When the Miami Dolphins replaced offensive coordinator Mike Sherman with Bill Lazor, the message was clear: Mediocrity wouldn’t be accepted anymore. The Dolphins franchise has played just two playoff games since 2001, and the offense has often been what’s held the team back from sustained success.
Under the control of Sherman, the Dolphins offense averaged just 19.5 points per game and scored 25 points or more twice in 2013. Compared to the rest of the league, which featured 11 teams averaging at least 25 points per game, the Dolphins would’ve been fortunate to be considered mediocre.
For the offense to improve, quarterback Ryan Tannehill had to break free from Sherman, who was also Tannehill’s collegiate coach.
Lazor is now the puppeteer for the Dolphins’ array of talent on offense. Tannehill doesn’t get much respect nationally, but his 7,207 passing yards over two seasons is the fifth-most in NFL history for a reason. He has all of the tools needed to be an elite NFL quarterback, and 2014 is his time to shine.
Tannehill’s primary target throughout 2013 was star receiver Mike Wallace. After signing a five-year, $60 million deal, Wallace was targeted 137 times but notched just 73 receptions for 930 yards and five touchdowns.
Based off Lazor’s tenure as the offensive coordinator for the University of Virginia from 2010-2012, his time with the Philadelphia Eagles as the quarterbacks coach and the film from the Dolphins’ first preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons last week, we will see why the duo of Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace will thrive this season.
Why Tannehill Will Thrive
Exactly how bad was the situation for Tannehill in 2013? Let’s start with the cadence, which is how the quarterback communicates to the offense that he’s ready for the snap. Throughout the season, a “go” was almost always a pass, and “go-go” was a run play. But that was the tip of the iceberg as far as predictability.
Tannehill played behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL last year, if not the worst. The personnel along the line were old, slow, lacking talent, or all three. The result was 58 sacks on Tannehill.
To compound the issue, the line couldn’t establish a running game to relieve pressure on the offense. Of the Dolphins’ 1,042 snaps, 63 percent were pass plays, which was the fourth highest in the league.
Lazor, like former mentor Chip Kelly, plays to the strengths of his personnel. The zone-blocking scheme that Lazor has installed with new offensive line coach John Benton helps reduce pressure on individual blockers. (Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Matt Bowen explains more here.)
After acquiring a multitude of new offensive linemen that fit the scheme, the early returns on the offensive line are much more promising than the disaster that occurred last year.
Tannehill will also benefit from the less restricted system now in place. Despite being a former wide receiver and being one of the better athletes at his position, Tannehill scrambled less than three times a game last year. Although protecting the quarterback and limiting hits is important, Tannehill seemed to purposely avoid huge running lanes and would subsequently force a pass.
Scrambles like this 48-yard scramble against the Pittsburgh Steelers last season is why Tannehill needs the freedom that Lazor allows.
His athleticism also fits Lazor’s tendency to rely on bootlegs and play-action rollouts. I found Tannehill to be tremendously efficient as a rollout passer after charting his passes in 2013, as he threw a catchable ball on 75 percent on his 28 designed rollout passes. Despite throwing four touchdowns to just one interception on such plays, Sherman seemed determined to avoid calling more.
The play below is from 2012, when Lazor was the offensive coordinator at Virginia. The rollout was a staple of their offense because it reduces stress on the line and limits the risk for turnovers.
Speaking of turnovers, expect Tannehill to lower his amount of interceptions in 2014. He threw 17 in his second year, which isn’t terrible, but needs to be improved upon. Once Nick Foles became the starting quarterback for the Eagles, Lazor’s protégé only threw two.
The quick-hitting approach doesn’t force passes, but it methodically picks apart the openings in space. This allows playmakers to utilize their skill and gain extra yards.
Lazor’s offensive philosophy was on show in Game 1 of his Dolphins career. Tannehill only passed the ball six times against the Falcons, but he didn’t hesitate to take what the defense gave him. Take a look at the picture below.
Tannehill could try to fit a pass over the linebacker’s reach for a chunk gain, but he opts to check down to running back Lamar Miller for a five-yard gain.
The result of this philosophy paid immediate dividends for the Dolphins’ first-team offense. Both third downs the Dolphins encountered required just two yards to reach the next set of downs, and each of the two situations was converted successfully.
Tannehill won’t be relegated to a game manager, though. He’s a playmaker with easier choices. In the screenshot below, you’ll see Tannehill read the defender, who is nearly parallel (and standing flat-footed) with Dolphins wide receiver Rishard Matthews. The result is a perfectly timed strike for a 36-yard gain.
Creative routes that require timing might seem like a foreign concept if you ever watched Mike Sherman’s offense in the last two seasons. When a timing route was required, Tannehill often threaded the needle. This next screenshot illustrates Tannehill correctly judging the defenders’ inability to beat the receiver to the catch point.
When creating a timing route, it’s important to divert the attention of the defense to another spot. Lazor has experience doing this as well. At Virginia, he was often forced to scheme his playmakers open because of the vast difference in athletes among top-tier ACC schools and Virginia. The depth and combination of routes in a single play help deter safety help or leave a major mismatch somewhere.
Finally, Tannehill will benefit from the tempo and spacing of the Dolphins offense. Taking a page from Kelly, Lazor has his offense line up quickly, forcing the defense to get into position early. The nine snaps that Tannehill took on the first drive against the Falcons occurred with the following times left on the play clock: 18, 12, 18, 16, 13, 15, 18, 16 and 13.
Combining that speed is the space of the offensive scheme. Five out of the nine plays featured “11 personnel”, which means the offense utilized one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. Two more snaps had “10 personnel”, or just having one running back and four wide receivers.
Defenses must line up with their tiring players, then immediately show their coverage and blitz because they don’t have the entire play clock to toy with the quarterback. Thus, pre- and post-snap reads are easier and the offense can impose their will more effectively throughout the game if executed correctly.
Why Wallace Will Thrive
Mike Wallace’s first season with the Dolphins began rocky, when he publicly complained about his lack of receptions despite the team winning their season opener. The difficulties continued, as Wallace dropped 11 passes and became the scapegoat for the Dolphins’ offensive inconsistency.
When you’re averaging $12 million a season, maybe that’s fair, but it’s not as if Wallace is completely to blame for his disappointing first year in Miami.
I charted where Wallace lined up for every snap of 2013, and 886 of his 964 snaps he lined up on the right side of the formation as an outside receiver.
That’s right. Wallace stayed in the same spot 92 percent of the time. He was easy to take out of most plays because of how predictable his positioning would be. Defenses rotated a safety to his side, taking away most chances for a deep completion.
Throughout training camp, Dolphins receivers have been glowing in their praise of the new scheme. Receivers Brian Hartline and Wallace had this to say about Lazor’s scheme, per James Walker of ESPN.com Hartline said:
It’s really interesting. I’ve never been in an offense like this, how it’s called, how it’s run, the combination routes. There’s a lot of things going on that I haven’t done. It’s really exciting and actually, I’m really enjoying it. You can tell it puts a smile on my face. I can’t wait to learn more, do more and then put it into action.
Per Walker, Wallace explained after a practice:
Nobody can ever key on me. Last year, you kind of knew where I was every single play, what you had to do because I was there every game, same spot. Moving around, it’s harder for the defense to know where you’re at, harder for them to adjust.
Wallace and Tannehill struggled dearly to connect on deep pass attempts last season for a few reasons. The first is the clear lack of chemistry. Tannehill has never played with a player as lightning fast as Wallace, and he struggled to put enough arm into his passes on many occasions. That left Wallace to act like an alpha wide receiver, or an “X”.
Wallace doesn’t fight for the ball very well, however, and this caused frustration for Wallace, Tannehill and the fans. Tannehill missed at least four touchdown passes due to poor throws and passed for nine interceptions when targeting Wallace.
With an offseason to work on their timing, Wallace sounds more confident that he’ll improve upon the career-low yards per catch rate he produced in 2013. Wallace had this to say about his relationship with Tannehill on the field, according to Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post:
(Tannehill is) doing a really good job and getting better at it every day and coach Lazor is doing a good job staying on him. He’s progressing and hopefully when I get back out there I can just go right in the stride.
As 2013 progressed, Wallace showed the ability to be more than just a home run hitter. In the screenshot below, you’ll see Wallace wide open about 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. His cuts in and out of routes became cleaner, giving him more explosion while running underneath routes.
The innovation that Lazor utilizes in his play calling will greatly benefit Wallace as well. Not only was Wallace spotted moving in motion during OTAs, but he was also lined up in the backfield, according to Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post.
The effects of motion can be seen below, where Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Gibson is set into motion pre-snap, then scores an easy touchdown on a pass from Tannehill.
Expect to see Wallace in Gibson’s position at times through the season. Wallace’s speed and open-field burst is far superior to most NFL players, and he could fill the role that DeSean Jackson played for the Eagles in 2013.
It’s difficult to predict statistics in the NFL because of the human variable involved, but Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill and wide receiver Mike Wallace each seem poised to improve upon their 2013 seasons.
Wallace’s career season came in 2010, and it’ll be difficult to top his 60 reception, 1,257 yard and 10 touchdown performance because of the depth of the Dolphins playmakers. Lazor favors a spread and balanced flurry as opposed to a traditional offense that gives a majority of targets to the No. 1 receiver.
Tannehill is a budding star that should garner national praise if his running game evolves to a respectable level and he can continue to improve his mental processing ability.
Tannehill: 63.5 completion percent, 4,250 yards, 28 touchdowns, 12 interceptions
Wallace: 69 receptions, 1,150 yards, eight touchdowns
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required) or sports-reference.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac.com.
Ian Wharton is a NFL featured columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting, and analyst for FinDepth. You can follow and interact with Ian Wharton on Twitter @NFLFilmStudy.