How exactly do you fairly grade a team's running backs when the offensive line just isn't getting it done up front?
That's the situation I'm in here with the 2010 Dolphins. Despite their drop-off in production, running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are no different than they were in 2009, or 2008, or any year before that when they found much greater success on the ground.
The only difference in 2010 was that the Dolphins opted to go the cheap route on the offensive line. The Dolphins used the uncapped year to dump the large contracts of talented by injured-prone veterans Justin Smiley and Jake Grove, while starting veteran backup Joe Berger at center, hot-headed Richie Incognito at left guard, and rookie John Jerry at right guard, respectively.
The result was disastrous, as all three failed to display starting-caliber ability and were routinely manhandled by opposing defensive linemen in both run blocking and pass protection.
Of course, this is an article grading the Dolphins' running backs. However, there is simply no way to do so without mentioning how little help they got from the big guys up front, so keep that in mind.
2009 grade: A
2010 grade: B
Of the Dolphins' two starting tailbacks, Williams was the best, rushing for 673 yards and two touchdowns on a pretty solid 4.2 yards per carry.
Fumbles were once again a bit of a problem for him; he did lose the ball four times and had two recovered by the opposing defense.
All in all though, Williams ran hard and hit the hole as well as he could, considering there weren't really holes to be found.
2009 grade: B+
2010 grade: C
Like Williams, Brown was hampered by the unproductive offense line. It's not entirely fair to judge him on his 2010 numbers when he's clearly the same guy he's always been throughout his career.
Starting all 16 games for the first time in his six-year career, Brown actually had his yards-per-carry average dip below four (3.7 ypc) for the first since since entering the NFL as the second overall pick in 2005.
What separated Brown from Williams in 2010 was that Williams hit the hole hard and ran downhill when he needed to. It at least allowed him to maintain a decent average despite sub-par blocking and bad play-calling.
Brown, on the other hand, was far too hesitant hitting the hole and danced around in the backfield way too much, especially considering how bad the blocking was. Obviously, this kind of thing is a vicious cycle, but hesitation and lack of instincts have always been my biggest criticisms for an otherwise great back.
2009 grade: C+
2010 grade: D+
Coming off a torn ACL that limited him to just five games in 2009, Cobbs saw a much more limited role in offense than he did in 2008 when he caught 19 balls for 275 yards as the team's third running back.
Primarily limited to special teams in the first half of the season, Cobbs did make a few splashes on offense during the season with eight catches for 91 yards and two scores.
Cobbs has never been a very talented back and is more the jack-of-all-trades, hard-working special-teams type, and there weren't as many touches to go around in 2010, thanks to the struggles of the offense.
2009 grade: A+
2010 grade: D
Perhaps no player for the Dolphins regressed more from 2009 to 2010 than Polite. I can say with complete objectivity that Polite was the NFL's best blocking fullback the year before last, while he struggled mightily in 2010.
It wasn't all on Polite, as this was really the first year since he'd arrived that the team didn't have a good run-blocking line or two quality blocking tight ends.
That doesn't change the fact that Polite, who signed a contract extension in 2009, failed to block effectively for most of the season and was absolutely a detracting part of the offense.
Despite being his usual self, converting short-yardage situations and even scoring his first NFL touchdown in 2010, Polite failed to effectively executive his primary responsibilities as a blocker.
2009 grade: C
2010 grade: n/a
A favorite of the uneducated Dolphins fan for the past three years, Hillard failed to crack the Dolphins' top three running back spots except for the time Cobbs went down with a torn ACL in 2009.
Hilliard actually had his most unproductive season to date (excluding the rookie season he spent on the practice squad), failing to carry the ball once and catching only two passes on the season.
He's a quality special teamer, but he simply doesn't offer any upside on offense.
Overall 2009 Position Grade: A-
Overall 2010 Position Grade: C+
Like I've said over and over in this article, the Dolphins' running backs struggled in large part because of the ineffective offensive line. Poor quarterback play, poor play-calling by Dan Henning, and the lack of a quality No. 2 tight end also played roles in what ended up being a complete recipe for a well-below average rushing "attack."
The Dolphins' backfield could be in for some significant changes in 2011, as every tailback the team had in 2010 has an expiring contract this offseason.
Hilliard is the only exclusive-rights free agent, and I have to expect he'll be tendered and brought back due to special teams ability and the lack of other running backs under contract at the moment. That being said, I would not give him a realistic chance to start in 2011, regardless of what other moves the team makes.
I'd also expect the team to pursue a new deal with Cobbs, whose quality special teams play is always valuable and whose top-notch work ethic clearly rubs off on his teammates. He doesn't offer much on offense aside from a third-down back type, so he's not going to break the bank in free agency.
Before this offseason began, I would have guessed that Williams would re-sign on a short-term deal and Brown would walk into free agency. With Williams' negative comments about Sparano and the Dolphins, it seems like he has played his last down for the team.
While Williams' departure might make the Dolphins more interested in retaining Brown, I have to imagine he'd like to move on after the situation in 2010 and he might be seeking more money than would be worth paying given his age and injury history.
If I'm the Dolphins, I re-sign Cobbs and Hilliard, pick up a speedy, change-of-pace back like Darren Sproles in free agency, and find my long-term starting running back in the middle rounds of the draft.
In almost all cases, though, the offensive line makes the running back what he is. That is why it doesn't really matter who is in the backfield for the Dolphins if the team doesn't shore up its interior line.
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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.