A national television audience has been treated for the last two weeks to all of the reasons why the Miami Dolphins are as much an also-ran in the AFC East as is moribund Buffalo.
After squeaking out two ugly wins on the road to start the season the Dolphins went home to South Florida flying high and ready to establish themselves on top their division. Everyone saw the carnage that followed.
A narrow loss to the hated Jets highlighted by a few big plays by New York and some simply indefensible play calls by offensive coordinator Dan Henning. Follow that by the blowout that wasn't against New England. Sure the final score was ludicrously one sided, but it is worth noting that the Patriots drove the length of the field and scored a touchdown exactly one time Monday night.
The NFL is a game of inches, and every drive counts. I have pinpointed five atrocious play calls by the Miami offense that have changed the complexions of the two division games Miami most NEEDED to win to be competitive in the AFC East this season.
9/26 Versus New York
In the third quarter, Miami's ball, second and goal from the two-yard line. Apparently the Dolphins are committed to assassinating every Ronnie Brown fantasy owner by week eight. They run a fade pattern to Brian Hartline which he manages to catch between two defensive players out of bounds. I will come back to the wisdom of the fabled fade route later, but suffice it to say Miami could not convert and settled for a 20-yard field goal which left them trailing 21-20.
In the fourth quarter Miami had a first and ten from the New York 38 when they decide to run a Wildcat reverse to speedster Patrick Cobbs. It fooled no Jet defenders and he was dropped for a six-yard loss. I will pile on the Wildcat calls later, but for now the important result is a drive-killing loss which led to two incomplete passes and a punt, trailing 24-20.
Finally on the game's third to last play, Miami improbably runs a fade to Brandon Marshall from the 11! Now I'm no fan of a fade from any distance, but after high school, who the heck has ever heard of an 11-yard fade route? Naturally the rest of the drive fizzled and New York steals the win in Miami.
A quick aside on the fade route. I wonder if someone can produce any statistical or photo evidence of this play ever being worth the down it wastes? The degree of difficulty seems to be amongst the highest of any in the NFL. It requires a big receiver (Marshall is, but Hartline sure isn't,) a nearly perfect pass, and the defensive back needs to misplay the receiver. NFL coaches, Henning is no exception, seem to love this pattern which almost never works. I remain baffled.
10/4 Versus New England
Opening drive, third down and six yards to go, and Miami rolls out the spread Wildcat. Really?!
OK, quick aside on the Wildcat. I am not aboard the anti-Wildcat bandwagon as many fans and Dolphins beat writers are. I just believe Miami are not using the sets that are the most effective and they continue to call these plays at inappropriate times. The play in question featured four receivers wide, Ricky Williams running his sweep, and Ronnie Brown opting to hold the ball. There were not enough blockers left inside to block the 11-crashing Patriot defenders (the whole stated advantage of the Wildcat) and there was no real threat of a pass coming from Brown.
Naturally the Pats crash the run and drop Brown for a loss. This not only killing a promising drive, but killing the crowd in the process and forcing us out of field-goal range. Probably the worst offensive call of the season from Miami. What the stats didn't tell anyone after Monday night and the Pat Chung hysteria was that Miami completely dominated the game in the first half, only to be betrayed by that play call and two awful interceptions by Chad Henne.
Finally, early in the fourth quarter with the Dolphins clinging to life, they tried a medium-range pass on third and 17 which was incomplete, leading to the fateful 52-yard field goal attempt that sealed the game for New England. I hated this call for a couple reasons. First, the play was not going to get them a first down which is what they really needed down 27-14. Second, if you are playing for a field-goal try, why not run a draw, dive, or Wildcat run to get the attempt into the 45-50 yard range?
Obviously it is easy for people like me to nitpick over game film after the fact, but the reality for the 2010 Miami Dolphins is this. They simply aren't good enough to overcome bad play calling on either side of the ball. I trust the coaching staff more than I trust a single player on the field. If Miami is aiming at being any more than .500 this year, they need the coaches calling smart plays for an offense that seems hamstrung by Chad Henne continually playing like a rookie.
With luck the team will come out of this bye weekend healthy, hungry, and angry as hell that everyone thinks they stink. So far, they have.