should've been.
Most defensive coordinators look at a player like Jordan on the first day of training camp and think of ways they can use him in their schemes.
How could you not?
Jordan is a hybrid defensive end/linebacker that can rush the quarterback on one play, then go out and cover the opposing team's tight end on the next play. If you have a player like him, you should have an elite defense, especially with Cameron Wake, Paul Soliai and Jared Odrick playing alongside him.
Instead, Jordan played limited snaps due to starting off the season with a shoulder injury, followed by having problems stopping the run (problems that in fairness, the entire Dolphins' defense seemed to have).
This led to Jordan finishing the season with 26 tackles and two sacks, as Miami primarily used him as a pass-rushing specialist.
This to me is on the coaches. A good coach would likely look at Jordan as not just a pass-rusher, but as a starting outside linebacker. He fits the mold of a Robert Mathis more than he does a Jason Pierre-Paul, and he should be used as such.
No such outside-the-box thinking was used by Coyle or the Dolphins' staff, however. This was disappointing because fans remembered when Jordan was in games due to his effectiveness at getting to the quarterback and at covering the tight end when needed. (In Miami's first game against New England, Jordan was used to cover Rob Gronkowski and was fairly effective in that role.)
My hope is that Jordan and the rest of the Dolphins' defense gets a new defensive coordinator (preferably one that runs a 3-4 scheme where Jordan can really shine), allowing him to break out in 2014.
It's a long shot, but it's one that we should all hope for.
This was supposed to make the linebackers faster, younger and better at pass defense.
Of course, I'm talking about the acquisition of linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe.
They were the top two linebackers in the free agent class of 2013, and both also went down as two of the biggest busts of 2013.
Let's start with Ellerbe, who finished the season with 101 tackles and two interceptions as Miami's middle linebacker. At times, Ellerbe was inconsistent, getting beaten in run defense. Regarding the pass defense, though, he was fairly solid. His signing wasn't the biggest of mistakes, and if anything, he likely could've worked out well had he played on the weak side with Karlos Dansby at middle linebacker.
Wheeler was the biggest problem.
Sure, he had 118 tackles (which led the team), but his coverage was so soft that it wound up negatively affecting the play of safety Reshad Jones. Wheeler was often graded as one of the worst 4-3 linebackers in the league during the season, according to Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post, and he was likely the subject of plenty of Dolphins' fans cussing out their TV's on Sundays.
On the flip side, Dansby went back to Arizona where he reunited with the Cardinals' defensive coordinator and former Dolphins' secondary coach Todd Bowles, who served as Miami's interim head coach in 2011.
As a leader on the Cardinals' defense, Dansby had 122 tackles, a forced fumble and four interceptions, anchoring the sixth-best defense in the NFL.
Maybe the problem isn't so much the players like Ellerbe and Wheeler (who were both productive in 2012 with their respective former teams), but on the scheme of the defensive coordinator in Miami.
Instead of bringing in an old friend, it may have benefited Coach Philbin to retain Miami's interim coach as a defensive coordinator. This may have maintained some stability on a defense that was ranked third against the run and sixth in points allowed per game the year before Philbin took over.
Again, though, hindsight is 20/20.
Writers like me picked up on this trend.
Fans watching the game on television picked up on this trend.
Opposing defenses very quickly picked up on this trend.
Yet from Week 1 to Week 17, nothing changed with this trend.
You could run the most state-of-the-art offense that football has ever seen, but if you're going to make it that simple, then people, especially opposing teams within your division that are coached by great defensive coaches (namely Buffalo's defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and New York Jets' head coach Rex Ryan), will pick up on it.
The fact that, for 14 games this season, Miami's offense was able to adequately execute with such a simple and archaic signal for each play is a credit to Ryan Tannehill and this offense.
Just imagine what could've happened if on a play-action pass Tannehill screamed "go-go" at least once? Maybe then the defense would've bought the fake, giving Tannehill ample time to complete a pass to Mike Wallace streaking down the sideline for a touchdown.
Tannehill didn't find this to be a big deal when asked about it in November, according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, saying:
“I don’t think there’s concern,” he said. “We go against our defense every day throughout camp and OTAs. If we were tipping off something that was so blatantly obvious, they would tell us, and they would be able to defend it.”
Now, at the start of the season, it wasn't so obvious, but by Weeks 16 and 17 against divisional opponents whom Miami had already played, it became really obvious really quickly.
That might partially explain why the Dolphins only scored seven points in those two games.
It could also partially explain why Miami's running game was so ineffective or why Tannehill was under pressure all season long.
It serves as the epitome of the stubbornness and ineptitude shown by Miami's coaching staff, on whom I place a big blame as to why Miami didn't go to the playoffs, but would instead go-go to the sports bars in South Florida to watch some of the playoff games.