August 26, 2016

Cameron Wake not yet 100 percent but getting there

ORLANDO -- Cameron Wake stepped into some look-at-me pink shoes late Friday night after the Miami Dolphins finished off the Atlanta Falcons in the third preseason game for both teams. And the attention the footwear demanded is noteworthy because for a while now all the attention around Wake's feet has been centered mostly on his surgically repaired Achilles tendon that he ruptured last October.

But maybe after he played in a game for the first time since that injury, the conversation can start turning away from the Achilles injury. Maybe instead of focusing on Wake's injury status we should start focusing on his health status.

That status, Wake admits is not yet 100 percent 10 months after the injury.

“Probably not," Wake said. "That’s the truth. There’s just so much that you can do off the field. I’ve been working out, doing rehab, a lot of things. But the reality is football is hard to replicate. You can’t in the middle of the offseason have two guys pushing on you. It just doesn’t work that way … It’s coming. Obviously, I had a good step tonight in the right direction."

Wake, playing for the first time since he ruptured that Achilles tendon, had no tackles. He had no sacks. He did have a quarterback hurry on his first pass rush.

And still that was excellent because, well, it was a milestone. It signaled progress.

"Just trying to go back to ways of old," Wake said. "It has been awhile since I’ve actually played in a lot of games, so I’m taking all the things we’ve done in practice, all the rehab reps, and all the other stuff I’ve been doing. Finally, I’m just playing football again, just having fun. You kind of forget all the other stuff by doing what you do best."

The Dolphins intend to do what is best for keeping Wake healthy this year. And, as has been reported on this blog several times, that probably means making Wake a pass rush specialist at least early in the season as he continues to heal.

That certaintly looked to be the plan Friday.

“That was kind of the plan," Gase said. "I know we didn’t give you guys everything this week as far as what we were going to do, but we wanted him to play on third down. We wanted him to get some rushes in and get back in the feel of the game.

"That was the plan going into this game. Every day, we’re going to do more and more and get him to the point where he feels like it’s 100 percent, where we’re back and we’re ready to go a certain amount of snaps that we’ll talk about throughout the season. The goal is to make sure he plays 16-plus games, and tonight was a good first step for us.”

It stands to reason that if Wake is not 100 percent now and the way to get him there is with time and more game action, he might not be fully back to his old self until sometime in the regular season.

“It’s possible, but again, the game is not the only time you get it," Wake said. "We have quite a few big hogs in there who I fight with every day. Those are real reps … Whether it’s Tennessee or Seattle or Ja’Wuan (James), (Mike) Pouncey or whoever it may be, that’s the situation that you put your body in and you have to get it to respond."

And if that means Wake is a part-time player -- a pass rush specialist -- for the near future, he's fine with that because he sees a long-term plan in place that he's comfortable following. 

"You have to start thinking long term," Wake said. "Of course, I want to be out there for every snap, but is that going to be best come December and January? You got to be honest and smart, and all of us working together, our plan is really good, and so far it’s working." 

August 25, 2016

Reaction from Preseason Game 3: Mostly good (with injury update)

ORLANDO -- The semi-important dress-rehearsal game for the Miami Dolphins this 2016 preseason is over and, not that you care, but the Dolphins won, 17-6.

Winning is better than losing.

Here's what I saw:

Ryan Tannehill was inconsistent. He completed 20 of 29 passes for 155 yards. And that suggests his accuracy was good. But he threw one interception and threw another pass late that would have been intercepted had the defender not dropped the ball in his chest.

Tannehill's QB rating was 67.5 but that is deceptive.

Jordan Cameron, who dropped a couple of more passes this week after dropping at TD last week, had a TD pass hit him in the facemask and hands and that was one of his tough moments. The ball was contested but Cameron outweighs safety Damian Parms by 55 pounds and is has a three-inch height advantage. He has to win those matchups.

Jordan finished with one catch for six yards on four targets.

“(For) the one (drop), I’ve got to just catch the ball," Jordan said. "I was looking to run on the third down one. The other one I haven’t watched yet. I don’t know if I dropped the ball. I don’t know if I even touched the ball. I’ve got to watch it and see what happened."

By the way, Tannehill only played the first half. And he threw 29 passes. The Dolphins had 44 offensive snaps in the first half. That's a lot. And they threw 29 times, also a lot.

This is the most impressive stat to me: In the first half when both teams stuck with their starters, the Miami offense converted five of nine third down plays. That is outstanding.

The Atlanta Falcons offense was limited in converting one of six third down conversions against the Miami starting defense. And the Falcons were 0 for 1 on fourth down. So the Miami defense won on the money down and got off the field.

Arian Foster was good. He only rushed five times for 10 yards but he won in the open field and had a nice 2-yard TD run.

The offensive line was general good in providing Tannehill plenty of time to throw. Tannehill was not sacked. The OL was not an issues in pass protection. Run blocking needs to get better. Laramy Tunsil, better in pass pro than run blocking in previous weeks, has to get better in run blocking.

Tunsil started at left guard. Jermon Bushrod started at right guard. This is the second week this combo starts for the Dolphins. It looks like this might be the opening week guard combo.

I must tell you that Dallas Thomas took some first-team snaps with at right guard. So that might be the variable that changes if a change is indeed made.

The cornerbacks were bad tonight.

Tony Lippett was beaten a couple of times, including on a deep pass. He was lifted in the first quarter in favor of Bobby McCain.

And McCain was called for a pass interference so he wasn't exactly amazing, either. Let's face it, McCain is playing out of position. He's an NFL slot corner.

Kenny Stills was solid with four catches on six targets. Jarvis Landry had four receptions on five targets. Not the problem.

The Dolphins gave Cameron Wake his preseason debut and he played exclusively on third-down and pass-rush situations. I get the feeling this is going to be the approach at least early in the season.

Mario Williams, invisible in limited action last week, did little of note this night while getting more snaps. Williams did have a pressure.

Ndamukong Suh suffered a left ankle injury and left the field in the first quarter. He did not return.

[Update: Coach Adam Gase said Suh is "ok." Suh was unavailable for comment.]

Running back Isaiah Pead (hamstring), linebacker Jelani Jenkins (ankle) defensive end Terrence Fede (knee), and defensive end Chris McCain (shoulder) also suffered injuries and did not return to the game.

{Update: Gase said the team will have to look at Pead's ankle Friday to further understand the seriousness. Fede's knee will be further examined Friday but Gase said "it's nothing major." The coach said Jenkins is ok. The coach did not mention McCain's injury.]

Anthony Steen, starting at center in place of the injured Mike Pouncey, was charged with a fumble when he had a poor snap in the first quarter. Tannehill fell on the loose football. 

Safety Reshad Jones, who made a lot of impactful plays for the Dolphins last season, made one this game. He intercepted a pass in the end zone, thus keeping Atlanta off the scoreboard, and ran out the ball 18 yards to the 17-yard line.

“It was a big play in the red zone and it was a big play for me and my team so it felt great," Jones said. "We had a lot of tough games and this was just a good show of how far we’ve come.

“The rate of winning goes up once you start getting turnovers. Coach is always stressing the fact that we need to turn the ball over, get sacks and that’s what we do as DBs – break up the ball up and get interceptions.”

Finally this ... Defensive tackle Julius Warmsley, relegated to third team, was active. He blew up one play and had a sack.

The plan to get Xavien Howard to play in the regular season opener

ORLANDO -- Cornerback Xavien Howard is among the players who traveled with the Miami Dolphins to this "home" game tonight against the Atlanta Falcons. He is not expected to play.

(Neither are other players who traveled with the team such as running back Kenyan Drake and cornerback Chimdi Chekwa, and safety Walt Aikens. Maybe next week.)

But Howard is different from those other players and indeed different from any player on the roster for the combination of multiple reasons:

  1. He's a rookie.
  2. He missed all of training camp because he was injured.
  3. He's never played in an NFL game.
  4. The Dolphins want him to play -- a lot -- and perhaps even start at Seattle in the regular-season opener.

So this is where the team stands with Howard:

The players are scheduled back in South Florida tonight after the game and then are supposed to have a lift day on Friday. They will be off Saturday and be back to practice Sunday.

Assuming no hurricane or other weather issues affects the schedule, it looks like the Dolphins are going to continue to step up Howard's workload in practice. And that should happen throughout the week leading up to the final preseason game.

Assuming no setbacks and Howard handles the workload well, coaches will have a decision to make on his status for the final preseason game. But there is a desire to get him snaps in that game.

And then this:

The Dolphins believe if that plan pans out ... Howard can continue to improve and get stronger and better in the five or six practices between the final preseason game and Seattle opener. And then he can play tons, and perhaps even start against the Seahawks.

And what's more, this coaching staff is already eyeing a strategy whereby they can simplify the assignments for Howard so that he can do what he does best -- cover a wide receiver -- without concerns that might plague other rookies or inexperienced players.

"... For the most part, he’s playing one-on-one coverage a lot of the times," coach Adam Gase said. "At the end of the day, that’s his strength and I’m sure the more we’ve talked about it with (defensive coordinator) Vance (Joseph), we’re going to try to lean on his strength of just matching him up with somebody and letting him go."

And this is where coaching is a huge asset.

Some coaches would freak at the thought of putting a rookie with no training camp and perhaps limited snaps in the preseason on the field for the season opener. The reason makes sense in the abstract. You don't put an unprepared player on the field in a game that counts.

But ...

Reality happens, folks. And injuries happen. And games don't wait on anyone. And needs must be met as best as possible. And some coaches -- including those on this coaching staff -- have decided that preparing that player, in this case Howard, as much as possible to do what he does best and only what he does best, even if that does not include the million details of his given position, is better than having him inactive for the opener.

I'm not saying one approach is better than the other. Both can fail, depending on the situation.

But I like this coaching staff's thinking better. They're not willing to throw up their hands and give up on a situation as lost simply because every preparation I is not dotted and T is not crossed. They're adjusting what they do to fit the player. They're not eliminating the player based on the fact he is not yet ready to do everything they do.

I must tell you this requires a certain type of player to work. By a certain type of player, I mean a gifted guy. And Howard has already shown the Dolphins he is that.

I'm told that before his injury, in the offseason camps and workouts, coaches saw Howard playing up to a level that suggests he's an NFL starting cornerback. They didn't reward him with starter reps at the time because they wanted him to travel the long road to the job.

But then his knee injury that required surgery happened. And that detoured the long road map. The point, however, is that Howard showed enough back then to give coaches confidence he's good enough to be used in the coming opener and early in the season even without a full training camp and a handful of preseason games.

And so that's the plan that gets Xavien Howard to the regular-season opener.

August 24, 2016

What to look for from the Miami Dolphins offense and defense in third preseason game (both affect the season opener)

Before practically every preseason game you get from a lot of NFL journalists stories and posts about what to expect in said upcoming game. You get five things to watch. Things to look for.

I rarely give you that stuff because ... too easy.

But today is different because ... too important.

No, what follows is not five items. I'm going to tell you two things the Miami Dolphins absolutely, positively must do Thursday night when they play the Atlanta Falcons in their third preseason game that will definitely affect their chances of success in the regular season opener against Seattle. One of those is predictable. One is hasn't been mentioned anywhere else that I've seen.

From the Dolphins defense, the coaching staff must get good tackling. A friend of mine, who happens to have no life, studied the third preseason game of all 32 NFL teams a couple of years back. And he counted the missed tackles. And he tells me the percentage of missed tackles in those games was 32 percent.

So according to this non-scientific, one-time study, NFL players were missing nearly one out of every three tackles they attempted in the third preseason weekend of 2014. That is a lot.

And apparently in continues.

You've certainly seen it from the Miami Dolphins defense the past two preseason games.

"That’s the whole NFL," Dolphins coach Adam Gase said of the misstacklitis that has become epidemic in the NFL preseason games. "You turn on tapes of a lot of other defenses too, this is what it is. It’s a race to see who becomes the best tackling teams in football as you go throughout the season, because the only live work you really get nowadays are in games.

"Unless we want to start doing live out here and taking a chance of somebody getting hurt in practice, I mean it’s really not something that’s going to happen. We have to make sure we’re great on technique. We have to get tight to them. We got to run our feet. Those are some things that we have to do a better job of. I know the coaches are really trying to do a good job of correcting things on tape. We have some drills that we felt like were helping us. We’re not taking our drill work to the games and we just need to do that. That’s going to be a big emphasis for us this game.”

So improved tackling is key for the Miami defenseThursday because this is the last opportunity many of the team's top defenders will get this preseason to improve their skills before playing Seattle Sept. 11. The reason it's the last chance is, barring an upset of the routine, most top Miami defenders will not play in the fourth and final preseason game.

So this is it. Get it right now, or go into the season hoping to eventually get it fixed.

On offense the goals are much more intriguing. Yes, the Dolphins want to improve their running game. That, by the way, gets better as the NFL season matures because practices rarely include live blocking drills.

"The only way you get good at it is you do it in those preseason games," Gase said. "That’s why trying to run the ball when we get out there – we got a little pass happy there towards the end (at Dallas), but that will happen every once in a while in a preseason game – but we need to rep in live games.

"This week, obviously, you try keeping it as balanced as you can so we can get it on tape, see where our deficiencies are and then correct them."

And major goal No. 2 for the offense is perhaps the most important goal of this entire game for the Dolphins. And that is be as vanilla and boring and basic as possible.

The Dolphins' offense must be, well, lame against the Falcons.

And they know it. Indeed, Gase has gone through his playsheet and made certain that nothing he really, really likes will be run against the Falcons.

Why?

Falcons coach Dan Quinn was the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 and 2014. The success his Seattle defenses had those years catapulted him to his current position. And in Atlanta Quinn runs a mirror image of what the Seahawks still run. Furthermore, the coaching connections that were forged during Quinn's time in Seattle are still strong.

So the Dolphins don't want to put anything on tape that the Seahawks might see works against a scheme of defense they run. That would allow them to work on such a play over the next couple of weeks. Secondly, the Dolphins don't want to do anything on offense that might lead Quinn to suggest to his friends in Seattle any strategy for stopping the Dolphins.

This isn't skullduggery stuff. I simply know the Dolphins have had internal conversations about not showing a lot to the Falcons in a game that doesn't count in the standings, and in so doing, could alert a team they open the regular season against.

Where does that leave us?

It'll be interesting seeing how basic and mundane the Dolphins can get on offense. It will be interesting seeing if that basic and mundane stuff works. And it will be important to keep perspective about what is before our eyes.

You will not read from me Friday morning that the Miami offense didn't fly high (if it doesn't) because one of its goals was actually to be under the radar.

So adjust your inner punditry accordingly in this regard.

August 23, 2016

A look at looming Miami Dolphins roster decisions

Thursday evening's game the Dolphins will play against the Atlanta Falcons in Orlando will be the last one before the team trims its 90-man roster to 75. That initial roster cutdown date is next Tuesday.

So what that means is that this third preseason game will be the final one for over two dozen players who think they're Miami Dolphins but really are not. And because coach Adam Gase will do as most coaches around the league this week and play his veterans at least two quarters and probably into the third quarter, some of these guys on the roster's back end have already played their final games for this team because there may not be enough time to get them snaps Thursday night.

This is an annual truth.

And this is also true: It is time to start thinking about roster cuts.

I've done this for some time (feels like 74 years) and my experience has taught me that when cuts are easy, that team has little depth. When cuts are hard, that team's roster is in better shape.

The 2016 Dolphins? They're somewhere in the middle.

Some positions, such as cornerbacks, offer easy solutions to making cuts. Some, including offensive line and defensive line, are tough calls.

Let's walk through the exercise:

OFFENSE

Postion: Quarterbacks.

Players: Ryan Tannehill, Matt Moore, Brandon Doughty, Zac Dysert

Who is in: Tannehill, Moore, Doughty.

Who is out: Dysert.

The situation: The optimal way to be able to handle this is put Doughty on the practice squad. But he played well in one preseason game (before playing awful last week), and Gase has talked him up in press conferences. So it might be hard to sneak him through to practice squad by cutting him and then re-signing him to PS. Complicating matters is that Moore suffered a concussion last week and will not play Thursday. His status is uncertain going forward, although it is expected he'll be available for the regular-season opener. This injury increases the chances Doughty is ultimately on the 53-man roster.

Postion: Running backs.

Players: Jay Ajayi, Arian Foster, Isaiah Pead, Damien Williams, Kenyan Drake, Daniel Thomas.

Who is in: Ajayi, Foster.

Who is out: Thomas.

The situation: Pead and Williams are battling for what seems to be the last spot -- unless they are not. One way the Dolphins could keep Ajayi, Foster, Pead and Williams is by relegating rookie Kenyan Drake to the injured reserve list with a designation to return. Let's face it, Drake, who missed three weeks and all the preseason games, has not earned a roster spot. He returned to practice today but is not playing Thursday night. But the team isn't walking away from him based on his third-round draft status. If the Dolphins decide that after not having proven anything in training camp, Drake makes the team ahead of either Pead or Williams, that's something of a gamble given Drake's long, long injury history. Pead, whose 45-yard run against Dallas is the second-longest of any NFL player this preseason, has been getting first-team work since last week, including in the game. I expect coach Adam Gase will try to make that happen again Thursday night. If he plays well, that may seal a spot for him. One more thing: Special teams is a big thing for the third and fourth back. Williams is very good on special teams.

Postion: Offensive line.

Players: Mike Pouncey, Kraig Urbik, Dallas Thomas, Ruben Carter, Anthony Steen, Laremy Tunsil, Ulrick John, Ja'Wuan James, Vinston Painter, Jamil Douglas, Jermon Bushrod, Branden Albert, Billy Turner, Sam Young.

Who is in: Pouncey, Tunsil, James, Albert, Thomas, Turner, Bushrod.

Who is out: Painter, Carter, Douglas.

The situation: Urbik, John, and Young are interesting because all have experience but are stuck behind younger, better players. Maybe cheaper, too. The roster has room for one of these three. Bushrod makes it because he's competing for the starting RG spot but also can move to LT in a pinch if Tunsil doesn't go there should Albert go down. Thomas makes it because he can play both LG and RG. Turner makes it because he can play RG and RT (in an emergency). Albert makes it because, well, Albert. Steen, now the starter while Pouncey heals, makes it if he doesn't collapse against first-team competition Thursday night. Douglas was a fourth-round pick in 2015. He's running a disappointing third team now.

Postion: Wide receiver.

Players: Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker, Leonte Carroo, Griff Whalen, Matt Hazel, A.J. Cruz, Brandon Shippen, Rashawn Scott, Jakeem Grant.

Who is in: Landry, Stills, Parker, Carroo.

Who is out: Shippen, Cruz.

The situation: Scott is probably out, too, but I'm not certain. The thing is Whalen is more than on his way to making the team based on his abilities on special teams and some good practice days. But he's a slot. And the Dolphins have a lot of those guys if you add Grant to Landry, and Whalen. Matt Hazel? He probably makes it. But the team has to keep six receivers. Grant makes it based on his potential and return abilities.

Postion: Tight ends.

Players: Jordan Cameron, Dion Sims, Thomas Duarte, MarQueis Gray, Dominique Jones, Gabe Hughes.

Who is in: Cameron, Sims.

Who is out: Hughes, Gray

The situation: If I dropped to Earth from Uranus (I'm juvenile) and you asked me which tight ends had earned a spot on this roster, I would tell you none of them. None. Most, including Cameron, have been invisible. Both Sims and Cameron have had notable drops in preseason games. Duarte, who wants to block, cannot because he's simply not strong enough and his technique is late-round-rookie-terrible. The others are JAGS -- as Bill Parcells said, just a guy. Very disappointing, this group.

DEFENSE

Postion: Defensive line.

Players: Andre Branch, Chris Jones, Chris McCain, Deandre Coleman, Cedric Reed, Jordan Williams, Cleyon Laing, Julius Warmsley, Terrence Fede, Earl Mitchell, Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh, Mario Williams, Jordan Phillips, Jason Jones.

Who is in: Wake, Suh, Williams, Jones, Branch, Mitchell, Phillips.

Who is out: If the Dolphins are keeping four ends and four tackles, the man who joins the seven guys above is DT Chris Jones. He's been solid in his time as a starter while Mitchell has been out with a calf injury. If the team is keeping nine defensive linemen because the group is deep, that adds the possibility that McCain or Fede makes the team. Both are not making the team at this stage. McCain is a better pass rusher but not great against the run. Fede is a better run defender but not great with his pass rush.

Postion: Linebackers.

Players: Koa Misi, Kiko Alonso, Jelani Jenkins, Spencer Paysinger, Neville Hewitt, Akil Blount, Mike Hull, Tyler Gray, James Burgess, James-Michael Johnson.

Who is in: Misi, Alonso, Jenkins, Hewitt.

Who is out: Burgess, Gray, Hull, Blount

The situation: Paysinger is probably in as well because of his special teams prowess and experience. James-Michael Johnson is the backup middle linebacker so he's probably in as well. If I'm the Dolphins, I'm searching for LB help when the final cuts are made because ... this group has also not been overly impressive. I've yet to see a big play from the starters in the preseason. I saw one from Kiko Alonso in practice a week or so ago, when he had an interception. Help!

Postion: Defensive backs.

Players: Rashaan Melvin, Al Louis-Jean, Reshad Jones, Jordan Lucas, Isa Abdul-Quddus, Shamiel Gary, Bobby McCain, Brandon Harris, Michael Thomas, Walt Aikens, Tony Lippett, A.J. Hendy, Chimdi Chekwa, Lafeyette Pitts, Byron Maxwell, Xavien Howard.

Who is in: Howard, Maxwell, Jones, Abdul-Quddus, McCain, Lippett.

Who is out: Melvin, Louis-Jean, Harris, Pitts,

The situation: The only reason seventh-round pick Lucas is not on the list as being out is because he was drafted. But the truth is he hasn't been very good. My guess is he gets cut and re-signed to practice squad. The Dolphins are cornerback challenged in that they have only three true corners that are certain to be on the team. Yes, Chekwa is a cornerback but he hasn't been practicing for a couple of weeks and that is no way to make the team. He returned to practice today and has much catching up to do and much to prove in a short amount of time. It seems Thomas makes the team as a nickel corner (different that outside corner, in my view) behind McCain and his ability to play special teams. That leaves Aikens. My guess is he sticks somehow for the time being based on his special teams ability. But he's a backup safety and Thomas can play that role as well. And Aikens spot could become a luxury later on because of one of these guys ...

Postion: The walking wounded.

Players: DE Dion Jordan, CB Chris Culliver, LB Zach Vigil

Who is in: Culliver eventually.

Who is out: Technically, none of them.

The situation: This group is interesting. I told you the Dolphins are boundary CB challenged. Culliver is expected to answer that challenge sometime around October-November. He's coming back from a significant ACL injury and surgery. He's not going to be ready for the start of the season. So my guess is he's on the reserve-PUP (physically unable to perform) list to begin the season. I a while back a while back so when others come around to reporting it, you'll now it is not news. This way Culliver doesn't count against the roster but the team can bring him back after six weeks. Jordan similarly hasn't practiced this camp and his situation is in some respects tougher because he didn't play all last year. No way he's on the opening day roster, barring something catastrophic happening to multiple defensive ends between now and then. And so he likely starts the season on reserve-NFI (non-football injury) and can similarly be brought back during the season. Vigil is a good special teams player. But he's not a star. He hasn't earned a roster spot now but it wouldn't be terrible to have him on a reserve NFI list to begin the season.

That's it. And you are correct to see I didn't add the kicker and punter and long snapper. Here's a hint: Punter Matt Darr, kicker Andrew Franks, LS John Denney.

The situation: We're done here.

 

 

August 22, 2016

Strangeness of Mike Pouncey injury; Anthony Steen talks

Mike Pouncey promises to be back.

He was not available to reporters in the locker room today and obviously was not on the practice field because he is now nursing a left hip injury (again) that has forced the team to shut him down the remainder of the preseason. And, yes, coach Adam Gase said Pouncey's status for the season opener in Seattle on Sept. 11 is uncertain.

Nonetheless Pouncey is unfazed.

"Weathering the storm!" he posted on his Instagram account. "Tough times don't last tough people do. I'll be back!"

And so there's that. But here's the thing ...

This injury is weird. It is weird not in that Pouncey had surgery on the same left hip in 2014. What is weird is the circumstances of how Pouncey hurt himself Friday night in the preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Pouncey got hurt with 13:10 left in the second quarter and the Dolphins trailing 14-0. Watching the play on tape, Pouncey was engaged blocking defensive tackle Cedric Thornton on a first-down running play by Jay Ajayi. And as Ajayi ran off Pouncey's left hip, all the action came to that side. And defensive end Ryan Russell, rallying to the football, rolled up on Pouncey's left side.

And then started the weirdness:

It was immediately obvious that Pouncey was injured on his left side. He grabbed his left knee as he grimaced in pain on the ground. Again, he grabbed his knee. Not his hip. Later, after he got up and was surrounded by medical personnel, Pouncey motioned toward his left hip. Pounceyhip

Then Pouncey came out of the game and the injury is reported in the official game book with Pouncey listed as questionable to return. Except three plays later, in the second quarter of a second preseason game, Pouncey found his way back into the game.

Why?

Maybe it had something to do with the fact two of the three plays run while he was out resulted in roughing penalties against the Cowboys and Pouncey felt a need to return and be there in the fight, so to speak, with his teammates. Maybe he just felt better. Maybe he just did a bonehead thing.

But the craziness continued because injured Mike Pouncey played 14 more plays in this game through two Dolphins touchdown drives that carried the game up to 2:52 left in the first half.

Why?

Look, it is the player's ultimate responsibility to communicate to trainers something is wrong. But it is also the responsibility of the head trainer and team doctors to recognize, upon examination, that something ... is ... wrong. The injury is not readily apparent through examination? In the preseason, the default position should be caution.

Stay on the sideline with us, big fella.

(In September through December? Get out there, big fella).

The point is someone has to communicate this information to the position coach. And the coordinator. And the head coach.

Somewhere, somehow, someone wasn't exactly communicating the message that Mike Pouncey, who has had chronic hip problems in the past and came out of this game with what seemed like a hip injury, could be hurt and probably should not be back in the game.

And ultimately, Pouncey should have been communicating that message.

Now, it is unclear if Pouncey felt good enough to return to the game and then aggravated what was already an injury. Or perhaps the injury that seems important now didn't seem all that important at the time so Pouncey played on.

Either way, this is a strange episode.

Whatever the issue, Pouncey is now out. Anthony Steen is now the starting center. Steen spoke the media in the locker room for the first time today. This is what he said:

(On how things have changed for him in the past week) – “Nothing has really changed. We’re missing Mike (Pouncey) right now but as (Head) Coach (Adam Gase) said, its next guy up so I’m the next guy up. I’m just trying to do my job.'

(On if he was comfortable at center with the first unit) – “Yes. It’s the same plays, just the next level – ones from twos. You’re going against different guys but it’s the same exact plays."

(On how much work he had with the first team prior to C Mike Pouncey’s injury) – “Probably just a couple reps. Mike would sometimes get two or three plays off and I’d go in then; but other than that, just a couple (reps)."

(On how long he has been snapping) – “Since I got here (to Miami). I’ve always played guard but when I came here, they told me that I looked more like a natural center. So then they started working me at center slowly, progressed me into it. Now I’m pretty much a full-time center, but I’ll still get a couple of plays at guard."

(On how difficult the process of switching to center has been for him) – “It’s been difficult at times. Mainly, at guard, you’re the guy sitting there looking at the center, waiting for the calls. Now you‘re the guy who has to get up there and make the calls yourself so there’s a little more pressure."

(On the challenge of making calls at the line) – “Really, the (challenge is the) fact of knowing that if you mess up your call you mess up everything for everybody else. It’s just that pressure on you as a center and you have to get used to it."

(On if he feels that he has been thrown into the deep end) – “No. Right now you’re just going against a different bunch of guys moving up to the ones. It’s a part of football, that’s all it is."

(On the best piece of advice a coach has given him since C Mike Pouncey’s injury has elevated him to the first unit) – “Just to be calm. Yesterday, they told me that you have all the time in the world to make calls and not to be nervous about it."

(On how his attitude has changed now that he’s with the first unit) – “It’s just more studying – a more mental aspect to it – staying here longer, watching more film, trying to get prepared for the game."

(On what C Mike Pouncey has told him about playing with the ones) – “He’s told me it’s just part of the game. It’s nothing to be nervous about. That’s all he’s really told me."

(On his initial reaction when the Dolphins told him last year that they saw him more as a center than a guard) – “I kind of thought they were joking at first. They asked me if I could play center and I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ When they started giving me reps, I thought it was just more (of them trying) to see what else I could do. I didn’t actually think I would be playing center but it’s a good thing."

(On if he is accustomed to the up-tempo style of offense) – “Yes. We did a little bit of that in college (at Alabama). It’s just a matter of trying to do it a little bit faster in the pros."

(On what it was like to rush into last week’s game to play with the first team when C Mike Pouncey was injured) – “I didn’t think anything about it. I saw Mike go down at first, so I immediately grabbed my helmet and I was already almost out onto the field and I turned around and looked at coach and said, ‘Do you want me to go?’ And he said, ‘Yes, go."

(On how long it took him to get comfortable at center) – “Pretty much all of OTAs. They slowly, the first week or two, they had me playing both guards. After the second week they tried to throw me in at center for one period, then two periods and so on. But now, I feel fine."

(On what type of player the Dolphins are getting with him at the center position) – “A hardworking player. I play with a lot of heart. I just don’t quit on a play. For me, winning a play and winning the game is more important than anything."

(On how his experience at Alabama helped prepare him for this increased role) – “As you know, we played in a lot of big games so the nervous aspect of just playing in a big game is not there anymore. It’s just another game. For a lineman, you just have to know that you have to be prepared for each and every play to win because that’s your job."

(On the possibility of starting in the season opener at Seattle and what he has to prepare for with that unique road environment) – “I think more of the mental aspect than anything. Trying to play four quarters and still be there mentally will be the toughest part. I think staying around after practice and getting here earlier will be better."

(On who played center most of his time at Alabama) – “Ryan Kelly was. He was my center for I think two years or two-and-a-half years and then Barrett Jones was for, I think a year."

(On if he’s asked either Ryan Kelly or Barrett Jones for tips) – “No, I haven’t. I actually watched Ryan play the other night (with the Indianapolis Colts) and I thought he played pretty well."

(On if the N.Y. Giants preseason game was the first time he played center in an actual game) – “I think I’ve played center just a couple of reps in Arizona. But as far as starting at center, yes."

(On what he took away from playing for Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban) – “He’s always said that this is a business for him. It’s the next guy up. You either do your job or else someone else will do it. That’s what I’ve always taken from him."

(On if he was surprised that he was second on the depth chart at center) – “No, that’s just how the coaches have been putting me in – with the twos. They felt comfortable with how I had been performing and they told me that I was going to be moved up. I didn’t know when I got here that Mike (Pouncey) was going to be out for a week or whatever it is. When they told me, I just knew, ‘Alright, I need to start studying some more and start looking at the ones and the next game and get prepared.’ "

(On the personality and leadership differences between Head Coach Adam Gase and Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban) – “I think Gase is more of a player’s coach. He’ll get to know you. He likes to mess around (and) joke around. Coach Saban is more of a hardnosed, straight business type of guy. If you mess up, you’re going to hear about it."

(On if he was ever in Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban’s doghouse) – “I don’t think doghouse. He might have yelled at me a couple of times but I’ve never done anything to be in his doghouse."

(On if he’s had any contact with Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban recently) – “I haven’t. I’ve had some contact with Coach (Joe) Pendry – my first two years at Alabama, he was my offensive line coach there. I’ve talked to him a couple of times."

(On what kind of emotions he is experiencing with this opportunity for him) – “I know, for me, I’ve got to be on top of things, so I’m trying to stay focused as much as I can."

Issues threatening Miami Dolphins' process of being good

The Miami Dolphins keep telling me this team-building they are doing now is a process and it will come together and it will lead to a good team. They tell me the offense will be good. They tell me the defense will tackle.

So now you know what I keep hearing from the team.

But, as I write in my column today, life happens. And the process, which the Dolphins see as this unstoppable downhill rolling avalanche, looks more like a herd of pebbles that are losing steam as one pebble breaks off here and another detours over there.

And what is causing the pebbles to lose their momentum?

Consider:

The Mike Pouncey injury not only affects his position, but suddenly it becomes more important with the ongoing mixing and matching of guards along the line. With Pouncey gone for the line the rest of the preseason, we now can say with certainty the Dolphins offensive line will not find that chemistry everyone says is so vital for OL success before the regular-season begins.

Meanwhile the Dolphins still want Laremy Tunsil to be the starting left guard. (Me, too). But they're not ready to anoint him yet because he's simply not there yet.

And so the line that was supposed to come together by now so it can build that chemistry is not even built.

“It’s always nice to be able to say, ‘Here’s our starting five and let’s roll,' " coach Adam Gase said Sunday. "You just don’t want to put a timetable on it. You’d love for it to be this week and say, ‘This is what it’s going to be.’ But I think the way we are looking right now, it’s going to come up to that first game of the season. You never know, it could change during the season. I’ve been through a few instances of, we were eight games in I think in 2014 and we made a wholesale change – new center, new right guard and new right tackle. You’re going to do what’s best for the team that week."

Make no mistake, any team making wholesale changes on the offensive line during the season does so because something is amiss with the group. It's because something is not up to par. Because something is wrong. And so the coach raising the possibility this happens to this Miami offensive line this year means, at minimum, that something is not exactly right.

More?

I told you how the plans to get Xavien Howard in that starting CB job opposite Byron Maxwell is not exactly taking a direct route to its intended destination. Well, what does that mean?

It means you might have Tony Lippett starting that first game at Seattle.

And with respect to Lippett, he is simply not ready for that. Lippett is a three-year project player who was drafted late after playing as a college wide receiver his final year at Michigan State. He is learning to be a cornerback. He is on course. But that does not make him a starting caliber cornerback right now. Or by September 11, which happens to be opening day.

I've seen troubling things in each of the first two preseason games about Lippett's game. Unless he scrubs those, they will be a stain on the defense in the regular season when weaknesses are amplified. This issue seemed manageable when Howard was the answer. But Howard is a ways off from being the answer -- by the way, as I said numerous times when his injury first popped up.

Then there is the running back position.

Jay Ajayi hasn't gotten great work in the preseason because something has seemingly always gone wrong when he's been in the games. (Not with him, but other guys). And so this preseason Ajayi is averaging 3.1 yards per carry. No biggie, but this is a second-year player who needs to be successful and build on that.

Arian Foster doesn't need to have success to gain confidence. But he needs to play to be ready for the season. And yet the Dolphins are walking that delicate line of giving him enough work to get ready but not so much work as to get him hurt. This because Foster has been injury-prone throughout his career.

Not. Optimal.

Another injury-prone back -- rookie Kenyan Drake -- is going to miss this week of practice and the game Thursday against Atlanta. He has been shut down going on three weeks now because of a hamstring injury. And because it is the second time he has this injury since he joined the Dolphins -- my God, he hasn't even played in a game yet -- the team is being cautious with him so that when he comes back, his chances of running into another setback are slimmer.

I say put him on IR with the designation to come back and move on. That way you can keep someone such as Isaiah Pead, who has performed this training camp and has impressed coaches. Pead, by the way, is an example of something that's gone right for the Dolphins this preseason.

A bust with the St. Louis Rams, out of the league in 2014, Pead is Miami's leading rusher this preseason and even got first-team snaps in the Dallas game. That is a sign, by the way.

Another good sign is he has matured from the guy who didn't always act like a professional early in his career.

"That comes with accountability. Being on time. Doing what you got to do. Not giving any reason for mistakes. Stay on your stuff. You study and everything like that. Stay accountable to the team," Pead said. "It's something you're supposed to do. I had my knucklehead years in the past at one point. You grow up. You learn from it. And go on with life."

Pead has truly embraced this opportunity.

"I'm a Miami Dolphin now," he said. "I have a great opportunity. I appreciate it and love it for coach Gase bringing me in and I'm going to make the best of it and hopefully make him proud and make the team proud."

Pead is definitely a good news story. More not awesome news:

I heard a lot about how far ahead of schedule Cameron Wake is as he continues to come back from the Achilles' tear that ended his 2015 season prematurely. And it is true. Less than a year removed for the injury, Wake is practicing and showing no ill effects.

But he hasn't played. And he might not play this entire preseason now. The decision on his status for Thursday night has not been made. And if he doesn't play Thursday, he's almost definitely not playing in the throw-away final preseason game the following week.

"He hasn’t had a setback," Gase said. "At first, I thought he was going to go [against Dallas last Friday] and then we kept talking about it and seeing where he was at and we felt like it was in our best interest to not have him go that game. We’ll reevaluate this week. It really has to be 100 percent on this to where everybody feels really good. I don’t think he has anything to prove. I think we all know what caliber of player he is. I think the most important thing for us to make sure is, ‘How do we get him to play in 16-plus games?’ That’s got to be our number one goal.”

May I be the bad guy, here?

Wake does have something to prove and everyone knows it. He has been an outstanding player pretty much since the moment he stepped on the field for the Miami Dolphins. But he is 34 years old now. And he's coming back from a catastrophic injury.

So is that "caliber of player he is" still at the same caliber?

Because I know what caliber of player he was. I don't know what caliber of player he is.

The answer can be a resounding yes, he's the same guy, and we're good. But even the Dolphins hedged their bet this offseason by cutting Wake's salary in case he wasn't the same guy.

So he has to show us he's the same player. Show us. Prove it.

That's not a challenge. That's not an insult. That's professional football.

August 21, 2016

Mike Pouncey out rest of preseason, status beyond uncertain

Miami Dolphins center Mike Pouncey is nursing a hip injury that will keep him out of the lineup the rest of the preseason and could even affect his status for the season-opener at Seattle Sept. 11.

"I don't want to put a time table on it, but, I mean, there's a possibility," head coach Adam Gase said of the possibility Pouncey could miss the Seattle opener. "He could if things change for us or if we get some kind of diagnosis where they tell us it's going to be a longer period of time than what we originally thought. It could happen."

Pouncey had surgery on his right hip in the offseason. That caused him to miss the early part of the weight and conditioning program but not much else. This injury, suffered Friday evening in the preseason game at Dallas, is to the left hip.

Pouncey obviously missed practice Sunday. Anthony Steen, a first-year offensive lineman out of Alabama, worked with the starters the entire practice. He is the Dolphins starting center this week.

"It's going to be next-man up," Gase said. "We don't know right now. That's why we're still working with the doctors as far as where are we at, how long is this going to be. We're taking our time to make sure we have the right evaluation and making the right decisions."

Steen has never played in a regular season NFL game.

Checkout his bio: Download Steen

In other injury news, rookie running back Kenyan Drake, who has missed the past two weeks with a hamstring injury, did not practice against Sunday and it not going to do so this week. He will miss Thursday's game against Atlanta in Orlando.

Offensive line starting jobs still unsettled (sort of)

The Miami Dolphins are a couple of hours, as of this writing, of taking the practice field and beginning work for their preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons. And by the third preseason game most teams want to know what their starting lineups look like because the fourth preseason game is a throw-away.

Except that wanting to know what the lineup looks like and actually knowing are two different things.

The Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, for example, have no idea who their starting quarterback is going to be. And the Dolphins also have unsettled lineup issues -- most obviously along the offensive line.

This morning when the team put out its depth chart for the Thursday Atlanta game, Dallas Thomas was listed as the starting left guard and Billy Turner was listed as the starting right guard.

And that's not how things are likely to be in the regular season opener. And that's not how things were Friday evening when Miami played at the Cowboys and my line of Laremy Tunsil at left guard and Jermon Bushrod at right guard were the starters.

And here's the news: Do not be surprised if you are inundated by a slew of tweets when practice begins at 1:15 p.m. today that Thomas and Turner are still getting their share of first-team snaps. Yes, the sharing is likely to continue.

Why?

Well, the Dolphins have not totally, completely settled on an offensive line yet.

Bushrod gave up a sack in Friday night's game. Tunsil was good in pass protection but needs improvement in run blocking.

So neither has locked down a starting jobs.

But this: I have been certain since draft day that 1. Tunsil would play guard and not tackle this year. 2 Tunsil would be the starting LG when the regular-season begins Sept. 11 against Seattle.

I'm certain because my sources continue to say this is the plan.

And so forget what your eyes and the tweets say today if/when Thomas gets a share of first-team practice snaps. No, Tunsil hasn't locked himself in yet. That's his doing because his play needs to improve. 

But in exactly 21 days when the regular season begins? That will be a different story.  

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Not practicing today: Mike Pouncey (hip), Chimdi Chekwa (thigh), Walt Aikens (knee), Earl Mitchell (calf), Kenyan Drake (hamstring).

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Cornerback Xavien Howard, who is going to practice for the first time Sunday, told reporters in the locker room before the workout he will not be playing in Thursday's preseason game against Atlanta.

And ...

That makes sense.

One does not throw a player into a game on three days of practice when he's coming off a knee injury and surgery. And the fact Howard is a rookie and has never had one training camp practice in his career makes that case even more obvious.

Dolphins back to work Sunday: Cameron needs rebuild

Adam Gase is a builder. (He better be because he was hired to build this fallen franchise).

The Miami Dolphins head coach comes to his first year with the organization with a reputation for building and rebuilding. He helped build up Peyton Manning from a player who had no feeling in fingers on his throwing hand to a quarterback playing at the top of his Pro Football Hall of Fame career and throwing 55 touchdown passes.

He helped rebuild Jay Cutler from a player who didn't seem to have fun playing to a different guy within the Bears organization last year. He is so far rebuilding quarterback Ryan Tannehill, empowering him in the new Dolphins offense and making him feel invested in the results. He has spent a lot of time rebuilding Kenny Stills from a player that seemed at times disconnected from the rest of the team and his work last season, his first in Miami, to a player who arrives to work early and leaves late and talks incessantly about team and leadership.

(Both Tannehill and Stills had outstanding preseason games against the Dallas Cowboys Friday night).

Now Gase has to do something about building up tight end Jordan Cameron.

Cameron, in his sixth NFL season, has the potential to be a fine NFL tight end. I've seen it. I saw what he did to the Dolphins in that 2013 regular season opener. He caught nine passes for 108 yards that day. And that wasn't his best game that season.

But Cameron has the look of a player needing to be built up now.

He has the look of a player either lacking in confidence or worrying too much about the results.

Cameron needs to be reminded to trust the process of playing his position. Trust his abilities. Trust his training. Trust that if he handles that business, the results will come.

That's not how he's playing now.

Cameron struggled in the offseason. He struggled early in camp. And Friday against Dallas he had an almost certain TD catch from Tannehill on a short slant in the red zone. But he juggled and dropped it.

And he didn't seem to recover strong after that -- another sign he needs a confidence boost.

So this week of practice, which starts Sunday afternoon for the Dolphins, could be pivotal for Cameron.

Gase's offense is tight ends friendly. Cameron can be a good tight end.

Somewhere between those two sentences much work needs to be done so that both are true in 2016.

August 20, 2016

Tough Miami Dolphins debut for Byron Maxwell

Byron Maxwell was supposed to play last week in the preseason opener but could not get loose during warmups and coaches decided to let him wait a week to make his first Miami Dolphins start.

Maybe he should have waited another week.

That's because Friday night, Maxwell started for the Dolphins and didn't exactly shine. He is by all accounts Miami's best cornerback based on experience and accomplishments. He was really good in Seattle years ago.

But after struggling with Philadelphia last year and getting traded to Miami, Maxwell had a hard time against the Cowboys. Matched mostly against Dez Bryant the first two or three series both men played, Maxwell got kind of used by the Dallas star receiver.

Maxwell yielded an 18-yard reception to Bryant on the Cowboys second drive of the game, one which led to a touchdown. On that touchdown, a run by running back Alfred Morris, Maxwell got blocked by Bryant and didn't seem to show great aggression to get off the block and make the tackle.

And that would have been nice because Maxwell was the last line of defense on the play.

That was Tony Romo's final series for the Cowboys but Bryant stayed in the game when Dak Prescott took over at QB for Dallas. And Maxwell stayed in to cover Bryant.

So that was Maxwell chasing Bryant into the end zone when he got beat on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Prescott to Bryant.

That was it for both veterans.

Byron Maxwell is going to have to be way, way better if he's going to be the Dolphins best cornerback in 2016. This was only one preseason game. It doesn't count. There is time to improve. But Maxwell will be facing very good receivers this year. Yes, Bryant is one of the best and it showed Friday night. But Brandon Marshall is good, too. Sammy Watkins is good, too. Josh Gordon is good. A.J. Green is good. Larry Fitzgerald is good.

By the way, the New Orleans Saints cut Keenan Lewis because he didn't fit the plans of defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Lewis is also healing from a slew of injuries, including a hip injury that has kept him inactive this training camp.

And so am I saying the Dolphins should run out and sign Keenan Lewis? Of course not.

I'm saying Lewis promises he'll be healthy in a couple of weeks. I'm saying he played very well for Pittsburgh and even for the Saints in 2013. And I'm saying he's 6-foot-1, which fits Miami's view of what a boundary cornerback should look like.

So I guess I am saying the Dolphins would be wise to keep tabs on this situation because, by the way, Tony Lippett had a defensive pass interference penalty Friday.

Xavien Howard begins to practice Sunday. Chris Culliver, signed last week, is a longer term project who won't likely be ready until October. And Maxwell, working all offseason and all training camp, had a rough night Friday.

So it doesn't hurt to keep a lookout.

August 19, 2016

Mario Williams Dolphins debut leads to questions

After the head coaches turned in their lineups and pregame scratches before the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys played Friday, there had to be a feeling that something good was going to happen for Vance Joseph's defensive line.

After all, the defensive coordinator was putting Mario Williams in the lineup for the first time ever. And because Cameron Wake was not playing, Williams was going to be able to play his customary left end spot.

(When Wake plays, he'll usually be at left end going up against the offense's right tackle. That means when Wake's playing, Williams, who has played left end against right tackles most of his career, will have to move over much of the time and play over left tackles. And left tackles are typically the offense's best outside pass blocker.)

So Williams was not going to face All World Dallas left tackle Tyron Smith. Instead he was going to play right tackle Doug Free who is solid but is not the caliber of player that Smith is by consensus.

So this seemed to be a good matchup for the Dolphins.

But it wasn't.

Williams played only a couple of series. Free played only a couple of series.

And Free won the battle.

Williams was credited with two tackles. And Free still seemed to get the better of him. I should also add that on one play, the Cowboys asked second-year tight end Geoff Swaim to block Williams one-on-one. And he did it without incident. Then veteran tight end Jason Witten blocked Williams one-on-one without incident.

And I know what you are about to say: It is only preseason and it was only a couple of series.

Well, last week was preseason and it was only a couple of series but Olivier Vernon kind of took it to the Dolphins. And this isn't about "the Dolphins should have kept OV." Not at all. I'm using it as an example to show you a veteran can perform in limited preseason snaps. That's all.

And Williams didn't exactly show out against the right tackle he faced in his first Dolphins outing.

What's going to happen when he plays against left tackles?

Just asking.

"We've got time to get back to work and work out the kinks," Williams said after the game.

One more thing: The Dolphins knew Smith was being scratched by the Cowboys. Why didn't they keep Williams on the right side versus the backup left tackle? Why not play him where he'll play most of his snaps this snaps and take advantage of playing a second-string player?

Again ... just asking. 

 

The good and bad of the Miami Dolphins starters vs. Dallas Cowboys (with Gase reaction)

The first half of Friday night's preseason game between the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys is over and the results are mixed.

Mixed as in offense pretty good.

Mixed as in defense pretty bad.

Mixed.

Good first? Ryan Tannehill was sacked on the first series and it was partly because starting right guard Jermon Bushrod got twisted up and partly because Tannehill didn't get rid of the football to an open DeVante Parker quickly. And so that series was three-and-out.

But afterward, the unit got cooking.

Tannehill connected with Kenny Stills on a 55-yard bomb their next series. Before it was over, Tannehill had connected with Stills for a short scoring pass, but not before tight end Jordan Cameron and receiver Jarvis Landry had dropped apparent TD throws on earlier passes.

Cameron must, must, must be better than what he's showing. He had a definite matchup advantage in a one-on-one situation. He beat the smaller man on a slant. The ball was delivered in his hands. And he dropped it.

Oh well, TD anyway.

Tannehill wasn't done. Oh, Adam Gase wanted to pull the first team offense out, but the players asked him to keep playing. So they did. And the Dolphins got some help from some questionable Dallas Cowboys defensive play that led to penalty flags (more on that in a minute) and that put the unit in a position for another another score.

And the offense converted a red zone trip with the TD when Tannehill found Stills on a pick route. It was a truly excellent pass.

Tannehill finished the half and presumably the game 12 of 20 for 162 yards and the two TD throws. His QB rating was 119.2. Excellent. Good decision making. He showed his usual toughness in the face of a rush.

"It was pretty good – everything as advertised as far as how tough he is and just battling," Gase said of Tannehill. "I liked the mentality that he had going into that first half. I liked the fact that the ones wanted to stay in and do another series. That’s what I wanted to see."

Yes, there were a couple of moments where he seemed to hold onto the ball in the pocket, but Tannehill's accuracy tonight was impeccable. Had it not been for those drops, his stats would look better.

Stills, who coaches have been saying is the first in the building in the morning and last to leave, really flashed his ability and future potential. He had three catches for 71 yards, including that 55 yard bomb. Small nitpick? Don't let yourself go out of bounds, Stills. Score on that throw!

"I should have stayed inbounds and scored," he said after the game.

The running game was nothing to write about so I won't. Suffice to say that both Jay Ajayi and Arian Foster got opportunities and neither seemed comfortable. Isaiah Pead continues to be Miami's most impressive running back in the two preseason games so far if you're going by, you know, production.

It should be noted that second string QB Matt Moore is injured. He took something of a cheap shot blow to the head as he was sliding after a scramble late in the first half. He went in for concussion protocol tests. My guess is they'll be positive and if that is true, his status for next week's game against Atlanta in Orlando will be in question.

[Update: Moore has a concussion and is in the protocol. But speaking with reporters, Tannehill said in passing, his teammate "is going to be alright."]

Brandon Doughty, impressive last week, came into the game and immediately held the ball too long and was hit and fumbled.

And the Cowboys converted that to points.

So impressive in practice and in the first preseason game, Doughty regressed this outing. He was 2 of 3 for seven yards with the fumble in this one.

That leads me to the defense. Not good tonight.

"On defense, we just got to do a better job of stopping the run," Gase said. "We just got to get some negative plays, get our hands on some balls and when we do, we have to finish it with a turnover. That’s why it is preseason. We have to figure everything out.”

Gase said his team got "drummed." Actually, the Cowboys took sticks to the Miami defense and banged on that unit like a set of drums for 60 minutes. Thus the 41-14 score.

Tony Romo and company sliced and diced the Miami defense early in the game. The Dallas QB completed 4 of 5 passes for 49 yards and led a TD drive on one of the two drives he played. He finished with a QB rating of 107.5. The thing is the Dallas offensive line dominated up front against a defensive line that started its stars save for Cameron Wake. There was no pressure on the QB. None.

Mario Williams was a non-factor in his Dolphins debut. The breakdown is here.

That wasn't the most worrisome issue.

The run defense, poor a year ago in finishing 28th in the league, was poor tonight with both the first- and second-teamers. Alfred Morris had six rushes for 44 yards against Miami's starting defense and finished the half with 85 yards on 13 carries. That is simply not NFL run defense.

The Dallas offense went punt, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, field goal in five first half possessions.

That means the second-team defense was also not good enough.

By the way, Tony Lippett had a pass interference call. Byron Maxwell gave up a TD to Dez Bryant. Miami's cornerbacks must get better.

The breakdown on Maxwell's Dolphins debut is here.

 

Dolphins OL vs. Cowboys: My line

Earlier this week, I told you my choice for the Dolphins offensive line to start the regular season. I told you, Laremy Tunsil should be the starting left guard and Jermon Bushrod should be the starting right guard. That's my offensive line.

My line.

Tonight that is also the Dolphins starting offensive line.

Coach Adam Gase will start Tunsil, the team's first round draft pick, at left guard for the first time this season. Bushrod, who has been getting mostly second-team snaps since the start of training camp, has combined a good outing against the New York Giants last week and more improvement during the last week of practice to get the call at right guard.

Shout Hallelujah!

The change means that Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner, the starting guard combination since the start of training camp and the starters last week in New York, will play in later in the game against the Cowboys.

It seemed only a matter of time before this move was made, particularly with Tunsil.

I don't see any turning back now that this is the case, barring Tunsil absolutely melting down somehow -- which is not likely to happen. One of the things coach Adam Gase is measuring with Tunsil is his confidence and the worst thing for a young player's confidence is promoting him and then demoting him.

At running back, Jay Ajayi started for the Dolphins but Arian Foster will play.

In other lineup news, defensive end Cameron Wake is being kept out of tonight's game. It is a coach's decision. The Dolphins had expected to play all their defensive veterans, but have apparently decided to play it safe with Wake, who is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon and the surgery to repair it which ended his 2015 season prematurely.

The other scratches were expected: Xavien Howard, Kenyan Drake, Chimdi Chekwa, and Earl Mitchell.

I've reported Howard and Chekwa will be back at practice next week, perhaps as early as Sunday.

August 18, 2016

Miami Dolphins activate Xavien Howard

Help is on the way!

Miami Dolphins rookie cornerback Xavien Howard, projected by many within the organization as a starter in 2016, has been activated off the active physically unable to perform list, according to a league source.

[Update: The team has now announced this move.]

That means Howard, who had been recovering from minor knee surgery, passed his physical Thursday.

He will not play Friday when the Dolphins take on the Dallas Cowboys in their second preseason game. But Howard will be cleared to practice Sunday when the team returns to their field in preparation for their third preseason game next week.

Howard, the team's second round draft pick, is much-needed. Coaches had him penciled in as the starter almost from the second he was drafted -- in part because the Dolphins need a cornerback to play opposite Byron Maxwell.

Yes, Tony Lippett has been the starter at that position since early in the offseason. And, yes, Lippett has shown steady improvement as he continues to transition from a college wide receiver in 2014 to an NFL man-press cornerback. But Lippett has had bouts of uneven play during training camp and there's a question whether he might need more honing before he gets significant regular-season action.

Howard becoming active does not guarantee he'll take the job from Lippett, however. At least not immediately. Howard is a rookie. He has missed all of training camp since it opened July 29. It will very likely take him some time to get in football shape.

And the Dolphins are unlikely to simply throw Howard into the mix full bore when he does resume practicing Sunday. It will likely be an easing-in process to such a degree it is uncertain whether he'll play in the third preseason game Aug. 25 in Orlando.

But the Dolphins have planned for Howard to be available for the regular-season opener the entire time he's been rehabilitating and he is definitely on schedule to meet that timetable. Graduating off the PUP list is significant in that process.

Question for Dolphins running backs: Can you stay healthy?

Training camp is over for the Miami Dolphins and that marks something of a milestone because it signals the team will soon be in regular-season mode. And as the club flies to Dallas-Fort Worth this afternoon and a date with the Cowboys Friday evening, I think it's important to see what is going on with the running back situation.

There is news here in that Arian Foster is going to play at least a little bit against the Cowboys.

And you've been hearing mostly good things about the running back, indeed most of the running backs, from Adam Gase. The coach has said he loves the way Jay Ajayi gets down hill. He has spoken glowingly about how smart Foster is and how quickly he's caught on and gotten a feel for the blocking.

"I feel like it’s something that I didn’t really know about him," Gase said. "Him coming in, in training camp, not being here in the spring, and how fast he picked it up, I guess I wasn’t anticipating that. But then you think, veteran player.

"I remember being around him in the Pro Bowl and just talking to him and being like, ‘Man, this guy is really sharp.’ When we got him in here, I felt like by the time he came off PUP, he knew what to do. He’s probably one of the guys that we have the fewest amount of mental issues (with). It’s really, for him, just fine tuning some of the details of what we are looking for. He’s done a great job. He’s great when we meet as an offense as far as the skill guys and go through routes and talk about things that happened in practice. You can see when you tell him something, it’s like locked in there and you don’t get that same mistake again."

So, good.

Then there's rookie Kenyon Drake and third-year player Damien Williams.

Williams has gotten kudos from the coaching staff lately and is an arrow-up guy right now.

But Drake is disappointing at this stage. He is going to miss his second preseason game Friday after missing the opener in New York because he has a hamstring injury. He has been rehabbing hard to get back and that might happen next week. But he has missed a good bit of time.

And that, fundamentally, is the issue with this running backs corps.

It's not about smarts. Or experience. Or explosion. Or ability to get downhill and be physical with this group. None of that will determine the success or failure of this group.

The thing that will determine whether this is a thumbs up or thumbs down group is how and whether they can stay healthy. That's it. Period.

That's the way it is because in bringing this group together, the Dolphins have crammed a huge injury history into one backfield. All the players who are likely to be on the team have extensive injury histories.

Foster, coming back after rupturing an Achilles' tendon last season, has such an extensive injury history that the owner of his former team in Houston, Bob McNair, last year said simply that Foster was prone to soft tissue issues. So there was no surprise when despite how good Foster has been when he's healthy, the Texans went another direction.

Ajayi, who missed the first half of 2015 recovering from cracked ribs while on injured reserve with designation to return, also dealt with elbow and hamstring issues last year.

Drake, the team's third-round draft pick, suffered a dislocated ankle (ouch!), broken arm, concussion, quad contusion, sprained ankle and cracked ribs during his time at the University of Alabama.

So the three guys most likely to be part of the team's backfield come with injury histories. And then, not coincidentally, all of those guys with injury histories have missed time this training camp because of, you guessed it, injuries.

Interestingly, Foster, who has the most extensive NFL use and injury history, has been healthiest in camp. He started training camp on the sideline because he was on the physically unable to perform list. Days later he passed his conditioning test -- "annihilated it," Gase said -- but the team has been careful to keep Foster healthy because of his history.

He didn't play in the preseason opener. He wasn't taking team drills for a while. He was limited for a while. Gase even considered not playing him against the Cowboys before changing his mind, in part because Foster said he needed it.

"I need some this year," Foster said. "It’s been a while since I’ve been hit. Not in training camp but it’s different. In games, it’s different. You want to get that feel of getting hit week in and week out again."

Ajayi, who came to the Dolphins with a history of a bone on bone situation on one of his knees, missed some days this camp with a bone bruise on the other knee.

And did I mention Drake hasn't practiced in a couple of weeks with a hamstring injury? He also had a hamstring injury in the offseason after he was drafted.

So the Dolphins have a M.A.S.H. unit in the backfield.

The talent in their running back stable is not in question. The question is whether or how often the horses will pull up lame.

By the way, I didn't include Williams among the walking wounded because he's been healthy the past couple of weeks. But, yeah, he started camp on the physically unable to perform list because he had a hamstring injury.

August 17, 2016

Dolphins get into a few scrapes in practice today ... awesome!

Miami Dolphins social media was alight this morning because this practice, on the last day of training camp, featured three fights among the players.

And I get it.

It doesn't serve a purpose if someone gets injured. It doesn't make the team's discipline better because if you play the way you practice, you're going to lose your cool in a game the way you lost it in practice. And that's a no-no. But forgive me if I have testosterone and understand that football players have much more testosterone than me (and you) and sometimes things get heated.

I want a team with some fight in it.

I want players that have an edge to them and bring that edge to practice.

I understand that Bill Belichick has a no-tolerance policy for fights in dual practices with other teams. And I know he's a great coach. But the Dolphins were practicing amongst themselves Wednesday.

So when Jarvis Landry got to talking smack when he beat Bobby McCain, yeah, McCain didn't dig that. And it escalated.

"We're not going to take crap," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said.

And I think that is good.

I think it would be much more troubling if the Dolphins didn't have any occasional scrapes. Then it would be time to worry.

The Dolphins agree ...

It's not a thing, folks.

Some people will turn practice fights into an issue. Me, too!

It's a good issue.

Laremy Tunsil on the cusp on starting role versus Cowboys (with video)

The plan with Laremy Tunsil has been to bring him along slooowly because coach Adam Gase wants to build within the rookie left guard a solid foundation the team can feel confident about this year and years in the future. It is, as Gase has repeated often, a process.

And that process will include giving Tunsil his first start of the preseason (of his NFL career, really) on Friday night against the Dallas Cowboys. I am told the team planned to do this days ago and this week has been steadily stepping up Tunsil's repetitions with the first-team offense in advance of the move.

Neither Tunsil nor Dallas Thomas have been told of anything in case the plan changes.

Tunsil would replace Thomas, who started at left guard all of 2015, was the starter in the preseason opener against the New York Giants, and is first on the depth chart.

One way Tunsil doesn't start is if coaches go back and study the tape of Wednesday's (today's) practice and see regression from the rookie. The staff is also gauging his acumen in meetings so failure to grasp something in meetings the next two days might also affect the decision. Then, I am told, the team might back off -- and still give Tunsil first-team snaps against the Cowboys, perhaps on the second or third series the starting line is in the game.

Coaches will meet Wednesday night to solidify their decisions.

"Nothing's really set right now," Gase said Wednesday.

But as of now, the hope is Tunsil continues his steady climb to eventually taking over the starting left guard spot by the regular-season opener Sept. 11 at Seattle.

So why is this taking so long for a player that was a first-round pick and the second or third most talented player on Miami's draft board last spring?

"This is a league where confidence does matter," Gase said. "And I’ve seen rookies before, you throw them in and (you’re) like, ‘Well, he’s got to play.’ And then two years later everybody’s calling for his head. So right now we’re going through the process that we need to go through.

"I like what he’s doing. I like the fact that he’s coming out there, giving everything he has, and he’s trying to make sure mentally that he’s on the same page, because there’s two other guys counting on him plus a back. We’ve got to make sure that whoever our five guys are, we’re doing the right thing – playing physical and they can count on each other."

Tunsil is playing it straight because, well, he doesn't know anything. As I wrote earlier, he has not been told anything.

 

August 16, 2016

Naming rights deal a jackpot for the Miami Dolphins [Updated]

It goes without saying that anytime a major international corporation wants to hang its name, its brand, its trademarks, its logos all over a sports venue that is going to host multiple high profile national events, the price for doing that is going to be high.

The Miami Dolphins on Tuesday got final approval from the NFL to give over naming rights to their stadium in Miami Gardens to Hard Rock International. And so the price for this stadium to become Hard Rock Stadium is high.

Think a quarter of a billion dollars.

That's what the deal is worth, give or take a couple of million dollars, over the life of the deal.

That's not a misprint: In the ballpark of $250 million.

Cha-ching.

This deal covers at least a dozen years but doesn't extend so long that the stadium, which owner Stephen Ross is renovating, will be obsolete before the deal expires. The exact length of the contract is still being guarded by the parties.

[Update: Sources are telling me this morning this is an 18-year deal. So 18 years at approximately $250 million over the life of the deal. That averages out to $13.8 million per year as the approximate price Hard Rock is paying to hang its brand on Ross's stadium.

What does that mean? It means this Dolphins deal is in the Top 3 in the NFL in worth per season. AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas is first at approximately $19 million per year. MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., is second at approximately $16 million per year. Hard Rock Stadium is now third at $13.8 million per year. Levi's Stadium in San Francisco is fourth at approximately $11 million per year.

When the new stadium in Los Angeles comes on line in a few years, that naming rights deal will be the top deal overall. But not yet.]

And the amazing thing for the Dolphins is that because Hard Rock International is an entertainment and hospitality company it does not preclude the possibility the Dolphins can add secondary sponsors such as banks, beer, alcohol and soft drink companies and even automotive manufacturers or auto dealers.

-----

Yes, that is two consecutive business posts for this space and, I get it, you are football junkies.

Fine ...

Consider that the Dolphins much-heralded (by the team itself) defensive line is going to play against the Dallas Cowboys on Friday evening for the first time in 2016.

So Cameron Wake, Mario Williams, Jason Jones, and Ndamukong Suh are going to be unleashed. That means that Miami's line will debut against perhaps the best offensive line in football.

That's right, the Cowboys have for a couple of years now enjoy a reputation for having a fine offensive front. They played well in their preseason opener over the weekend.

It will be an awesome test even if it is for maybe three series.

Speaking of patting on the back, this is what does Ndamukong Suh think of his defensive line mates ... 

 

Hard Rock Stadium it is for Miami Dolphins facility [updated with key information]

Welcome to The Rock!

That little line from the movie The Rock now applies to the stadium the Dolphins have spent the past two offseasons renovating at a cost of approximately $500 million. Indeed, the reason the line will apply is because the Dolphins have locked in their naming rights for the facility.

Hard Rock Stadium....

This is huge news for the team because this deal will give the facility its name for a long, long, long time. I'm told the deal with Hard Rock International is so long, that kids entering kindergarten this fall will graduate high school and the name on the stadium when they get their diplomas will still be Hard Rock Stadium.

So this deal will go past a dozen years. That's very important because the facility has been the unofficial king of names in the past.

Hard Rock is the eighth name on the place since it opened in 1987.

Previously it was Dolphin Stadium, Joe Robbie Stadium, Dolphins Stadium, Pro Player Park, Pro Player Stadium, Landshark Stadium, and most recently Sun Life Stadium.

I'm told there will not be a huge guitar fixed atop the new canopy of this stadium as it hangs outside Hard Rock Cafes around the world. But there will be typical Hard Rock trademarks, including the guitar, around the stadium and at the entrance to the main parking lots at Gate Four.

Hardrock guitar

Today's deal wasn't exactly a secret. I told Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com that Hard Rock International could buy the naming rights back in May. 

Hard Rock International is owned by the Seminole Indian tribe of Florida. But the stadium name will make no reference to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino that is approximately 15 miles north of the stadium per terms of the deal. The NFL, which wants to protect its brand, is often uncomfortable with its teams being tied to gambling of any form.

The NFL approved this deal this week.

The Dolphins are declining to confirm the deal at this hour. But there should be a press conference as early as Thursday.

Hard Rock Stadium will be the home of the Miami Dolphins, the Miami Hurricanes, the Orange Bowl Classic, and Super Bowl 54 in 2020, a game South Florida was awarded during the Spring.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has said he and the South Florida Super Bowl Host Committee will continue to bid for Super Bowls and eventually wants to bring an NCAA national championship football game to his facility.

After its naming right deal with Sun Life expired months ago, the Dolphins kept the name on the stadium until recently. Just prior to this deal with Hard Rock, the Dolphins' stadium was one of only seven in the NFL with a naming rights deal.