Friday’s first preseason game certainly raised questions about the Miami Dolphins offense, not least after Chad Henne threw two early interceptions.
However, the biggest concern from the night was the poor performance from the offensive line; a unit which was supposedly upgraded this offseason.
Last year, the offensive line saw a number of changes, and while pass protection was not too much of an issue, running lanes were at a premium for the Dolphins rushers, and Miami’s running game was almost non-existent.
It was the running backs who bore the brunt of the failure though, and both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams were moved on to pastures new this offseason.
On Friday’s evidence, it could be argued the move was unfair on the duo, and the concern about the O-line is legitimate.
Although the absence of Jake Long (who is still expected to be fit for the opening game of the season) would be a huge blow for any team, it is worrying that Tony Sparano and Jeff Ireland believed that the line was upgraded this offseason.
One clear upgrade was the addition of Mike Pouncey, selected 15th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft to replace Joe Berger at center, and Miami hope he will become the anchor of the line for the next decade.
Pouncey is strong, athletic and a winner; he has the ability to pull, something which the Dolphins missed last year, and is seen by many to be a leader both on, and off, the field.
Between Pouncey and the left tackle, Jake Long, will be Richie Incognito. He was given a contract extension last year after a solid, if unspectacular, season.
While Incognito did impress early on last season, his inability to pull did hamper the running game, although the Dolphins will hope Pouncey’s pulling ability will nullify this problem this year.
However, the real concern for the Dolphins is the right side of the offensive line.
The current pair penciled in to start against New England in Week 1 is Vernon Carey at guard, and free-agent signing Marc Colombo at tackle.
Carey has taken a pay cut and moved inside as a result of Colombo’s signing. However, his athleticism is limited, and there are serious questions about his ability to pull.
Colombo, signed from Dallas, is also a big worry for the Dolphins.
His run blocking has been average, but his pass protection, particularly against speed rushers, has been very disappointing.
This was a legitimate area of concern before he left the Cowboys, and many Dallas fans were aware he struggled against quick pass rushers. Colombo gave up 11 sacks last season, more than Miami’s tackles combined, and has been struggling in training camp too.
If Colombo does not improve fast, then there is a real worry that there will be a similar result from his tenure in Miami.
What alternatives are there for Miami?
Nate Garner has returned from a season-long absence through injury, but has struggled to replicate his form from 2009 in training camp at guard; he can also play tackle if needed.
Cory Proctor and Pat McQuistan, both starters at some point last season, have left Miami.
John Jerry, selected in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft, has failed to live up to expectations. He was considered a safe pick last year, now there is a chance he doesn’t even make it through the final cuts.
Another option is moving Carey back to right tackle, and signing a guard in free agency. Brian Waters and Leonard Davis are still available, and would be good short-term additions if Miami chose this path.
However, it would be an admission by the front office that both their signing of Colombo, and plans for Carey, were wrong. If it improved the offensive line, fans would be more than willing to overlook that, but it is highly unlikely that the “Bifecta” would backtrack on their decision despite its potential problems.
One final option would be to start Lyndon Murtha at right tackle.
He has impressed in training camp and against Atlanta filling in for Jake Long at left tackle, and although he can be inconsistent, he has certainly been more impressive than Colombo thus far.
Murtha’s natural position is right tackle, and with his rapid progression this offseason, he would be a legitimate option for Miami.
Right now it seems like the Phins are invested in Colombo; how long they can put up with his lackluster play without seeing any improvement is anybody’s guess.
Tony Sparano has promised not to chop-and-change the offensive line this season, and admitted that this policy may have hindered its production last year.
However, if the line does not perform, and isn’t good enough for the Dolphins, when does Sparano give up and change it, or does he wait for them to improve instead of changing the line again?
Then there is the added question: what if he doesn’t change the line, but the line doesn’t ever improve? The likely result of that will be Sparano out of a job next summer.
With the clear issues regarding the right side of the line, combined with the fact that only Mike Pouncey seems capable of pulling, the running game might struggle yet again, while Pouncey will need to be in great condition to deal with his workload.
The offensive line’s personnel may have changed, but the problems still remain, and the line looks set for another overhaul next year (it’s fourth in as many years).
Jake Long is irreplaceable, and Pouncey will stay, but the rest of the line can be upgraded.
Vernon Carey is now reportedly scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in 2012 after restructuring his contract, meaning Miami will likely need at least one guard next year.
It doesn’t look like anyone on the roster can fill that void either.
The only acquisition to the line in this year’s draft was Pouncey, and although the draft looks like it has brought in some good young talent on both sides of the ball, there is no doubt the offensive line could have done with further investment.
Miami has positions of need already, so the continued failure to build a solid offensive line is a big source of embarrassment for Ireland and Sparano, particularly when the latter was billed as an O-line coach.
Jerry was supposed to be a safe pick by the front office last year, and the Dolphins staff even coached him through the Senior Bowl. Right now, it looks like Jerry could be among Miami’s cuts.
If Jerry turns out to be a bust, there will be real worries than the current staff are not capable of building a decent line, not least as they have already forked out millions of dollars to free agents such as Justin Smiley and Jake Grove; neither play in the NFL today, just a year removed from their departures from Miami.
With the Dolphins due to face the Patriots’ Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, and Marcus Stroud, Buffalo’s new rookie Marcell Dareus, and new Jets, Kenrick Ellis and Muhammed Wilkerson, their offensive line needs to be solid at the very least.
If they cannot improve, there are at least six games this year which could prove problematic for the Dolphins as the offensive unit could come under severe pressure from the opposing defense.
Until the unit play their first game in Foxborough it is difficult to tell whether they are suffering from a lack of practice, or a lack of talent, but the warning signs are there. Line play must improve for the Dolphins to record a winning record.
There are plenty of reasons to be positive for Miami as they head into the new NFL season, but the offensive line is certainly not one of them.