Where Can the Miami Dolphins Improve Most for 2013?

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IFebruary 21, 2013

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 30: Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Miami Dolphins shouts instructions against the New England Patriots in the first half at Gillette Stadium on December 30, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins’ journey into the 21st century without Dan Marino has been filled with disappointment, and to be honest, a lot of boring offensive football.

When you have far more name changes to your stadium than playoff wins (one, back in the 2000 season), then you know something is not right.

Once led by a legendary, prolific quarterback in Marino, the Dolphins have struggled to win the air battles in today’s pass-heavy NFL.

Miami is the only team since 2000 who has not had a quarterback either pass for 4,000 yards or throw more than 20 touchdowns in a season. A total of 22 teams have had at least one quarterback achieve both feats in the same season.

Rookie Ryan Tannehill passed for 3,294 yards in 2012, which is actually the third-highest total for the Dolphins since 2000. The highest still belongs to Chad Pennington, who threw for a measly 3,653 yards in 2008.

The 2008 season is also the only time in the last 11 years the Dolphins have made the playoffs. If they are to get back to glory, they must put together the pieces to field a respectable passing attack.

Not as much “Luck” for Tannehill in 2012

For being the No. 8 overall pick and third quarterback taken in the draft, it has been a relatively quiet career so far for Tannehill. Without the rookie success from the big three of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, Tannehill would have been praised more for a decent rookie season.

However next to those names, Tannehill’s 12 touchdown passes and overall numbers look too pedestrian. He also did not thrive in late-game situations, posting a 1-5 record in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities.

But was it really so much Tannehill’s fault in 2012?

Before the season started, I compared him to Luck in the scope that both were entering teams expected to be saviors along with a rookie head coach (Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis; Joe Philbin in Miami). Many of the all-time great success stories in the NFL begin that way with a coach and quarterback being joined at the hip.

Though look at how differently the Colts handled things for Luck.

They re-signed Reggie Wayne to a three-year deal to give Luck a much-needed veteran receiver. Miami traded Brandon Marshall to Chicago, where Marshall went on to have a monster season for the Bears. Miami also had to cut Chad Johnson before the season for his off-field drama. Johnson easily would have led the team in receiving had he lasted.

In the draft, the Colts armed Luck with skill players like Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, T.Y. Hilton and Vick Ballard. They were major contributors to the Colts’ 11-5 playoff season.

The Dolphins waited until the third round to take tight end Michael Egnew, who was inactive for every game until the final two of the season, finishing with no catches.

No wide receiver was chosen until B.J. Cunningham in the sixth round (did not make the 53-man roster), and the Dolphins finished with Rishard Matthews in the seventh round. Matthews ended 2012 with 11 catches, or as many as Marshall had after Week 2.

Even Brandon Weeden was given more to work with in Cleveland. Hard to definitively say Tannehill had the toughest situation of all the rookies, given he was not asked to throw a ton, but he was clearly throwing to a lot of scraps.

Great quarterbacks will ultimately get the most out of the receivers they are given, and if Tannehill really is a franchise quarterback, then he will do the same. But you still have to have a bit more than what he was working with in 2012 to have big NFL success. This is a young player converted from playing wide receiver in college. He’s not a natural a la Marino.

Drafting Tannehill was a start, but GM Jeff Ireland must realize he has to surround the kid with talent, too.

Miami’s lack of wide-receiver production

That had to be quite the experience for Philbin when he went from Green Bay’s 51 touchdown passes (38 to wide receivers) in 2011 to Miami’s 13 (three to wide receivers) in 2012. That’s not first-class to coach. That’s first-class to the toilet.

The 1977 Tampa Bay Buccaneers hold the record for fewest touchdown passes (three) in a season since 1970. All three were caught by Morris Owens, a wide receiver. That equals how many Miami’s wide receivers had in 2012, so you know things were historically bad.

Philbin got the Miami job after his success in a wide receiver-heavy passing attack in Green Bay. A 37-year-old Donald Driver was basically the No. 5 wide receiver for the Packers in 2012, but he might have still started for Philbin if he was in razor-thin Miami.

The Dolphins’ receiver woes played out on HBO’s Hard Knocks. It was obviously going to be a problem all season, but the production was even worse than expected.

Brian Hartline did break out with 74 catches for 1,083 yards, but that was practically out of necessity. He is a No. 3 wide receiver (at best) on most teams. Davone Bess is a good slot receiver, but not a big-play threat. 

As for the third wide receiver, well, surely you jest? It was filled with the 11 catches for 151 yards by Rishard Matthews.

Legedu Naanee might be able to scramble his full name to spell “a legend,” but his only catch of the season ended with him fumbling the ball (but at least he made the tackle…60 yards later). Even a solid veteran like Jabar Gaffney never caught on.

It is not as if Philbin forgot how to coach a passing attack, but he did seem out of his comfort zone away from Green Bay’s well-stocked set of wide receivers.

Here is the passing breakdown for Tannehill’s 484 attempts in 2012. Note the positional groupings at the end. Charles Clay essentially serves as a tight end/fullback/H-back for the team, but his production is included under tight end.

Those are ugly numbers for the wide receivers. You know you are in trouble when Hartline is your big-play guy. His one touchdown on the season came in his monster performance in Arizona: 12 catches on 19 targets for 253 yards.

But the 80-yard touchdown was a total blown coverage by the Cardinals getting confused with the crossing receivers at midfield. No one stayed with Hartline, hence this huge window to throw into.

Earlier in the game, Hartline beat William Gay (not that difficult, really) for a 57-yard gain. These two plays were the biggest pass plays of the season for Miami.

The only other pass of 40-plus yards was also to Hartline, and it came in overtime (for 41 yards) the week before against the Jets. That was a double move on Antonio Cromartie and a great catch by Hartline.

But these were the outliers for Miami’s wide receivers. The Dolphins need players who can make plays more frequently.

Use free agency and the draft to improve

Like the Colts, the Dolphins have around $40 million available in cap room this offseason. Fortunately, this is one of the better classes of free-agent receivers in quite some time.

Players such as Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings, Dwayne Bowe and Wes Welker could all be available. Of course any of them could still re-sign to stay in the same place, but some should be leaving to new cities shortly.

Fact is all of them would be an upgrade over what the Dolphins currently have.

But buyers beware with wide receivers in free agency. Their success is so dependent on the right scheme and quarterback. A player who looks really good in one system, like Laurent Robinson in Dallas with Tony Romo, may not be the same player when he moves to a team with a lesser quarterback and a run-based approach.

There is a lot of attention towards Wallace because of his world-class speed, but he is coming off a tough 2012 season that can only be classified as a disappointment. There are still concerns about how legitimate of a No. 1 wide receiver he really is, and that is the kind of money he will seek.

Welker might not mind going back to Miami in an attempt to stick it to the Patriots twice a year, but the Dolphins already have Bess, and Philbin’s offense has been successful because of how the receivers can get deep. That is not part of Welker’s game, or at least that is not how the Patriots have used him.

The right move for Miami is Jennings. His price should be lower given his age (30 in September) and recent injury history. But when healthy, he does provide the full playmaking ability of a No. 1 receiver, and he spent five seasons with Philbin in Green Bay.

Jennings may have to be a must-sign for Miami given how little acknowledgement they have shown for the position in the draft.

There really is no reason to stop with Jennings. Utilize a premium draft pick or two on the position as well, because it is one of Miami’s biggest needs. More wide receivers are drafted than ever before in today’s NFL.

It is not necessary to have to use a first-round pick to find a good one, either. The Pittsburgh Steelers have done a very good job finding players like Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown in the third round or later.

Torrey Smith was the 58th overall pick in the 2011 draft, and he has made a big impact on Baltimore’s success the last two seasons.

The facts on Ireland are clear. Since becoming the general manger in 2008, Ireland has only drafted five wide receivers, and none were in the first two rounds:

  • Patrick Turner (2009, No. 87 in third round): Lasted just one season in Miami and made zero receptions. Has failed to catch on with the Jets in three years as well.
  • Brian Hartline (2009, No. 108 in fourth round): Aforementioned breakout year in 2012 after three mediocre seasons.
  • Clyde Gates (2011, No. 111 in fourth round): Had two catches for 19 yards in 2011 before also moving on to the Jets the following year.
  • B.J. Cunningham (2012, No. 183 in sixth round): Cut on Aug. 31, 2012 and went to the Eagles’ practice squad.
  • Rishard Matthews (2012, No. 227 in seventh round): His 11 catches for 151 yards beats Turner, Gates and Cunningham combined, but still nothing to gloat about.

That has to be one of the worst track records any GM could have at the wide-receiver position. Here are some of the misses for Ireland, though so much of the draft is a crapshoot that it is hard to make these criticisms with a straight face because of hindsight:

  • 2008: Drafted RB Lex Hilliard (6.204) one spot ahead of Pierre Garcon.
  • 2009: Drafted CB Vontae Davis (1.25) shortly ahead of Hakeem Nicks (1.29) and Kenny Britt (1.30). Drafted Pat White (period).
  • 2011: Drafted RB Daniel Thomas (2.62) two spots ahead of Randall Cobb (2.64). You know Philbin wishes this were not true. Cobb is a nice weapon. Also drafted Clyde Gates ahead of Cecil Shorts (4.114), who has made many big plays for Jacksonville.

Receivers can be divas, but you have to have these kinds of players to succeed. Not all of them are ego-driven nut-jobs.

Ireland infamously had the pre-draft blowout with his interview of Dez Bryant, asking whether Bryant’s mom was a prostitute. He is probably not anti-receiver seeing as how he did sign Chad Johnson, only to understandably let him go. He also made the trade for Marshall in 2010.

But the recent wide-receiver history in Miami has been very sketchy, and it must change now.

Not upgrading the wide-receiver position through both free agency and the draft would be a big mistake by Ireland and the Dolphins. You have to realize what creates success in the modern NFL.

Dolphins cannot compete in top-heavy AFC without big changes

Each season, the Dolphins are at such a disadvantage for making the playoffs because of the stranglehold the New England Patriots have on the AFC East. They are always in the mix, which means you have to start thinking about Wild Card.

To beat out New England, you have to steal some head-to-head games, and you simply will not win a 17-14 game against the Patriots (well, unless you are the New York Giants). Points must be scored, and the Dolphins lack the weapons to do so.

They will run into the same problems when they face the Denver Broncos with Peyton Manning. The AFC also has Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, Joe Flacco in Baltimore, Matt Schaub in Houston and the upstart Colts with Andrew Luck, who had an incredible performance against the Dolphins in a 23-20 win last season. The AFC is top-heavy, and you must have a quarterback with some weapons to compete.

Since 2009 the Dolphins are 1-7 against Brady, 0-3 against Schaub, 0-2 against Roethlisberger, 0-2 against Philip Rivers, 0-1 against Flacco and 0-1 against Peyton Manning (Colts).

Add it up and that is a 1-16 record against the cream of the crop in the conference. Half of Miami’s 2013 schedule appears to be against top 15 quarterbacks.

If the Dolphins ever want to throw in a competitive hat to the 21st century of the NFL, then they need to build up a receiving corps that can actually do some damage and score some points.

No matter how good Philbin’s system is supposed to be, it will not allow Tannehill to progress if the best option he has in 2013 is Brian Hartline again.

For years, Miami fans watched a Hall of Fame quarterback unsuccessfully try to carry a flawed team to a championship. It would be a shame for these Dolphins to waste the best quarterback prospect they have had since Marino by not finding him anyone worth throwing the ball to.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.