Four years. That is how long its taken the Dolphins to build their offensive line.
Four years. That is how long its taken to set what is supposed to be a foundation, a building block to the team.
And we're probably not truly, surely, securely set yet.
Tony Sparano and Jeff Ireland have got to be scratching their heads about this one. Building the offensive line has been a priority for the Dolphins since Ireland and Sparano were brought to Miami by Bill Parcells. Parcells believed you lay that foundation with burly, agile, strong, smart, angry linemen and the rest of the team will grow around them.
But this will be the fourth season of this current administration and the line today still comes with serious questions. Yes, still. Despite much free agent cash and draft pick resources and stirring of the roster, and searching for answers. The offensive line which should be an exclamation point remains something of a question mark.
I guess this one goes under the heading of best laid plans not going exactly as planned.
Oh, Jake Long has been excellent. He is a Pro Bowl player every time he steps on the field. He is a rock. But right now the Dolphins are hoping the rock has no cracks. Long will not play in Friday night's preseason opener against Atlanta. He is currently on the physically unable to perform list with what seeems to be a left leg injury. (The team does not have to specify injuries in the preseason and therefore doesn't). Long is rehabilitating that injury daily. But he obviously has not practiced this training camp.
Sparano told me last week the plan with Long is to have him ready for the regular-season opener versus New England. He might even be ready a bit before then, the coach said. That is good news. Even if Long doesn't get a full camp under his belt, even if he is freshly recovered from injury and not fully versed in camp hitting, he'll still be pretty good. Maybe he won't be Pro Bowl caliber until after the bye week, but he'll be good enough.
Jake Long is not the problem as long as he can eventually find his way back onto the field.
So what is the problem?
Let's begin on the other side of the line. The Dolphins have Marc Colombo as their starting right tackle and he isn't being challenged for his job at this point. One supposes Colombo, a former first-round pick of the Chicago Bears, is fully prepared to play well this season because he has Sparano's endorsement.
When a reporter asked the coach about Colombo's struggles in 2010 while with Dallas, Sparano would hear none of it. "I watched the tape," the coach said confidently.
We have a difference of opinion, obviously, because the Cowboys watched the same tape and terminated Colombo's contract.
The tape, according to several metrics websites including ProFootball Focus, show Colombo giving up between seven and nine sacks a season ago, depending on the source.
Maybe there are mitigating reasons for the many sacks. Maybe Colombo was playing hurt. Maybe the Cowboys are making a mistake in letting Colombo leave. But one cannot dismiss the idea that maybe the Dolphins are making a mistake in letting Colombo arrive.
We shall see. That's not the point. The point is this is not a exclamation point solution. There are questions here. We don't know what the answers will be and neither do the Dolphins. For now we have questions at right tackle.
The right guard position is similarly a question mark. The team moved Vernon Carey to right guard because, well, because John Jerry is not living up to expectations right now. If Jerry were a player, he'd be the starter. That's how it's supposed to work when a team uses a third-round pick (73rd overall) on a player they coached in the Senior Bowl.
Let that marinate for a second.
The Dolphins didn't just scout Jerry. They didn't just watch tape of Jerry. They didn't just look at his measurables and talk to him at the Combine. They coached the kid for a week at the Senior Bowl in January of 2010 and really, really liked him. They believed he'd be a player.
He's not a player right now. He's in a fight to make the team.
And he might lose.
And so the Dolphins had to find a Plan B to play right guard. That would be Vernon Carey. I reject the notion Carey was the first option because, as I've written before, GM Jeff Ireland said very specifically at the draft, the team had no intention then to move Carey to guard. I remember this because I asked the question.
But something happened between that answer and training camp's fourth day because the Dolphins felt compelled to move Carey over to cover the void left by Jerry's inability to play well. So now Carey returns to the guard spot where he began his college career -- Carey played guard at the University of Miami.
Moving Carey to guard meant the Dolphins had to basically admit signing him to that six-year, $42 million contract after 2008 was not a terribly sound move. That contract at the time made Carey one of the highest paid right tackles in the NFL. And yes, Carey started at the spot the past two years while under that contract.
But Carey didn't always play up to the wage scale. Last year, offensive coordinator Dan Henning said Carey has the potential to be very good, and some days he is. And some days he's not very good at all. It was a revealing description of an inconsistent player rather than of one making elite player money.
The Dolphins have adjusted Carey's salary. The definition of adjust here means "cut."
So now Carey is cheaper and the Dolphins hope he plays at least to the level of his newly adjusted pay. Will he? I don't know. The Dolphins don't really know. They hope he will. They don't really know. It's a question mark.
The Dolphins used their first round selection this season on an offensive lineman -- center Mike Pouncey. I must say, he looks the part. He's a beast. He seems smart so I expect he'll pick up the mental requirements of his position -- which is not easily or quickly done. He seems strong. He seems quick enough.
But lately, the thing that raised a flag about Pouncey in college has shown up during practices. The center snaps and exchange with quarterbacks have not been always clean, especially in recent practices. I don't know if those are on Pouncey or on the quarterback or both. But something questionable is going on. So we'll have to monitor the situation to see if this question gets answered or if it becomes a larger concern. And until the answer comes, what do we have here?
A question mark.
The reason the Dolphins felt compelled to go for a center with their 2011 first round pick? Jake Grove was a high-price free agent bust. The club paid Grove $14 million guaranteed as part of a five-year, $29.5 million contract before the 2009 season.
Grove came to the Dolphins with an extensive history for getting injured. It was the first thing after the contract details the South Florida media noted when Grove signed. And then Grove came to Miami and kept getting injured. SMH!
Grove was cut in September of 2010. He played a grand total of 12 games for Miami with 10 starts. Amazing, $14 million for 10 starts. Must be nice. Glad it's not my money.
Grove is out of the NFL now. So is Justin Smiley. He retired earlier this week after spending a couple of days in the Oakland Raiders training camp.
Oh, don't worry about Smiley, either. He's not hurting financially because the Dolphins paid him $9 million guaranteed before the 2008 season as part of a five-year, $25 million contract.
Like Grove, Smiley came to the Dolphins with an injury history. And, sure enough, he got injured plenty with the Dolphins. He missed the final four games of 2008 with an injury and then missed four more in 2009 with a problem to the shoulder that had been surgically repaired in 2007.
I reported last year that Smiley told friends he knew that 2007 surgery had not gone quite right because he lost strength in the shoulder he was never really able to regain. The Dolphins traded him to Jacksonville for a box of sneakers and a roll of rusty pennies before last season. Another free agency bust.
The Dolphins signed their offensive line to $154 million in total deals before the 2009 season. Obviously only the guaranteed portion of those deals actually cost ownership out of pocket. But the money spent pales compared to the wasted energy and time invested on solving a problem over and over and over.
At center, Samson Satele, Jake Grove and Joe Berger have not been the answer.
At right tackle, Vernon Carey and Lydon Murtha have not been the answer.
At right guard, John Jerry, Pat McQuistan, DonaldThomas, Nate Garner, nor Ikechuku Ndukwe have been the answer.
At left guard, Justin Smiley, Andy Aleman, Garner, and McQuistan have not been the answer.
Draft picks Shawn Murphy and Andrew Gardner also didn't help and are no longer with the team.
When you really think about it, the best move the Dolphins have made on the offensive line -- all things considered including price paid, or draft compensation invested -- has been Richie Incognito.
He came to the Dolphins last year after washing out of a couple of college programs because of anger issues. He came after washing out in St. Louis and Buffalo. He came as a free agent so he cost no draft compensation. He played for near minimum salary last year on a one-year tryout.
He started all 16 games, with 15 of those at left guard and one at center. He played well enough to earn a new contract for this season and beyond and he's anchored as the starter at left guard again. Because he's played center, I'm assuming he'll help Pouncey.
Think about this, NFL: Richie Incognito is the most stabilizing force on the Dolphins offensive line right now.
Talk about plans not going as they had been laid.
[Blog note: There will be a live blog of the Dolphins versus Atlanta preseason opener Friday night. Please come here for that. Also, kindly follow me on twitter.]