It's one step forward and two steps back for the Miami Dolphins, as it was revealed today that the team is losing two offensive assistant coaches on the same day they announced the hiring of Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator.
According to the Miami Herald's Armango Salguero, James Saxon has been relieved of his duties as running backs coach, while tight ends coach George DeLeone is voluntarily leaving the Dolphins to join former defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni's staff at the University of Connecticut.
In addition to these positions, the Dolphins are also in need of a quarterbacks coach and a strength and conditioning coach, as David Lee and Evan Marcus joined coaching staffs at Ole Miss and Virginia, respectively.
A running back for the Dolphins from 1992-1994, Saxon was running backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs before arriving to handle to same position in Miami in 2008.
Working under Saxon, Dolphins' running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams combined to rush for over 1,500 yards in 2008 and 1,700 yards in 2009.
The duo's production dipped to just over 1,400 yards in 2010, but the quality of production dropped dramatically with Brown posting a career-low average of 3.7 yards per carry and Williams rushing for just two touchdowns.
Who is most to blame for the Dolphins' struggles in the running game in 2010?
As a team, the Dolphins' rushing offense ranked 11th in the NFL in Saxon's first season with the team, and rose up to fourth in 2009. The unit dropped all the way to 21st this past season.
DeLeone previously worked with new-old boss Paul Pasqualoni at Southern Connecticut State in the late 1970s. They were also members of the same coaching staff at Syracuse from 1987-2004, including Pasqualoni's 14-year tenure as head coach of the Orangemen beginning in 1991.
Like Saxon, DeLeone was also a member of head coach Tony Sparano's inaugural staff in 2008, arriving after two seasons as offensive coordinator for the Temple Owls under head coach Al Golden.
It was under DeLeone's instruction that starting tight end Anthony Fasano posted his most productive seasons, including a career-high seven touchdowns in 2008 as well as personal bests in receptions (39) and receiving yards (528) this past season.
Developing tight ends has not been a productive process for the Dolphins, however. Top backup Joey Haynos missed the entire 2010 season with a torn Achilles', while a combination of one second-year player (John Nalbone) and three rookies (Dedrick Epps, Jeron Mastrud, Mickey Shuler) failed to register a reception until Week 16.
It's not really fair for Saxon to get the axe here, because the Dolphins' running game was a strength his first two seasons and it was the offensive line that was to blame for the lack of ground production in 2010 as opposed to Brown or Williams.
Quite simply, the Dolphins did a smart thing by getting rid of Justin Smiley and Jake Grove's big contracts in an uncapped year, but the running game suffered as a result as all three starting interior linemen were pretty bad for the Dolphins in 2010.
Maybe the team wasn't happy with the lack of development of 2008 sixth-rounder Lex Hilliard (though I never thought he had much upside, anyway). Maybe Saxon didn't get along with Sparano. Maybe Sparano, in desperation mode, just felt like a change was necessary.
As for DeLeone, he's leaving on his own accord, so it's not as if the Dolphins were blatantly unhappy with the job he was doing. Like Saxon's group, however, the Dolphins' tight ends saw a decrease in over production in 2010 compared to previous years.
While Anthony Fasano did a fine job as a receiver, the lack of a capable No. 2 blocking tight end significantly hurt the running game by taking away two-tight end sets and also completely eliminated an entire position in the receiving game. Consider these stats.
Dolphins' tight ends receiving statistics (excluding Fasano):
- 2008 (David Martin/Joey Haynos): 33 receptions; 472 yards; four touchdowns
- 2009 (Joey Haynos/Kory Sperry): 22 receptions; 193 yards; three touchdowns
- 2010 (Mickey Shuler): two receptions; 28 yards; zero touchdowns
Think about that for a second. In 2008, David Martin posted a career year as a second-stringer, obliterating the totals he compiled as the team's starter under Cam Cameron in 2007.
Combined with Fasano, the Dolphins' tight ends in 2008 accounted for 77 receptions, 926 yards, and 11 touchdowns. Together, Fasano, Martin, and Haynos were for the Dolphins a lone tight end that out-produced the Chargers' Antonio Gates.
(That kind of tight end production and reliability also says a hell of a lot about what Chad Henne had to work with him 2010 compared to what Chad Pennington had in 2008, but that's a whole other argument.)
Not only did Martin, and to a lesser extent Haynos, provide a quality receiving tight end alongside Fasano, but they also did an excellent job run blocking, which in turn, helped Brown and Williams find great success.
Finding either a reliable No. 2 tight end, or possibly even an elite No. 1 tight end that could move Fasano into a Martin-type role, is in large part on the coaching staff.
However, it will also be up to DeLeone's replacement to groom and develop that player, which is something that would go a long way in helping the running game, the quarterback, and thus, the Dolphins' overall success.
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Chris J. Nelson majored in journalism at Georgia State University and is currently a programming coordinator for Turner Sports in Atlanta. He operates his own Miami Dolphins website, The Miami Dolphins Spotlight, and he can be followed on Twitter here.