The Miami Dolphins and The Lost Art Of Smash-Mouth Football

The PhinisherCorrespondent ISeptember 6, 2008

The mismatch (manipulating an opponents personnel positioning in order to force a player with lesser size or speed to have to cover a faster or larger player) has become a mantra for offensive coordinators for the last decade. This sounds like an obvious offensive tactic, but in fact the emphasis on creating mismatches is relatively recent.

This recent emphasis has been more about speed than size. For the last decade teams have been utilizing smaller, faster tight ends that can run routes like a receiver. The employment of small but quick running backs on downs other than their traditional “3rd down-back” role has also become more popular in the NFL. The idea is that a big linebacker will have a hard time covering the more agile, if smaller, running back or tight end on passes.

Look at the league’s elite teams over the last decade. All of them have had success creating mismatches.

In bygone eras the tight end was expected to block more often. Although the rise of the pass-catching tight end is something that dates all the way back to when Mike Ditka put his fingers in the dirt, the bulk of the position’s history has been that of an being as much an additional blocker on the line as it was that of offensive weapon.

Running backs too, have recently changed. The rise of the West Coast Offense as the offensive uber-philosophy has opened up opportunities for smaller, more agile running backs to be utilized in a much-expanded passing attack. Defenses had to adjust.

Linebackers coming into the league are expected to be able to run with these more polished tight ends and running backs. Size became less of an issue with linebackers and instead the emphasis was on their being able to “run and hit.” In other words, they needed to cover as well as they tackled.

Good old fashioned smash-mouth football is all but gone from the league. That is, until this year.

There will be a throwback team playing this fall. The personnel that Bill Parcells has assembled in Miami hearkens to the good old days where the idea was to condemn your opponent with superior conditioning and punish them with your strength. It’s plodding, grueling run plays run behind double tight end sets and old fashion full back isolation blocks.

Bill Parcells, like some grumpy and stubborn mule, has decided that the NFL needs to be reminded of its roots. He will do this by giving it a bloody nose.

Those nimble linebackers who are so suited to covering and running with tight ends are now going to have to take on massive lineman and full backs, let alone the heavy load that Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams bring every time. Linebackers will have to tackle two 225-230 pound running backs that are high and horsepower and heavy with torque and light on finesse. The R & R express won’t be one about juking and jiving. It’s lower the boom and let them try to hang on.

Now I’m not saying this is a great team. I’m not even saying they’re good. The point here is that it is a unique in its old fashioned approach. Big mauling lineman like Jake Long and Justin Smiley. Big strong tight ends like Sean Ryan and Anthony Fassano lining up like bookends on the offensive line. A converted linebacker and certified crazy-man, 250 lbs Boomer Grigsby is playing at fullback. All these “Pinkertons” on the field at once… On second down…

If that light and cat-quick linebacker can get past Smiley and somehow avoid the crown of Boomer’s helmet he will yet have to tackle a running back that nearly weighs as much as he does. Ricky and Ronnie are big backs, but you’d be foolish to thin they’re lumbering or slow.

Parcells has also put this philosophy into work on the defensive side of the ball as well. One of the most versatile facets of running the 3-4 defense, which the Dolphins have fully gone over to, is that you can have more big bodies up front without losing to much mobility. By allowing four of the front seven to play from a 2-point stance you instantly get them in space and allow them more angles and directions to take. This allows them to compensate strategically for their size and lack of speed.

The lightest Dolphins linebacker is Akin Ayodele, who measures up at 6’2” and 245 lbs. The heaviest, is one of the largest in the league, converted defensive end Matt Roth tips the scales at 6’4” and 275 lbs. He came into camp having bulked up to 285 lbs, thinking he needed to gain size to play defensive end in a 3-4. Little did he know what role he’d end up playing.

On the defensive line the lightest man is a few snacks shy of 300 lbs and several of the line’s rotation have had those snacks…and the meals following them.

Now any Jet fan will tell you that they’re excited to see a guy as cumbersome as Matt Roth have to cover the speedy Leon Washington. I’m not so keen on that myself. Roth hopefully will have some help over top from either the strong safety or one of the other linebackers. This point though, that the mismatch between size and speed still exists, is what should make this Dolphins season interesting.

It might not work. It’s that simple. It could also bring the game back to its roots and in the process raise the Dolphins back to theirs, which is playing winning football.

In the meantime there is the somewhat fascinating and antiquated ideas behind the Dolphins team philosophy this year. Mismatches will come the old fashioned way, namely that of having the ability to say, "I’m bigger and stronger than you."

We’ll see if the other guy says things like, “Yeah, but you can’t catch me.”


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