« November 2012 | Main | January 2013 »

73 posts from December 2012

December 14, 2012

Bess, Misi out for Sunday vs. Jacksonville

The Dolphins will be without two starters, one on offense and one on defense, when they host the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday.

The club this afternoon ruled wide receiver Davone Bess and linebacker Koa Misi as out.

Bess has been basically shut down this week with some sort of back injury. Misi also missed practice throughout the week with an ankle injury.

It's next man up:

For Misi, the Dolphins will probably substitute Jason Trusnik. Trusnik played when Misi left the game against San Francisco last week.

For Bess, the team may use more of Marlon Moore or Rishard Matthews.

The Jaguars are also going to limp into Sunday's game. That club announced that five players are out.

Running back Maurice Jones-Drew, running back Rashad Jennings, cornerback Aaron Ross, defensive end George Selvie, and running back Jordan Todman are all out.

Wide receiver Cecil Shorts, who has missed time with a concussion, is probable for the Jags. Defensive back Jimmy Wilson, who missed last week's game against San Francisco with a hip injury, is probable for the Dolphins.

Dolphins irrelevant so it's time to change gears

Allow me to share parts of the NFL schedule this weekend:

New York Giants at Atlanta.

Green Bay at Chicago.

Denver at Baltimore.

Indianapolis at Houston.

Pittsburgh at Dallas.

San Francisco at New England.

And against this backdrop of interesting and profoundly meaningful matchups, the Dolphins and the Jaguars will play at Sun Life Stadium. The visiting team is 2-11. The home team is 5-8.

The rest of the NFL may not notice.

This is what it means to be irrelevant in December. It is the fourth time in as many years the Dolphins will be playing games in December that frankly do not matter.

And you wonder why I advocate making the most of this time of year by moving on to younger players?

Michael Egnew should play this game. I already shared with you yesterday that Miami's tight ends are sub par. So why protect them by continuing to play them?

Move on to Egnew to see if he has any promise, any spark, any ability to solve the problem that the guys who have been playing ahead of him -- Anthony Fasano and Charles Clay -- have not solved despite ample opportunity.

I'm not saying Egnew's the answer. But unless you play the kid, all he represents is a question.

Last week, finally, the club turned to Lamar Miller ahead of Daniel Thomas. But as with so many things this team does, the switch was done in incomplete fashion. Miller got only three carries while being in the game three quarters. Thomas got two carries when he finally got playing time in the fourth quarter.

If you're going to sit somebody, sit him. If you're going to work somebody, work him! Do not split the difference.

On Sunday, the Dolphins may not have receiver Davone Bess. He's battling a back problem. Even if he takes a shot and can play, he's not going to be 100 percent.

Hello?

Give a healthy Rishard Matthews those snaps instead. Or play Marlon Moore 40 snaps.

Look, Bess is a solid guy. He's a good slot receiver. But he's not the answer at No. 2. He would dominate in a three-wide set (with either three WRs or two WRs and a threatening TE) as the slot. But he's instead had to play out of position much of this year.

And what did that pressing of Bess to a higher service accomplish? The Dolphins are 5-8. Their offense is still terrible. Everyone knows the team needs wide receiver help.

In other words, it didn't mask anything.

Time to think outside the box. Time to push the eaglets out of the nest. Maybe they'll fall to earth with a thud. But, who knows, maybe they'll soar.

Letting them stay safe in the nest without making any attempt at all?

It's a great way to stay irrelevant in December. 

 

December 13, 2012

Dolphins need to get off rollercoaster, play to own ability

How does a team that beat Cincinnati on the road lose at Buffalo? How does a team that beat Seattle at home get blown out by Tennessee at home?

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2012 Miami Dolphins.

They are nothing if not inconsistent. About the only thing they do consistently is play to the level of the opposition.

They gave the Patriots and 49ers good games the past two weeks. At no time did they seem totally out-classed.

Yet they lost to Arizona in the fourth week of the season and the Cardinals haven't won a game since.

What does that tell you about the Dolphins? What does it say when a team plays up or down to its competition?

Well, first of all, assume nothing the next couple of weeks when the Dolphins play horrible Jacksonville and terrible Buffalo. And don't discount Miami the final week of the season against elite New England.

Also, it says this:

The Dolphins are the ultimate rudderless team. They have mediocre talent which would suggest they be a mediocre team. But most mediocre teams play well against teams with inferior talent and cannot play well against teams with excellent talent because they're outgunned.

Yet -- again -- the Dolphins can stay with the Pats and 49ers and beat Seattle. But they get dominated at Buffalo and by Tennessee.

Reader Tyson Crowley suggests and I agree, this kind of rollercoaster performance depending on the opponent, speaks to poor leadership on the team. Teams with good leadership do not let down against inferior competition and play like that inferior competition. Teams with good leadership play to a certain level -- be it high or low -- and maintain that level most of the season regardless of the competition.

They don't lose to Buffalo and look terrible doing it one week and beat playoff-bound Seattle and look great doing it the next.

"Obviously, when you’re so up and down, it’s a little tough and obviously we’re all judged, at the end of the day, we’re judged by winning (and) how we win and the amount of games that we win," Reggie Bush said today. "Obviously, it’s not fun when you’re not winning and you’re not achieving the goals that you set out to achieve at the beginning of the season. So it has been a little bit of an emotional rollercoaster."

Oh, and teams with good leadership don't ride emotional rollercoasters. They focus on the process of winning a game week to week without major spikes or letdowns of emotion.

The Dolphins need to focus more on the process and less on the results. If they do that, maybe the results will come in more consistent manner.

Smallest crowd of the season on tap for Jacksonville

Dolphins coach Joe Philbin came to the defense of South Florida Dolphins fans this week.

“Our fan support has really been excellent," he said. "It’s a loud atmosphere down at this stadium, and we’re looking forward to playing well in front of our home fans this Sunday."

Interesting. The Dolphins have struggled to fill Sun Life Stadium practically every game except the home opener and the Patriots game (when there were 20,000 Pats fans in the house).

Otherwise, the paid attendance has been anywhere from 52,000 to 59,000 and the actual attendance lower than that.

This week it'll be worse. This week, with the simply awful and uninteresting Jacksonville Jaguars coming to town, the Dolphins could have the smallest crowd of the year. Their paid should be the typical 50,000 or so.

But the team is aware the actual "crowd" could dip into the mid 40,000s.

The only way this game won't have the lowest attendance of the year is if the Dolphins lose Sunday and even more disenchanted fans stay home next week when Miami plays Buffalo.

"I haven’t really noticed to be honest with you," Philbin said. "I got a couple other things to be concerned about.

"I think our fans are very passionate. The ones that I have interaction with love the Dolphins. They’re loyal and supportive and it’s been a good atmosphere at the stadium."

Despite this being the lowest actual attendance of the year, the Dolphins are still expecting to broadcast the game live on local television. It would take an unexpected last minute change of philosophy to allow the blackout to stand.

The club has broadcast the previous six home games despite not having sellouts by meeting the NFL threshold for showing games.

Dolphins tight end position needs urgent upgrade

While many people understand the Dolphins will be addressing the wide receiver position this offseason and I reported last month that everyone in the building knows the team needs a burner, I believe the Dolphins better address an equally important position for the sake of their offense and young quarterback.

The Dolphins need to urgently upgrade at tight end.

Currently, the team has five tight ends on the roster. Only two -- Anthony Fasano and Charles Clay -- have generated any statistics for the team. And while I don't think their statistics are impressive or satisfactory in any regard, Dolphins coach Joe Philbin begs to differ.

“Our touchdown production has been very good," Philbin said of the scoring production by Miami's tight ends. "I think Anthony (Fasano) has played well (and) made a great play in the game the other day. I think we’d like probably some more explosive plays out of that group. We’re starting to get some of them, but probably some more explosive (plays would be good).

"I think they’ve been good down in the red zone. We’ve gotten some touchdowns out of the group. I think, again, overall offensively and them, probably we’d love to see a little more production.”

Yes, coach finally got to the point after circling for a while. The Dolphins need more production out of their tight ends and (sorry coach) that includes touchdowns.

Consider:

Fasano has 30 catches for 233 yards and has scored four touchdowns. Clay has 16 catches for 204 yards with two touchdowns. That's a combined 46 catches for 437 yards and six touchdowns.

That happens to be in many respects the worst of any tight end group in the AFC East.

At the top of that comparison are the New England tight ends, obviously. Let's stipulate they are basically in another league altogether. So much so, it's not even fair comparing them to the Dolphins. But for the record, Patriots tight ends have 94 catches for 1,193 yards and 14 touchdowns this season.

Yeah, that's better than Miami.

But the trouble is even the lowly Jets and Bills in many respects are getting more tight end production than Miami.

Bills tight ends have 45 catches for 554 yards and eight touchdowns this season. That's one less catch than Miami's duo but 117 more yards and two more touchdowns.

Jets tight ends have 60 combined catches for 671 yards and four touchdowns. That's 14 more catches, 234 more yards, while scoring two fewer TDs.

I look at these statistics and look at Miami's tight ends and wonder, where's all this very good TD production? It's third in a four-team division.

Despite the sobering statistics that is not truly the reason I say the Dolphins need better tight ends.

This is:

The Dolphins want to utilize a go-fast offense that snaps the ball maybe 72-78 times per game and wears out the opposing defense, basically sucking their will to compete out of them. To do this you have to stay on the field and move the chains. You have to convert first downs.

Unfortunately for the Dolphins, they don't do this nearly enough and poor tight end production in that area is one major reason. Fasano has converted 14 first downs this year. Clay has converted eight first downs this year. The total of 22 first downs by Miami's tight ends is horrible.

The Patriots tight ends have converted 64 first downs. New York tight ends have converted 37 first downs. Buffalo's tight ends have also converted 37 first downs. All are better than Miami.

And, in fact, if you look around the NFL there are 20 individual tight ends that have converted more first downs than Fasano and Clay combined.

That means the tight end position is not, on most occasions, an outlet for quarterback Ryan Tannehill to extend a drive. Miami's tight ends don't help keep the offense on the field often enough.

Now, you might argue that's Tannehill's fault. Obviously, he has to take ownership in some of that. The passing game is the passing game and everyone is responsible for doing their part.

But Miami's receivers don't have this problem. They produce first downs. So I put it mostly on the tight ends.

Look, both Fasano and Clay fill a role. But if the Dolphins want to help Tannehill and make the offense more efficient and play as intended, the tight end position needs upgrading.

Urgently.

 

 

December 12, 2012

Henne wouldn't change anything about time with Dolphins

Chad Henne is the opposing quarterback this week so he was on the conference call with the Miami media today.

What did he say?

Well, he's not necessarily super fired up about facing the Dolphins and exacting a measure or revenge against them for not re-signing him and instead moving on to another quarterback. At least, he's not admitting to that.

"I don't know about motivation but once it comes toward game day there'll be a little bit more excitement and everything," Henne said. "Other than that I'm going to prepare like any other week and go into it like it's a regular game."

Does he have a bad taste in his mouth about how things went during his four years in Miami did he accept his situation without anger?

"Absolutely. I mean, they gave me every opportunity," Henne said. "They drafted me there and I appreciate that. But, um, sometimes things don't work out and you move on. But, uh, definitely feel I had my fair share and appreciate the opportunity down there."

So what would Henne change about his time with the Dolphins if he had the chance?

"Obviously, you want to win more games," Henne said. "But, um, whether I would have, woulda, would of, should have,I really wouldn't change anything. It was a big learning experience I had there. I enjoyed my teammates, enjoyed being part of the community down there. I just took it as an experience and built upon it and improved myself as a quarterback and as a young man."

Henne has completed 51.6 percent of his 182 passes for 1,217 yards with 8 TDs and 5 INTs.

"I think I've improved. From last year the first three games, I felt I've improved," Henne said.

The Jaguars are having problems with drops, having problems with protections and Henne is missing throws. In other words they look a lot like the Dolphins did with Henne. Actually, in many respects they look a lot like the Dolphins do now.

Apparently, Henne has been keeping tabs on counterpart and replacement Ryan Tannehill. So what does he think of Miami's starting quarterbacK?

"I think he's done a great job for what he's been given," Henne said. "I think he's done well, he's handled the media well. I just wish him the best and hopefully he keeps improving."

[Practice update: WR Davone Bess and OLB Koa Misi sat out practice today. I'll update their injuries later.]

Reshad Jones sets sights on Pro Bowl

Many NFL player feign humility when reporters ask about making the Pro Bowl. It means a lot to many of them yet few ever admit how much perhaps for fear of seeming self-absorbed.

Reshad Jones admits how much the Pro Bowl means to him.

"It's the ultimate when other players, coaches and fans recognize you as being one of the people at the top of the game," Jones told me Tuesday. "The Pro Bowl is for the best of the best. Of course, I want to be selected to the Pro Bowl. I would mean a lot to me."

Jones has a chance. We discussed that even if Ed Reed gets selected, his health doesn't always allow him to participate. Even if Troy Polamalu gets selected (he doesn't deserve it this year because he's been injured most of the time), he probably won't go because of his health.

So the perennial selectees might be giving way to someone else.

That may open the door for Jones. He's got three interceptions. He's forced two fumbles, He has a sack. He is a gap-filling safety with 81 tackles, which is third on the team. Could he use a highlight day against Chad Henne Sunday to solidify his case?

Of course.

But that, everyone knows, is possible.

By the way, I don't mind telling you Jones is a good dude, too. I spent time with him Tuesday. We went to visit a 101-year-old Dolphins fan. I wrote this column based on that visit.

Good on the field.

Good off the field.

Reshad Jones.

December 10, 2012

Dolphins finally beat Patriots at something

The waiver wire gave the Dolphins something to celebrate Monday evening when wide receiver Armon Binns was awarded to Miami off waivers from Cincinnati.

So why is a waiver transaction reason for a little celebration?

Well, the Dolphins got Binns ahead of the New England Patriots. The Patriots, you see, also put in a claim for the former Jaguars undrafted free agent and Bengals practic squad player. But because the Patriots have a better record than the Dolphins, they have a lower priority for claims.

The Dolphins, with a worse record, have a higher priority.

So the Dolphins beat out the Patriots for a player!

Yeah, I'm reaching here. But consider this: The Patriots know a thing or two about claiming players. Yes, they make mistakes but they get it right a lot -- probably more often than Miami does.

And so you have to have a little confidence in Binns if the Patriots wanted him, too. Maybe he won't be just another body like so many of these waiver claim players have been lately.

Binns is 6-3 and 209 pounds. He played collegiately at the University of Cincinnati. This season he had 18 catches for 210 yards and one touchdown in eight games before being waived.

To make room for Binns, the Dolphins waived cornerback Michael Coe, who in turn had been claimed off waivers two weeks ago.

 

What they said after loss and the reaction

Here is what the Dolphins said after Sunday's 27-13  loss to the San Francisco 49ers and my reaction:

Coach Joe Philbin envisioned making this game close and winning it in the fourth quarter:

"We wanted to play a game where we talked about winning 21-17. We thought it would be that type of game, a close physical football game. In a lot respects it was. But again, in the fourth quarter we had some opportunities to put some more points on the board but we didn’t. Obviously we were too generous. We gave them the ball on the nine-yard line on one possession. They took advantage of that. It was the type of game we envisioned. We told the team all week, ‘I anticipate that we’ll be in a position to win the game in the fourth quarter.’ I told them we had to play a clean game. This is a good football team, we had to execute well. We didn’t make the plays in the fourth quarter. They did. They deserve to win."

Salguero reaction: The Dolphins have scored 21 points only four times in 13 games this year. Sad, but truth is 21 points is wishful thinking by the coach.

The Dolphins tried to get an edge by putting running back Reggie Bush out wide so as to take advantage of a matchup against the linebackers. That advantage didn't last.

“I guess they saw some film and thought they could go 1-on-1 with our linebackers," 'Niners safety Dashon Goldson said. "They did a good job of adjusting, knew that was coming and put a DB on them. We got the best of that."

Salguero reaction: Bush averaged only 7.6 yards per reception. Not dynamic. The fact is Bush this year is averaging 7.8 yards per reception. Maybe it's time we accept the idea he's not quite the mismatch out there as we hoped.

Rookie Jonathan Martin got off to a bad start, giving up a sack to Aldon Smith early on when the NFL's sack leader basically blew Martin up. Smith finished with two sacks against Martin and the Dolphins lineman also had a false start.

“It was decent," Martin said. "He got me on that one bull rush pretty good. There is a reason why he is one of the best pass rushers in the league. He is a good player. It is a really talented defense, talented d-line. It is a tough defense, we didn’t make enough plays to win the game.

“It is a learning experience. I like challenges like that, going against guys that are the best in the league. It took me a little while to get into it, but after a while I felt really comfortable out there."

Salguero reaction: It's his first game and it came against arguably the best pass rusher in the NFL. Martin did ok. He didn't make us forget about Jake Long. It was, indeed, a step back from Long. It'll be interesting to see how much Martin improves over the next three games. So far, he hasn't made anyone forget Long.

Punt returner Marcus Thigpen fumbled a punt inside his own 10 yard line. The 49ers converted the turnover into a touchdown.

“I felt a couple of guys close to me, and I tried to take a peek at the last minute, then I looked back up and I lost the ball," Thigpen said.

Salguero reaction: Marcus Thigpen has been a net plus-plus for the Dolphins this year. He has a kickoff return TD and a punt return TD. Yes, he made a mistake. He also had a 56-yard kickoff return after the San Francisco score. I wish all Dolphins players answered adversity like that.

Cameron Wake had three sacks Sunday. He was more productive than NFL sack leader Aldon Smith.

“I didn’t even realize till just now," Wake said. "I would give away every sack I got for a winning record and opportunities that we are not capitalizing on. It is hard to contribute with that kind of stuff when we are stinking it up."

Salguero reaction: The Dolphins wasted Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas and Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison. They are wasting Cameron Wake's best years.

December 09, 2012

San Fran. beats the Dolphins, 27-13

SAN FRANCISCO -- The optimist will say the Dolphins traveled across country and gave one of the better teams in the NFC a tough game. The pessimist will see this as another example of the Dolphins not being good enough.

The 49ers beat the Dolphins 27-13 on Sunday.

This realist sees it as a fine effort that fell short because, well, the Dolphins don't have enough horses.

Don't make enough plays in crunchtime.

Probably don't know how to win tight road games against very good teams this because they haven't done it in a long time.

You shouldn't be disappointed. But neither should you be at all excited.

The Dolphins have lost five of the last six games. They have clinched their fourth consecutive year without a winning record

It is what it is.

 

49ers lead Dolphins 13-6 going to the fourth quarter

SAN FRANCISCO -- The pace picked up a bit in the third quarter, but the Dolphins are no closer to victory. Further, actually.

The problem in the third quarter was a Marcus Thigpen fumbled punt inside his 10 yard line. The 49ers converted with a 1-yard Frank Gore TD run. Gore, by the way, has gone over 1,000 yards for the sixth time in his career.

The Dolphins answered San Francisco's TD with a field goal. Story of the year for the offense.

The live blog rolls on in the comments section. Go there!

49ers lead the Dolphins 6-3 going to the third quarter

SAN FRANCISCO -- This is a hard-fought defensive game so far.

Cameron Wake has as many sacks (3) as the Dolphins have points. That's the kind of game it is.

The 49ers haven't been able to mount much of an offense against Miami. Yes, they drove for a game-leading field goal just before the half, but otherwise the Miami defense is fighting.

The Dolphins trail 6-3.

The live blog continues in the comments section. Join me there.

Dolphins and 'Niners tied at 0-0 going to second quarter

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's not a blowout!

In fact, the Dolphins and 49ers are knotted at 0-0 but the Dolphins have at least mounnted a drive versus the vaunted 'Frisco D.

The 49ers, meanwhile, have been largely unable to move with any consistency on offense. So far, so good.

The live blog rolls in the comments section. See you there.

Live blog here: Can the Dolphins win?

Jimmy Wilson (hip) is inactive today. As I told you earlier this week, maybe this isn't terrible.

The other inactives are Pat Devlin, Michael Coe, Josh Kaddu, PatrickBrown, Michael Egnew and Kyle Miller.

So here's the question: Does Miami have a chance today?

My answer: Yes. It is a slim chance, but yes, the Dolphins have a chance.

Simply, the 49ers beat teams doing what it is the Dolphins like to counter better than anything. The 49ers want to run the football. The Dolphins stop the run well. The 49ers make game-changing plays in the passing game, mostly by sacking the QB. The Dolphins want to get the ball out fast today and they mostly want to run the football.

The Dolphins are susceptible to elite QBs picking on their nickel corners. Well, Colin Kaepernick is not elite.

I am not predicting a Dolphins victory. In fact, I picked San Francisco this week.

But out of the question?

No.

A reminder that the live blog begins in the comments section at kickoff. I'll meet you there.

Dolphins at 49ers: Which team has the advantage?

So which team has the advantage today?

Well, see if you agree with me:

When the Dolphins run the ball: You know about the Dolphins short-yardage struggles. They have converted only 12 of 26 tries on third-and-1 or less and only 5 of 11 tries on third-and-two. Well, Miami would be better off staying out of short yardage situations because this game because when opponents face third-and-three or less, the 49ers defense has allowed just a 39.5 percent conversion rate. That ranks first in the NFL. Reggie Bush said he expects this to be the Dolphins most physical game of the season. If Miami cannot win the battle against San Francisco’s front seven, it basically cannot win the game because the 49ers aim to make their opponent a one-dimensional passing team and then come after the quarterback. The Dolphins don’t want that. Bush must keep his average around 4 yards per carry. And he needs to get enough carries to keep the 49ers honest. ADVANTAGE: San Francisco.

When the Dolphins pass the ball: As good as the 49ers have been stopping the run, they have better credentials against the pass. They are ranked second in the NFL against the pass. Although the sacks are down slightly this year (the team ranks 10th in the NFL) the 49ers lead the NFL in sacks over the past three years. That is a big deal for Miami this week because the Dolphins will be without left tackle Jake Long to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s blind side. Interestingly, the Dolphins are confident Long’s replacement Jonathan Martin can handle the assignment because he played left tackle at Stanford, played well last week in replacing Long, and is perhaps the future at the position. But the switch from right tackle for Martin forces Miami to use Nate Garner, the team’s sixth or seventh best lineman, into the starting job at right tackle. And that makes the chances of San Francisco moving NFL sack leader Aldon Smith over to Garner’s side highly likely. ADVANTAGE: San Francisco.

When the 49ers run the ball: This should be epic. The thing the Dolphins do better than just about anything else on either offense or defense is stop the run. The front seven has been mostly consistent throughout the season. Only one running back has gone over 100 yards against the Dolphins and only three teams have gone over 100 yards rushing against Miami. But the thing the 49ers do best is, you guessed it, run the football. The 49ers are No. 2 in the NFL in rushing. Former Coral Gables High and University of Miami product Frank Gore has not slowed down in his eighth season. He is already the team’s all-time leading rusher and leads a rushing attack that averages 5.3 yards per attempt. The addition of Colin Kaepernick at quarterback also adds a dangerous dimension in that he can scramble as well as throw. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the 49ers pass the ball: Randy Moss can still run and blow the top off the defense, but the 49ers have not been using him in that role very often. It’s the reason he has only 19 catches. Ted Ginn can run and blow the top off the defense. But he’s caught only two passes and is mostly a return specialist. The big problems the 49ers pose are Michael Crabtree, a possession receiver, and tight end Vernon Davis, who has a knack for getting behind the secondary. Davis has catches of 53 and 46 yards this season and had a 100-yard game against the Bills. The Dolphins will be without Jimmy Wilson, their nickel cornerback, this week. That may not be a bad thing as Wilson has struggled in coverage this year. That means either Nolan Carroll or R.J. Stanford will be coming on the cornerback blitz this week. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Special teams: One special teams flop against Buffalo was happenstance. Another against Seattle was a trend. And a couple of more miscues against New England are starting to look like a troubling habit. The Dolphins special teams are hurting the team’s chances of winning the past few weeks. That needs to stop. The 49ers aren’t having such issues. Punter Andy Lee is a three-time Pro Bowl player and kicker David Akers has been to six Pro Bowls. Akers kicked a 63-yard field goal against Green Bay in September – a kick that tied Tom Dempsey for the NFL’s longest kick ever. ADVANTAGE: San Francisco. 

Coaching: The 49ers, at their core, are a very physical no-nonsense team. The problem they pose on offense is they take that philosophy and use disguise and misdirection and multiple sets that are hard to dissect and prepare for. It will be a test of the Dolphins coaching staff. Joe Philbin and his staff also have to figure out a way to make the loss of left tackle Jake Long seem inconsequential against, yes, the NFL’s sack leader. ADVANTAGE: San Francisco.

Dolphins at 49ers: Which team has the advantage

So which team has the advantage today?

Well, see if you agree with me:

When the Dolphins run the ball: You know about the Dolphins short-yardage struggles. They have converted only 12 of 26 tries on third-and-1 or less and only 5 of 11 tries on third-and-two. Well, Miami would be better off staying out of short yardage situations because this game because when opponents face third-and-three or less, the 49ers defense has allowed just a 39.5 percent conversion rate. That ranks first in the NFL. Reggie Bush said he expects this to be the Dolphins most physical game of the season. If Miami cannot win the battle against San Francisco’s front seven, it basically cannot win the game because the 49ers aim to make their opponent a one-dimensional passing team and then come after the quarterback. The Dolphins don’t want that. Bush must keep his average around 4 yards per carry. And he needs to get enough carries to keep the 49ers honest. ADVANTAGE: San Francisco.

When the Dolphins pass the ball: As good as the 49ers have been stopping the run, they have better credentials against the pass. They are ranked second in the NFL against the pass. Although the sacks are down slightly this year (the team ranks 10th in the NFL) the 49ers lead the NFL in sacks over the past three years. That is a big deal for Miami this week because the Dolphins will be without left tackle Jake Long to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s blind side. Interestingly, the Dolphins are confident Long’s replacement Jonathan Martin can handle the assignment because he played left tackle at Stanford, played well last week in replacing Long, and is perhaps the future at the position. But the switch from right tackle for Martin forces Miami to use Nate Garner, the team’s sixth or seventh best lineman, into the starting job at right tackle. And that makes the chances of San Francisco moving NFL sack leader Aldon Smith over to Garner’s side highly likely. ADVANTAGE: San Francisco.

When the 49ers run the ball: This should be epic. The thing the Dolphins do better than just about anything else on either offense or defense is stop the run. The front seven has been mostly consistent throughout the season. Only one running back has gone over 100 yards against the Dolphins and only three teams have gone over 100 yards rushing against Miami. But the thing the 49ers do best is, you guessed it, run the football. The 49ers are No. 2 in the NFL in rushing. Former Coral Gables High and University of Miami product Frank Gore has not slowed down in his eighth season. He is already the team’s all-time leading rusher and leads a rushing attack that averages 5.3 yards per attempt. The addition of Colin Kaepernick at quarterback also adds a dangerous dimension in that he can scramble as well as throw. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the 49ers pass the ball: Randy Moss can still run and blow the top off the defense, but the 49ers have not been using him in that role very often. It’s the reason he has only 19 catches. Ted Ginn can run and blow the top off the defense. But he’s caught only two passes and is mostly a return specialist. The big problems the 49ers pose are Michael Crabtree, a possession receiver, and tight end Vernon Davis, who has a knack for getting behind the secondary. Davis has catches of 53 and 46 yards this season and had a 100-yard game against the Bills. The Dolphins will be without Jimmy Wilson, their nickel cornerback, this week. That may not be a bad thing as Wilson has struggled in coverage this year. That means either Nolan Carroll or R.J. Stanford will be coming on the cornerback blitz this week. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Special teams: One special teams flop against Buffalo was happenstance. Another against Seattle was a trend. And a couple of more miscues against New England are starting to look like a troubling habit. The Dolphins special teams are hurting the team’s chances of winning the past few weeks. That needs to stop. The 49ers aren’t having such issues. Punter Andy Lee is a three-time Pro Bowl player and kicker David Akers has been to six Pro Bowls. Akers kicked a 63-yard field goal against Green Bay in September – a kick that tied Tom Dempsey for the NFL’s longest kick ever. ADVANTAGE: San Francisco. 

Coaching: The 49ers, at their core, are a very physical no-nonsense team. The problem they pose on offense is they take that philosophy and use disguise and misdirection and multiple sets that are hard to dissect and prepare for. It will be a test of the Dolphins coaching staff. Joe Philbin and his staff also have to figure out a way to make the loss of left tackle Jake Long seem inconsequential against, yes, the NFL’s sack leader. ADVANTAGE: San Francisco.

December 07, 2012

Philbin playtime philosophy good but what about adapting?

A couple of weeks ago Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, disgusted by the team's sixth loss of the season, mentioned that perhaps it was time to start playing younger players and think about who is going to be on the team in 2013.

A lot of coaches go that route once the losses mount and the current season seems little more than a formality for getting to next season.

Don't expect Joe Philbin to do that.

Even if the Dolphins lose on Sunday as the oddsmakers expect; indeed even with the Dolphins record falling back to 5-8, Philbin is apparently going to continue playing his veterans if he stays true to his philosophy.

“Really, play time’s based on players have to have earn play time and they earn it through what they do on the practice field<' Philbin said Thursday. "If players earn the opportunity to play, we’ll certainly play them whatever year they are, it doesn’t really matter to us what year they are.

"I’m a big believer… I think when you walk into the room with those guys, it’s not fair to play a guy, people have to earn their keep and I don’t care what year you’re in the league. Those guys that bust their tail every day, we’re not going to put somebody in the game that doesn’t deserve to be in the game or hasn’t earned an opportunity to be in the game."

I get it. This is a perfectly reasonable and fair approach.

Philbin wants tell his team that the only way to play is to practice well. He doesn't want to reward subpar practices. He wants to play guys that make him the most comfortable and the coaching staff gains that comfort level by watching what happens in practice.

It is a perfectly logical approach.

But ...

Football is a game of adaptation and not logic. The ball does not bounce logically. The best team does not always win. Good plans that logically should succeed often go awry. And the people that come out ahead are those that adapt quickest not those that offer the most logic.

Thus, the idea of sticking to the stated philosophy works when the season is salvagable and all things and the goal for the entire organization is winning in the present. But when winning in the present is no longer the most vital thing, when doing what is best for the future of the organization becomes more important, all that logic and unwavering philosophy about whomever practices best plays should be cast aside.

It is smart to adapt and consider that certain players who might not be the best in practice now might become your best performers in the future. The Dolphins obviously believe running back Lamar Miller is such a player.

He is a rookie. He has promise. But Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas are both practicing better and obviously playing more because coaches are more comfortable with them, because they get more chances in practices and because Miller needs to improve his pass protection.

“I think he’s going to be a good football player in this league," Philbin said. "He’s got good instincts as a runner. He’s got good balance. He can catch the football. I think he has a chance to be a very good pass protector eventually too. I really do. He’s got good feet. He can bend. I’m excited about him.”

“I think he’s going to be a good football player in this league. He’s got good instincts as a runner. He’s got good balance. He can catch the football. I think he has a chance to be a very good pass protector eventually too. I really do. He’s got good feet. He can bend. I’m excited about him.” 

Well then, when the relevance of this season becomes what is going to happen next season, then the Dolphins coaches should consider putting those feet and all that bending ability to work. Like immediately.

Would that make Reggie Bush upset? Would it upset veterans?

Look, Bush was upset about sitting after that fumble against Tennessee, although he understands that's the business. He's not all that thrilled that the team has not had any contracts talks with his agent, although he understands that's the business.

He'd probably not be happy about giving up snaps to Miller, but he would understand that is the business.

Tight end Michael Egnew is in a similar situation as Miller. He's behind players that are better than he is today. Both Anthony Fasano and Charles Clay practice better than Egnew on most days -- be it in that they make fewer mistakes, or block better or make more catches.

But eventually the Dolphins need to know what they have in Egnew. They can't keep putting off the need to find a tight end to help rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the red zone and down the seam of the defense.

Maybe Egnew isn't that guy. Maybe he is that guy. The point is we might soon need to get about the business of finding out.

Would that upset Fasano or Clay, either of whom might get fewer snaps in games? Maybe. But it wouldn't be an issue if they were more productive. If they were the sure answers, the Dolphins wouldn't have drafted Egnew and no one would even mention him. So ... next!

Now, I am only a journalist. I suppose the Dolphins coaching staff could ignore these suggestions. They could scoff at the idea of someone who doesn't know football like they do suggesting they start looking ahead with players that ar younger and need experience.

But, I remind you, Mike Shanahan three weeks ago was preparing to do the very thing I'm suggesting. And he's won two Super Bowl trophies as a head coach. And that's more than any Dolphins coach can say.

Checkmate.

December 06, 2012

Changes afoot around the NFL, but not in Miami

In New York, there's speculation general manager Mike Tannenbaum will be demoted. In San Diego, both coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith reportedly will be gone after this season. In Cleveland, the future of general manager Tom Heckert Jr. is uncertain and rumors are swirling about a successor.

Carolina is in the market for a new general manager, Scott Pioli is on the hot seat as the general manager in Kansas City, and there could be other moves elsewhere.

Yup, it's that time of year.

But not in Miami. Probably not this year.

Despite the fact the team is likely headed to a fourth consecutive season out of the playoffs and perhaps a fourth consecutive losing season, I am told there has been zero discussion about replacing general manager Jeff Ireland. And obviously, head coach Joe Philbin isn't on the one-and-done road last traveled by Cam Cameron. He's not going anywhere, either.

So firings in Miami seem at this point unlikely.

Now, this comes with a caveat: The season is not over. All the data is not known with four games to play. And everyone will be ultimately evaluated by owner Stephen Ross once the season is over. So no decision is final at this point.

If the Dolphins collapse the next four Sundays or if quarterback Ryan Tannehill plays so poorly as to suggest drafting him was a major error, then all bets are off.

But the Dolphins are typically an easy team to read on such matters. If someone as high-ranking in the organization as Ireland were on the outs, the signs would be there by now. Last year, for example, it was clear coach Tony Sparano was on his way out only weeks into the regular season.

No such signs this year. Quite the opposite, actually. Last week, for example, Ireland spent the entire week grinding on tape with his scouts and other personnel people as they prepare for the coming Senior Bowl in January, Indianapolis Combine in February, and yes, NFL draft in April.

Ireland's relationship with Ross also remains strong. The men continue to speak almost on a weekly basis and some weeks more often than that. Same with coach Joe Philbin. By contrast, once Sparano fell out of favor with Ross, the two talked only occasionally.

Another reason there isn't a huge likelihood anyone will be fired is Ross is a strong believer in continuity. He is convinced an NFL team needs it to succeed. Ross, you'll remember, stayed with Sparano and Ireland once he took over ownership even though he had no allegiance to either man.

He kept both even after he was already displeased enough with Sparano that he met with Jim Harbaugh, now in San Francisco, when that coach wanted to make the jump to the NFL from Stanford University.

It was only after the Dolphins got off to an 0-7 start in 2011 and his relationship with Sparano rotted that Ross dismissed Sparano. And, it must be said, Ross kept Ireland at that time even though the general manager was very unpopular with the fan base.

Ross kept Ireland even though fans hired banner planes to fly over Sun Life asking for the general manager's firing. He kept Ireland after fans showed up at training camp to protest the general manager's offseason moves.

As someone in the organization told me recently, "Jeff survived that and other uncomfortable moments, what makes you think he'd be fired now?"

It would take an epic, disastrous final four weeks to make is a possibility. Otherwise, all quiet in Miami. 

 

Jimmy Wilson could be out Sunday but that's not terrible

The Dolphins are not optimistic nickel cornerback Jimmy Wilson will be able to play Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. Wilson has missed practice on Wednesday and was limted Thursday. His status for Friday is uncertain.

It's possible Wilson won't even travel with the team when it leaves for the west coast Friday.

That means the Dolphins have to fill the need and a likely candidate is Bryan McCann, who played last week against the Patriots. McCann has been on the roster about a month.

The Dolphins can also use either Nolan Carroll or R.J. Stanford at the nickel and have the other playing the outside but that seems less likely. There's even a remote possibility the Dolphins can use newly signed Tyrone Culver in dime work as he played that role for the team for several years before he was waived in the preseason.

The injury's fallout?

The truth is Wilson has struggled in coverage this season. And McCann was not severely tested by New England although Wes Welker had a typically productive day. So this might actually be something of a net plus for the defense.

Obviously, Wilson has been very good on the corner blitz and as the Dolphins want to continue to use the strategy, it will test someone else's blitz ability.

Wilson's loss is almost a bigger issue on special teams where he is fourth on the team in tackles.

 

The matchup against Aldon Smith is worse than you think

Football is a matchup game these days.

It's about your center versus their nose tackle. It's your cover corner against their No. 1 wideout, your punter against their returner, your tight end versus their safeties, your running back must break a linebacker's tackle or make him miss to get into the secondary.

Mano a mano.

And, of course, it is about your offensive tackles against their best outside rushers. That is why Dolphins fans this week greeted the news of Jake Long going down with a torn left triceps as terrible news because now NFL sack leader Aldon Smith comes at the Dolphins when they face the San Francisco 49ers.

And the matchup that was supposed to be Smith vs. Long -- a fracas in 'Frisco, so to speak -- now is looking like Smith vs. Martin. And that seems more like a blowout by the bay.

Well, I have two nuggets of news for you -- one good news, one bad news.

I believe when the now expected Martin vs. Smith matchup does occur, the Dolphins new rookie left tackle will be able to hold his own. I do not expect that Smith will be able to work Martin for 5.5 sacks as he did against Chicago on Nov. 19.

Martin has spent much of his rookie season holding his own at right tackle. He played left tackle quite well at Stanford. And during his time with the Dolphins, no less than Cameron Wake has come to respect his work ethic.

"I know from literally watching him from the day he got here mature and grow in the game," Wake said. "He’s playing like a veteran. We don’t have any rookies anymore. That’s what we always talk about in this facility; there are no more rookies. You’ve been playing, you’ve got to go out there and step up, and even guys who “aren’t starting,” I mean you’re one shoelace away from being in there and (facing) live bullets.

"So him, like I said, from the day he got down here I been watching him mature and get out there and playing the game the way he's been playing, working hard, staying extra. Even him and I after practice kind of working on things. ‘Hey you know what this week I’ve got a guy who likes to give the spin move. Why don’t we work on that?’ And maybe I would say, ‘hey I’ve got a guy who is an outside puncher, help me out with that.’ We’re kind of working off each other so that, come Sunday, both of our jobs are a little easier.”

Dolphins coach Joe Philbin has shown confidence in Martin. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, who coached Martin at Stanford, admires the kid and knows he's solid. 

Good news, right?

Well, here's the downside of that.

While everyone else is worrying about Martin vs. Smith, the Dolphins are more worried about Nate Garner vs. Smith. That's right. The moving of Martin from right to left has forced the Dolphins to install Garner as your starting right tackle.

And that's the matchup the 49ers are more likely to try to exploit. And the Dolphins know it.

 "I think it’s a little bit different than it used to be," Philbin said. "Again, I go back to when I started coaching in the National Football League, it was always the premier rusher was always over here (on the right side, the offense's left side). Those days are over, so there’s good rushers everywhere.

"A, a lot of teams have good rushers off of both edges. B, there’s more matchup consideration I think defensive coaches give to pass rush than maybe they did 10 years ago."

In other words, defenses move their permier rushers to either side. So Smith is just as likely to rush from the left side (against the Miami right tackle) as from the right side (against the Miami left tackle). And given the matchup consideration, it will be as much about Garner vs. Smith than any Dolphins fan would want to consider.

So basically, the Dolphins will have downs on Sunday where they will match a backup right tackle, their sixth best offensive lineman, versus the NFL's sack leader.

Let that marinate a moment.

.....

.....

Yeah, not a great matchup for Miami.

Now, Garner is not without experience. He started eight games -- some at guard, some at right tackle, in 2009. And he was in line for consideration as a starter in the 2010 offseason before he injured a foot and spent the whole season on injured reserve.

“You love his versatility," Philbin said. "That was my main thing. When you’re a sixth or seventh offensive linemen on an NFL team, you’ve got to have versatility. You’ve got to be able to do more than one job and, fortunately for us, he’s able to function in a variety of different positions and we’re counting on him to play well."

Against Aldon Smith.

Yeah, that's not a matchup that favors the Dolphins.