You want to know where the Dolphins running game went this year?
Look no further than the offensive line.
(Well, the line isn't totally at fault as the running backs have had too many moments when they've showed little explosion and don't often break tackles and the offensive coordinator has abandoned the run on more than one occasion.)
But I digress.
It is mostly the offensive line. I would say the problems with the running game are located in that group about 60 percent of the time.
So what is the problem? Well, let's start at the beginning:
The Miami coaching staff and personnel department had a good-not-great offensive line in 2009 after committing to nearly $156 million in contracts, the first overall selection of the 2008 draft, a fourth-round pick in the 2008 draft, a sixth-round pick in the 2008 draft, and a sixth-round pick in the 2009 draft.
But something happened to the Dolphins en route to having all that free agency money and draft resources become an excellent line: The bottom fell out.
The Dolphins signed Justin Smiley who came with a repuation for getting hurt and having a bum shoulder. And he got hurt and had a bum shoulder so bad the Dolphins asked him not to show up for offseason conditioning last March because they were afraid Smiley might hurt himself. He turned into a free agency bust because the team signed him to a big contract with the hopes he'd be the left guard for five years. He was the left guard for only part of two years.
The Dolphins also signed Jake Grove to a big contract in 2009 with the expectation he'd be their starting center for five years. He came with a reputation for getting hurt and the Dolphins were apparently surprised when, shockingly, Grove got hurt. Free agent bust.
Shawn Murphy was a draft bust. Donald Thomas, who showed much promise for about 10 minutes, got hurt in his first professional game and missed the rest of his rookie season. He came back last season and was a disappointment. He was cut in camp this year. Draft bust.
Andrew Gardner? Never really developed because, at the end of the day, he was a triple option blocker and no one in the NFL runs the triple option. Draft bust.
So those wasted picks hurt.
The Dolphins did hit one draft home run by picking Jake Long with the first overall selection in 2008. He's been everything you might want of a franchise left tackle. So he's a draft exclamation point, as first overall picks should be.
But he's been playing injured practically the entire year.
I asked him after the Green Bay game how he was feeling. "I feel great," he said with a big smile.
That was perhaps the one time this season that's been the case. Long suffered MCL damage in one knee the final preseason game. That was an issue for a while. Then he injured his ankle. Then he suffered a shoulder injury that will likely require surgery after the season. And lately he's got knee problems again, which are limiting him in practice the last week or so to the point he hasn't participated in all the drills.
Long is playing well. But he's not as good as he could be simply because he's not 100 percent and really hasn't been all year, with the possible exception of that moment when he answered my question.
There is, of course, the right tackle spot, also. Vernon Carey is out for the remainder of the year. The Dolphins placed him on IR on Tuesday with a knee injury. Carey was not exactly setting the world on fire before he got hurt. Unofficial stats show he had allowed three sacks and was responsible for five penalties this season.
But Carey's departure is a big loss because the drop from him to the next best tackle on the team is significant. Lydon Murtha played right tackle on Sunday against New York. He yielded one sack and had a penalty. I do not know how he graded out run-blocking but the Dolphins averaged 3.2 yards per rush, so it is hard to imagine Murtha played great in that area.
And the tackles have been the strong points for the Miami line. Can you imagine?
The interior of the Miami line is a problem. A big problem.
Joe Berger is an over-acheiver and as many over-achievers do, sometimes he's up, sometimes he's down. The Dolphins are getting more than their money's worth for this second-tier free agent signee. That's good because they got so little for Grove. But is Berger dominant? Elite? No. No.
Rookie John Jerry showed hopeful signs of being a big-time acquisition when he earned a starting right guard job early on. But then he got sick and missed four games and was never really that good when he returned. Jerry actually started losing ground, playing poorly against Chicago and Oakland, so he was benched. So much for rookies developing from the jump and showing constant improvement.
This doesn't make Jerry a bust or a disappointment. But he's not exactly looking like a star, either, especially when you consider Pat McQuistan, a career backup who had not started a game until this year, is now starting at right guard.
You want to believe the reason McQuistan is starting is because he is simply a beast. The truth is he is starting because he's the best candidate of a struggling lot.
Interestingly, the biggest gamble the Dolphins took along the offensive line this year is working out. Richie Incognito came with an ugly reputation for losing his mind at precisely the wrong moment. That is the reason he got kicked off a college team, got kicked off the Rams and the Bills wanted to go in another direction so they cut him.
The Dolphins are lucky to have him now. Incognito has started every game. He hasn't freaked out at any point on the field. He's good enough that the Dolphins have made attempts to extend his one-year contract. He is not a big problem. He's good enough. But he's probably playing out of position because he seems to me to be a more natural and comfortable right guard. The fact he's playing out of position is a sign of Miami's weakness at left guard because, best case, Incognito would be at RG with a superior player at LG.
The picture this all paints is of a unit that the personnel department and the coaching staff have been trying to get right for three seasons with no success. They got somewhat good at the beginning of 2009 but they have fallen off since, never reaching a point where anyone with decision-making power feels the OL is solid and a non-issue.
Nope, the offensive line is an issue. The Dolphins will have to draft for more OL help this offseason. I imagine a guard or center will do the trick and the hope here is they pick someone early enough that he's good enough to play immediately. If Jeff Ireland is thinking outside the box, perhaps he can draft a right tackle and move Vernon Carey inside, although that would make Carey an overpaid guard. Whatever works, folks. It's not our money.
In the meantime, the offensive line is the black hole that swallowed Miami's running game. Frustratingly, the line doesn't seem dramatically better now than it was in 2008. On any given Sunday, it might even be worse.