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61 posts from December 2013

December 31, 2013

Names, people to keep in mind in coming days

Most of what goes on around a football team happens behind the scenes. Practices are closed. The locker room is closed except for a few minutes a day. Meetings are private. The draft room is off limits. And, of course, the hiring, firing or retaining of coaches and personnel people is way, way out of bounds.

(Unless the owner has a helicopter and he lands candidates he's interviewing on the field of the team practice facility).

Anyway, all that stuff is behind the iron curtain. But the curtain sometimes has little peepholes and sometimes names get out. And sometimes we learn that what we see in public is only a small fraction of what happened and was considered behind the curtain.

So allow me to share with you names of people that have to be swirling in Stephen Ross's head now that he's going to "look at everything," as he said about evaluating the Dolphins future direction:

1. Eric Mangini: Ross wanted to hire Mangini prior to the 2011 season but changed course when Jeff Ireland and Tony Sparano balked at the idea. Ross loves Mangini, currently a Senior Offensive Consultant for the San Francisco 49ers, for reasons I am not clear on. Mangini obviously has experience as a head coach as well as defensive coordinator but Ross would not limit the consideration of Mangini to a coaching job. Mangini wanted to drive his career toward the front office and so if Ross fires Jeff Ireland, this is a possible GM replacement. Indeed, even if Ross retains Ireland, Mangini might be brought in to oversee both the coach and general manager. Ireland is no longer in the position of strength he enjoyed in 2011 so he'd be unable to dissuade Ross this time.

2. Brian Gaine: He is currently the assistant GM and Ireland's right-hand man. He's an up-and-coming talent to the point he interviewed for the New York Jets GM position a year ago. If Ross decides he wants to or must fire Ireland, it is possible he'd promote Gaine to the job overseeing personnel. It's also possible Ross would give Gaine authority over personnel while still answering to someone such as Mangini or Dawn Aponte or Carl Peterson (more on those two in the coming paragraphs). This is an interesting dynamic because Gaine is a loyal and honorable guy. He might be uncomfortable taking Ireland's post after Ireland promoted him. He might not want to be a personnel man answering to people with limited personnel background. Or he might get the thumbs up from Ireland and be an easy fit.

3. Aponte: Do not underestimate her ability to work the system and climb the ladder. She came to the Dolphins as a cap specialist and has ascended to Executive VP of Football Administration. She also bonded with coach Joe Philbin and is one of if not his primary advisor. One of her known goals is to be an NFL general manager. If Ireland is dismissed, she will likely want the job. And although she has zero experience in personnel evaluation, she'll argue she can do the job with the assistance of a savvy talent evaluator at her side -- someone like Gaine. Aponte's name is also being floated around the league office for a possible position there. She worked at the league office for three years. Before that she worked for the Cleveland Browns for a year and the New York Jets for 15 years. She is close with, you guessed it, Mangini -- the former head coach in Cleveland and the Jets.

4. Scott Pioli: He helped build the New England dynasty of the early 2000s. He was the GM of a Kansas City franchise whose downfall was not talent but rather coaching and quarterback play. Pioli would be a strong GM candidate if Ross fires Ireland. Like so many of these other folks, Pioli has New York Jets history. It is where he and Bill Belichick linked up prior to their run in New England. It must be said, Pioli would typically not be a GM candidate unless he can bring his own head coach. That's how he did it in Kansas City. But as GM jobs are scarce now -- only one GM so far has been fired this offseason -- Pioli might be willing to accept working with Joe Philbin for a year before making a decision to retain or jettison him after 2014.

5. Peterson: He has been and remains a friend and advisor to Ross. If Ross decides he wants to go back to the football czar dynamic -- one in which a guy like Peterson oversees the daily workings of the head coach and GM and reports those directly to the owner -- then Peterson would be a candidate. As you know, Ross does not want to fire either Jeff Ireland or Joe Philbin. He didn't plan to fire either Ireland or Philbin as late as a week ago before the season-defining collapse. So maybe the owner's answer to all this is give both Ireland and Philbin a "Make the playoffs in 2014 or bust" ultimatum while King Carl oversees their every move.

6. Mike Tannenbaum: Another person with New York Jets connections. What do you expect from an owner that lives in New York and whose group of advisors include former Jets employees? If Ross doesn't want to promote Aponte to GM she might bolt to the league office if that opportunity pans out. Tannebaum, the former Jets GM, would be a capologist or football executive answer in Miami. This would particularly be the case if Ireland is fired and Mangini comes to town. Tannenbaum and Mangini were a team with the Jets from 2006-2008 until Tannenbaum whacked him after the 2008 season. (That's the NFL, folks).

If you'll notice there are a lot of New York Jets connections here. It probably makes Dolphins fans queasy because it's the Jets and, after all, their Super Bowl drought is longer than Miami's so what makes those folks so smart?

But here's the thing: Ross has multiple Jets people around him now.

L. Jay Cross is the President of Related Hudson Yards and is leading the Related Companies' project on the west side of New York City. Ross is founder and chairman of Related. Cross was president of the New York Jets from 2000-2008.

Matt Higgins was the New York Jets' executive vice president Business Operations from 2004 through early January 2012. He left the team to co-found RSE Ventures, a tech company charged with getting fans closer to sports and entertainment events. The co-founder and chairman of RSE? Stephen Ross.

Higgins was a valued advisor to Jets owner Woody Johnson during his time with the Jets. When Ross came out of the Dolphins locker room on Sunday he was accompanied by, you guessed it, Matt Higgins.

The reason the Dolphins did nothing on Monday

The Dolphins carried on Monday, business as usual, while other NFL teams undergoing change fired their coaches and one fired both their coach and general manager.

The reason for the relative calm?

According to a source familiar with the situation, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross had never expected Monday would be about possibly firing general manager Jeff Ireland or head coach Joe Philbin and so he wasn't prepared to do either.

The Dolphins owner instead expected Monday to be about his team preparing for a playoff game next weekend.

And that, Ross planned, meant the Dolphins brass would have remained status quo going forward -- with Ireland as the GM and Philbin as the coach in 2014.

But the Dolphins not only lost their penultimate game against Buffalo but their season-finale against the New York Jets as well. And that changed everything.

Suddenly an owner who expected to be making no change at GM or head coach this offseason was forced to begin considering just that.  And that, the source says, is exactly what is happening.

Ross is, as he told The Miami Herald Sunday afternoon, "looking at everything."

He is weighing all his options. He is consulting with trusted people. He is considering the ramifications of standing pat as well as making moves.

Understand that this can be complicated.

Fans and even media can call for the ouster of this person or that with no ramifications. Ross doesn't have that luxury. If he decides to fire someone, he has to have a plan in place that he believes will lead to a better situation than the current one.

He cannot, for example, simply fire Ireland and keep Philbin -- the sceanario believed most likely -- without weighing how he would replace his general manager. Would he conduct a search that would be hamstrung by the fact he's already got a coach on board? Would he conduct a search for a GM candidate to whom he'd give authority to fire Philbin? Would he promote a GM from within?

Ross also must consider if he wants to change the structure of the organization.

Does he want a GM and a coach who report only to him, which is the Dolphins current structure? Does he want to hire a czar of sorts to whom the coach and GM would report? Does he want to simply stand pat and not fire anyone?

The Dolphins did nothing on Monday. But apparently owner Stephen Ross was working.

December 30, 2013

The Dolphins world according to Joe Philbin

Joe Philbin had his season-ending press conference on Monday. It had its interesting moments. It had its head-scratching moments.

Philbin's evaluation of the 2013 season and his evaluation of the team are underway but his message on each seemed unpolished. The coach, you see, believes the season was nothing grand ...

"It was average. We were 8-8. It was an average season," he said. "There's areas we need to improve starting with me. 8-8 is not where this franchise wants to be, needs to be or should be.

"We need to make changes, adjustments, tweaks, additions, deletions."

And yet, in the next breath, Philbin said the Dolphins are close to reaching their goals of winning a championship.

"We're not that far away," he said. "We're close."

Philbin's logic is that the team was 8-6 and a victory away from the postseason tournament. No, they didn't win either game at season's end, but he still believes that constitutes being close to some degree.

Look, the Dolphins are not close. They have the potential to be a good team but it is clear this coaching staff could not get the players to perform up to that potential. That's a problem.

And I don't see how a team that needs a virtually complete offensive line rebuild (outside of Mike Pouncey), a running back, and addressing of linebacker problems, can be considered close. I don't see how a team whose offensive coordinator failed to significantly improve his unit and whose offensive line coach failed to keep his unit from being a disaster can be close.

As far as Philbin is concerned, however, he seems to think his staff is strong.

"I have a lot of faith and confidence in myself and the staff and our players that we can make the corrections necessary to lead this team to play up to its potential and lead this team to a championship," Philbin said. "That's what I said the day I got here. I stand by what I said the day I got here and I'm confident I can do that."

Philbin knows he has to make a decision on Mike Sherman and Jim Turner. If he doesn't know, he's ignorant to the facts of 2013. But he refused to give an inch on the idea any of his coaches might have to go.

"I'm going to talk to every single player and every single coach and we'll decide and determine 2014 at a later point in time," he said. "I have a lot of confidence in our staff, our offensive staff, Mike Sherman. He's an excellent football coach. That's what I think."

I asked Philbin if, given his close relationship with Sherman, he is capable of either firing Sherman or convincing him to fade away via resignation.

"I'm beginning the evaluation of the 2013 season and we haven't made any decisions on who's coming back and who isn't," Philbin said, dodging the question. "We'll have all those discussions at the appropriate time."

No, I said. The question is whether you are capable of firing Sherman if it comes to that?

"That's my answer," Philbin said.

Philbin and owner Stephen Ross talk every week. They visited for nearly 30 minutes after Sunday's 20-7 loss to the New York Jets. At no time during those conversations has he been given assurances he'll be back in 2014. The subject hasn't even come up because both he and Ross seemed to assume the coach would be back.

"We haven't even talked about any of that stuff," Philbin said.

Ross, I'm told, likes Philbin. He doesn't want to fire Philbin.

But the collapse of 2013 in which the Dolphins didn't put up any fight in the two most important games of the season could be a game-changer.

 

Brian Hartline has torn PCL

Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline has a torn PCL, an MRI on his injured left knee confirmed this morning.

Hartline will not require surgery, according to an NFL source, and he will be ready for the start of the 2014 training camp if not earlier.

Hartline, who finished the season with 76 catches for 1,016 yards and four touchdownds, was in the locker room briefly this morning but did not discuss his status. He was on crutches and wearing a soft cast or sleeve of some sort.

A PCL injury is tricky because the surgery to correct the procedure has not been perfected by medical science. And so rehabilitation and strengthening the areas around the knee are the best course for returning to action.

 

 

December 29, 2013

Ross: 'We're going to look at everything'

Steve Ross came out of the Dolphins locker room after Sunday's 20-7 loss and basically announced no one's job is safe.

"I'm making no comment on that," he stated before adding, "We're going to look at everything."

My question to Ross was whether he knew 100 percent he was definitely going to retain or fire anyone -- including general manager Jeff Ireland and coach Joe Philbin.

"I'm disappointed," he said before that. "What else can I tell you? For everybody, you know? I have a lot to think about.

"I'm going to look at everything. When you're disappointed you don't make decisions based on the fly. You have to give it a lot of thought and go look at everything."

Ross said he was feeling pretty good about his team two weeks ago when they were 8-6 and playing Buffalo and New York next. He expected to be in the playoffs.

"Of course we were. Sure," he said. "To have something like this -- to lose the last two games -- I'm disappointed for everyone."

It's clear Ireland, the team's GM, has been in a tenuous situation this year. There have been times he's been seemingly on the outs. Ross a couple of months ago told him he was safe.

But now after this collapse Ireland's status is again uncertain. Team insiders have believed that Philbin, who helped the Dolphins navigate through the NFL scandal and reach to the precipice of a playoff berth, seemed safe.

Now, that is also in question because the Dolphins failed terribly the final two games of the season against teams that had losing records going into the meeting with Miami. The Buffalo loss last week was bad. This 20-7 loss to Jets was worse.

Ross was apparently ready to excuse the first. But the second?

"The team's played well. We had one bad game," he said.

But today?

"You expect to win."

Dolphins blow another game, shot at playoffs

This season will go down in Dolphins history as an embarrassment.

Forget the NFL scandal which was, of course, a nightmare. Forget losing to the winless Tampa Bay Bucs. But to have the playoffs set before you the final two weeks of the season and blow it?

Jets 20, Dolphins 7.

To score one touchdown the final eight quarters of the season against teams with losing records?

To lose to Thad Lewis not once but twice and then regress against Geno Smith because you got him benched the first meeting and in the second meeting he outplayed your defense?

To spend over $200 million in offseason contracts, including over $100 million in guaranteed money, and you improve only one game from 7-9 to 8-8?

Embarrassing.

Some change is coming, folks. I don't know to what heights it will climb, but there is change coming.

Live blog: Dolphins hope to make playoff reach

Tell me before kickoff ... Will the Dolphins show up today?

Will coach Joe Philbin have them well motivated to the point they play fast and jump on the Jets?

(Peanut Gallery: But Mando, if they can't get motivated for a big game like this, when can they? They don't need the coach motivating them.)

Dear Gallery, did you catch the Buffalo game last week?

Have you seen this franchise's recent history?

The Jets have not won consecutive games this year. They won last week. Just saying.

The inactives for the Dolphins today are: Pat Devlin, Mike Gillislee, Will Davis, Jalil Brown, Danny Watkins, David Arkin and A.J. Francis.

Source: Changes of some significance coming

You should know Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said he's going to "look at everything" in evaluating his team. Two sources told me Sunday evening changes of some significance are coming, without specifying what changes exactly that would entail.

That could involve general manager Jeff Ireland. That almost definitely will include assistant coaches. It may even mean coach Joe Philbin will be out -- although that seems the least likely scenario. A two-game end of season collapse that keeps a team from making the playoffs will do things like that.

And the Dolphins aren't just out of the postseason but they just played their fifth consecutive non-winning season.

Frankly, this coaching staff is frustrating. Consider the Dolphins have enough talent that they they were 4-3 against 2013 playoff teams. But they were so inconsistent as to go 4-5 against teams that didn't make the playoffs.

The Dolphins improved their road record this year to 4-4. And they took a step back at home by going 4-4.

I don't see this team playing desperate and smart all the time for Joe Philbin. I saw the Jets showing more desire for Rex Ryan.

Consider that in the second quarter, Jets quarterback Geno Smith rushed up the middle on a keeper inside the red zone and ran through Dolphins middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe's tackle attempt at the goal. The QB ran through the MLB's tackle.

The flip side of that came when trailing 14-7 in the third quarter, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill faced a third-and-21 situation. He escaped the pocket and ran through the vacated middle of the New York defense for 20 yards. He went into a baseball slide one yard short of the first down. On third down he went into a slide a yard short!

One quarterback ran over a Dolphins tackler. One quarterback avoided a hit and fell short of a meaningful first down.

(On fourth down the Dolphins ran a Mike Sherman special ... an off tackle run by tight end forced to play fullback Charles Clay. Clay was stopped for no gain, which has happened plenty this year).

The last two games these Dolphins have been a lot of things but full of passion wasn't one of them. This team played better at the beginning of the year than the end, which suggests no progression. This team never had an identity on offense and never solved its run-defense issues.

That's on players. That's on coaches.

General Manager Jeff Ireland is obviously on the firing line as well. The offensive line, the unmerited trust in Daniel Thomas, the limited help from the 2013 draft class -- all of that should and will be evaluated.

Ross is going to be busy the next couple of days. 

 

December 28, 2013

Keys to the game: Dolphins vs. Jets

The Dolphins should be the New York Jets on Sunday. They have more at stake. They have more talent -- as easily illustrated by a look at the quarterback position and the fact Miami has four Pro Bowl players and New York has none.

So I'm picking the Dolphins to win. Again.

I did so last week in a big game and the Dolphins did not cooperate. So we shall see.

Anyway, here's the breakdown of the game:

When the Dolphins pass the football: Ryan Tannehill is aiming for his third consecutive home game with 300 passing yards but it’ll be more about the points than the yards for Tannehill, who is coming off his first poor December performance of the season. The Jets were not able to cover Mike Wallace in the first meeting. He was open on short and intermediate routes all day in part because Antonio Cromartie had a hip injury and wasn’t able to get his weight under his hips as quickly as he usually could to react to short routes. The Dolphins took those short completions but were unable to connect on longer routes because, well, Tannehill and Wallace don’t connect on those very often. Brian Hartline schooled rookie Dee Milliner in the first meeting and Milliner was benched, but he’s coming off his best game of the season – one in which he had his first NFL interception and had five passes defensed. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Dolphins run the football: The most important person connected to the Dolphins running game doesn’t wear a uniform and hasn’t gained a yard this season. Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman first must decide he wants to run the football before the Dolphins can actually attempt it. Last week against Buffalo, Sherman decided he didn’t want to run the ball. He called only 12 run plays all game. How’d that work out? The Dolphins have run the ball only 327 times this year and only Dallas and Atlanta have run the ball less. This despite the fact the Dolphins average 4.1 yards per rush, which is tied for 18th in the NFL. The only game Sherman has been persistent running the ball this season was the first meeting against the Jets when Miami ran 36 times. If and when the Dolphins run against the Jets this game it’ll be Lamar Miller getting not enough carries followed by Daniel Thomas, hobbled for a couple of weeks with an ankle injury, getting not enough carries.  The Jets rush defense is No. 3 in the NFL. ADVANTAGE: Jets.

When the Jets run the football: If offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is smart, he looked at what the Bills did last week (51 rushes for 203 yards) uses a Xerox copy of that plan against the Dolphins again because his situation is the same as Buffalo’s: Young inconsistent QB and decent running game. The Jets are the No. 2 run offense in the AFC. Running back Chris Ivory rushed for 100 yards last week. The Dolphins have a problem that has been getting worse, not better, in defending the run. The Dolphins haven’t shut down or even considerably slowed down an opponent’s running game in 10 weeks. Look for safety Reshad Jones to spend a lot of time in the tackle box near the line of scrimmage. ADVANTAGE: Jets.

When the Jets pass the football: When quarterback Geno Smith plays well, the Jets win. That’s why the team is 5-0 in games Smith has an 80-plus quarterback rating. The last game the teams met, Smith was terrible and was benched. Not surprisingly, Miami won the game. The Jets passing game has been inconsistent in part because primary receiver Santonio Holmes has been injured most of the year and gets only limited practice repetitions with his starting quarterback. Tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., dealing with knee issues, is also mostly a name but not much of a threat anymore. The Dolphins can take solace that Olivier Vernon had his best game of the season (three sacks) against the Jets. ADVANTAGE: Miami.

Special teams: The Dolphins tried a fake field goal two weeks ago. This game, with a playoff spot and the season on the line, might be another time for the team to try something special from the special teams. Outside of Brandon Fields, Miami’s special teams haven’t been special this season. The Jets are slightly better than Miami statistically in kickoffs and punt returns. The Dolphins are better at covering kicks and punts. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Coaching: Rex Ryan is coaching for his job. He’s reportedly told his team he’s going to go down fighting and they should do the same. That suggests an emotional coach and team on the opponent sideline. Joe Philbin’s team is coming off a game where they showed no urgency at Buffalo. The coach is not emotional but rather a planner and detail-oriented guy who doesn’t want to get too high or too low. ADVANTAGE: We’ll see.

December 27, 2013

Four Dolphins in the Pro Bowl

The NFL announced its Pro Bowl players for the 2013 season and four Dolphins are on the teams that will play next month.

Defensive end Cameron Wake, cornerback Brent Grimes, center Mike Pouncey and punter Brandon Fields were named to play in the game on January 26. The game, held in Honolulu, Hawaii, will be played at 7 p.m. eastern and aired on NBC.

“I want to congratulate Brandon, Brent, Mike, and Cam on being named to the NFL Pro Bowl team,”  Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “It is a well-deserved honor. I know they will be outstanding representatives of their teammates and the rest of the Dolphins organization in Hawaii.”

Fields, in his seventh NFL season, will be making his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2014. Fields is ranked second in the NFL in punt average (48.8 per punt), second in net average (42.8), third with 33 punts inside the 20-yard line and has also recorded the third longest punt (74 yards at Buffalo on December 22, 2013) in the league during the 2013 season. Fields is one of only two Dolphins punters to be selected to the Pro Bowl, joining Reggie Roby (1984, 1989).

“It’s a great honor to be selected to the Pro Bowl,” Fields said. “I am very excited on my first selection and to be able to celebrate it with three of my teammates. I want to thank coach Philbin and also (special teams coordinator) coach (Darren) Rizzi and (assistant special teams) coach (Marwan) Maalouf for all the work that they have put in and guidance the last few years to help me get to where I am at today.”

Grimes, in his seventh NFL season and first with the Dolphins, will be making his second trip to the Pro Bowl. He previously was selected to the 2011 NFC Pro Bowl squad as a member of the Atlanta Falcons. In 2013, Grimes has started all 15 games at cornerback and has recorded 55 tackles, leads the Dolphins with 15 passes defensed, and is tied for the team lead in interceptions with four, including one which he returned 94 yards for a touchdown. Grimes is the just the third Dolphins cornerback selected to the Pro Bowl, joining Sam Madison (1999-2002) and Patrick Surtain (2002-04).

“This selection means a lot especially coming off last year, to come back and make the Pro Bowl is a big deal,” Grimes said. “I would like to thank all the fans, the whole Dolphins organization for believing in me and giving me a chance. Of course I would also like to thank all of the defensive coaches, especially (defensive coordinator) coach (Kevin) Coyle, (defensive backs) coach Lou (Anarumo), (assistant defensive backs) coach Blue (Adams) and (defensive assistant) coach (Jeff) Burris for not only believing in me to get me here but believing in me throughout the year and helping me to become a better player.”

Pouncey, in his third NFL season, will be making his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2014. Pouncey has started at center in 13 games for the Dolphins in 2013. He is the first Dolphins center selected to the Pro Bowl since Tim Ruddy in 2000 and is only the fourth Dolphins center selected to the Pro Bowl, joining Hall of Famers Jim Langer (1973-78) and Dwight Stephenson (1983-87) and Ruddy (2000).           

“It’s truly a great honor to be named to the Pro Bowl, this recognition obviously would not have been possible without the all the other guys on the offensive line around me,” said Pouncey. “I would also like to thank the fans, the Miami Dolphins organization, Coach Philbin, the offensive coaching staff and especially Coach (Jim) Turner who have helped me reach this honor.”

Wake, in his fifth NFL season, will be making his third trip to the Pro Bowl and second as a defensive end (he made the Pro Bowl in 2011 after a 14-sack season as a linebacker). In 2013, Wake has registered 35 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 19 quarterback hits, eight tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one safety through 15 games. On October 31, 2013, Wake recorded the first safety of his NFL career when he sacked Andy Dalton in the end zone with 6:42 remaining in overtime giving the Dolphins a 22-20 victory over the Bengals. It marked just the third time in NFL history that an overtime game had been decided on a safety.

Wake is one of only two Dolphins players to earn Pro Bowl recognition at different positions (linebacker in 2011 and defensive end in 2013 and '14), joining teammate Randy Starks who was selected as a defensive end in 2011 and as a defensive tackle in 2013.

 “This honor would not have been possible without my teammates, the coaching staff and the fans of the Miami Dolphins," Wake said. "I have to thank, coach Philbin, coach Coyle, (defensive line) coach (Kacy) Rogers, (assistant defensive line) coach (Charlie) Bullen and the rest of the defensive coaches. It’s an honor that I will share with all my teammates who deserve credit for this as well.”

The Dolphins and Patriots lead the AFC East teams with four Pro Bowl players. The Bills had three players on the team. The New York Jets did not have a Pro Bowl player this season.

The primary reasons Miami Dolphins run D struggles

The biggest challenge the Dolphins defense faces against the New York Jets on Sunday? Well, the Dolphins certainly don't think it's rookie quarterback Geno Smith throwing the ball.

"We can’t allow them to run the football against us," defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said. "That is going to be our big challenge."

It's Miami's biggest challenge on Sunday because, frankly, run defense has been the biggest challenge for Coyle's unit all season long. The Dolphins are the NFL's 25th-ranked run defense. They've been hovering in that neighborhood all year but the 203 yards rushing allowed against Buffalo last week was a stunner.

"That’s unacceptable, as far as we’re concerned," Coyle said.

The problem is the Dolphins have had to accept the fact they've struggled in their rush defense all year long.

They gave up 154 yards to San Diego.

They gave up 152 yards in the first meeting against New England.

The Dolphins have given up 133 rushing yards or more in nine games this season. Opponents have averaged 4.5 yards or more per rush in six games and at least 4.0 yards per rush in 10 games. Bottom line, when teams stick with the run, the Dolphins often give up lots of yards.

So why is that? Why has a team that was No. 3 in the NFL against the run in 2011 (in Tony Sparano's final season) gotten so much worse so quickly?

Well, I'd suggest to you the decline wasn't necessarily quick. Last year (in Joe Philbin's first season) the Dolphins were No. 13 in the NFL in rush defense with generally the same personnel as in 2011. Yes, that's a drop from 2011 but the worrisome thing is the trend continued this year and this year the run defense has fallen off the table. 

And this has happened in a season where both interior run stuffers Randy Starks and Paul Soliai are playing for a contract and, guess what, doing a good job against the run.

The fact is the poor run defense doesn't necessarily start in the middle of the defensive line where the problem lies for most teams with such issues. Starks is having a great season stopping the run. He's the No. 4 rated defensive tackle against the run in the NFL according to ProFootballFocus.com.

Soliai is similarly playing well against the run. He's the No. 12 rated defensive tackle against the run. And Jared Odrick is rated No. 28 against the run. All three have plus-grades for the season against the run.

Yes, they've had struggles here and there. And sometimes one or two plays well while the other is not so good. But generally, these guys are not the problem.

So what about the edge guys? Obviously if the Dolphins are solid on the first level up the gut, perhaps they're soft on the edges.

Um, no. Not really.

The edge players were bad against Buffalo. It was a terrible performance. But taking the whole season into account, Olivier Vernon, Cameron Wake, Koa Misi, even Derrick Shelby and Dion Jordan have been solid against the run. Misi and Shelby in particular have been good against the run.

None of this translates to No. 25 against the run.

This does:

Middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and outside linebacker Phillip Wheeler have been, well, atrocious against the run a majority of the 2013 season. Both have struggled all around but for Ellerbe, has been particularly bad against the run.

The man who was supposed to take over for Ray Lewis in Baltimore hasn't been able to fill Karlos Dansby's shoes in Miami.

Ellerbe is the 53rd-ranked middle/inside linebacker overall in the NFL according to ProFootballFocus.com which is almost as bad as one can get because there are only 55 players rated. And he's worse against the run. Ellerbe is rated 54th out of 55 against the run.

The ratings are fair.

Anecdotally, I see a lot of Ellerbe's 58 solo tackles four- and five-yards down the field. He has not been what I would call a gap filler. And he rarely makes plays in the opponent's backfield. He has two tackles for loss the entire season.

Two.

Last year Dansby had nine tackles for loss. He had 100 solo tackles or 42 more than Ellerbe currently has.

(Dansby is also having a better year than Ellerbe out in Arizona and way better than he ever had in his time with the Dolphins. He's the No. 5 rated inside linebacker overall and No. 14 against the run, according to ProFootballFocus.com).

The issue also bleeds over onto Wheeler, who if possible, is having a worse season than Ellerbe statistically.

Wheeler is rated No. 33 out of 34 outside linebackers against the run by ProFootballFocus.com. Overall, he's dead last. While Ellerbe stays in the game despite his obvious shortcomings, the Dolphins have routinely subbed Wheeler out of games for rookie Jelani Jenkins -- not a good sign for a player making big money and hoping to stay around a few years.

Meanwhile, the NFL's No. 2 rated outside linebacker against the run?

Kevin Burnett, the player Wheeler replaced. Burnett is rated No. 11 overall by ProFootballFocus.com. It should be noted Wheeler is not any worse this year than Burnett was last year. He misses more tackles but Burnett had issues with calls at times and was often out of position. But the fact Wheeler came to Miami as an upgrade rather than to simply continue the trend of not-good-enough is a disappointment.

Now, let me just say, I think part of the problem we have here is coaching.

Consider that Miami's defense against the run started declining with the arrival of the new staff. Also consider that Ellerbe and Wheeler were pretty good in Baltimore and Oakland, respectively, last year. And the guys who were no great shakes here the past couple of years -- Dansby and Burnett -- are turning in great to very good seasons the very year they leave Miami.

So players are better elsewhere. When they come here they get worse. When they leave here they get better again. That is not coincidence. That's on the coaches.

But the fact is Ellerbe and Wheeler are not anywhere else. They're in Miami.

And from the PFF tape study of their games, their statistics and what we've all seen with our eyes, they are major factors in Miami's struggling run defense.

Will Dolphins show out or fail to show up?

Will the Dolphins show up on Sunday against the New York Jets?

That's the question I write about in today's Miami Herald. That's the question that matters most now.

The reason we have to ask the question is last week was a major disappointment against an inferior Buffalo team. With so much at stake the Dolphins didn't show up against the Bills.

I believe they came out flat and stayed that way. Coach Joe Philbin would argue the Dolphins were not flat.

I would suggest the Dolphins coach should have gone above and beyond last week, last night at the team meetings at the hotel, this morning, and before the game to motivate and get his team up. You know Rex Ryan, fighting for his job, will have something up his sleeve.

Last week, after the Dolphins dealt New England a defeat, Bill Belichick had something up his sleeve for the Patriots.

Some players believe coaches motivating is a good thing. Movies, highlight tapes, speeches, anything ...

“It helps motivate you," offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie told me. "Initially, it helps you as far as your mindset going into the game. Once the ball is snapped you’re obviously not still thinking about that. But your mindset going into the game,  it can help."

Several Dolphins players I spoke with, however, don't care much for motivational tactics from their coaches.

"I just don’t buy it," offensive tackle Tyson Clabo said. "You’re either good at football or you’re not.”

So why do teams play flat sometimes?

“It’s about momentum," he said.

Momentum? So the Dolphins weren't flat against the Buffalo, but rather they simply had no momentum?

“Not a lot of good stuff happened in that football game," Clabo said. "We made a lot of mistakes all across the board. The defense is out there playing hard and doing a pretty decent job and we can’t piss a drop. And they’re out there the whole game. They had 51 rushing attempts in the football game. We just didn’t make any plays. No one made any plays. We just didn’t play well.

"The whole game everybody is thinking this thing in going to turn. I felt like that until the very end when I knew it wasn’t going to turn. And even then in the fourth I’m think we’re alright, we’re alright but it never happened for us.”

Well, that was last week. This week the Dolphins cannot afford a similar letdown game.

And so I hope Philbin and his staff did something, anything, to make sure the Dolphins don't play this game like they did the last.

December 26, 2013

Should Dolphins pick on Dee Milliner and can they?

At times like this ripping off Shakespeare seems appropriate: To pick on Dee Milliner or not to pick on Dee Milliner? That is the question.

The last time the Dolphins played the New York Jets signaled perhaps the worst day Milliner, the Jets' first-round pick, has had since coming into the NFL. He missed three tackles, he gave up at least four catches for 74 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown to Brian Hartline on which he missed the tackle after the catch.

Milliner was benched in the third quarter.

So should the Dolphins go after the rookie again on Sunday when they need to do good work on passing downs?

Well, the answer might be a little disturbing to Dolphins fans.

To begin with, Milliner has recovered quite well from that bad outing.

He's only missed two tackles in the three games since that one, has five big stops and has graded out with a plus-grade in each game. Last week Milliner collected his first NFL interception and had five passes defensed against Cleveland.

"He's playing more comfortable, more confident," coach Joe Philbin said.

Great but it's one thing to play well against the Browns. Why wouldn't the Dolphins, who have proven they can beat Milliner go after him?

Well, it seems the Dolphins offense itself is one impediment.

"Our offense is not so much about picking on a guy," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "You kind of go through your progression and if you have a matchup you take the play. I don't think we completely focus on singling out any one person."

That's fine when everything is equal. But sometimes things are not equal. Sometimes teams suffer injuries and the player on the field is a weak link. Sometimes a player has lost confidence. Sometimes a player is slowed by an injury and still trying to play through. Sometimes an inexperienced player is simply struggling.

In these rare instances it would be good to single out a person.

 

 

Thomas not practicing Wednesday, others limited

Many NFL teams did not practice on Wednesday because it was Christmas. Nonetheless, those team had to submit an injury report to the NFL that is an estimation of what would happen if the team had practiced.

According to the NFL's Wednesday injury report the New York Jets did not practice. The same report indicates the Dolphins did practice on Wednesday, although coach Joe Philbin said on Tuesday he was giving the players the day off.

I'll try to get this cleared up Thursday morning.

[Update: The Dolphins say they did not practice Wednesday. Must be some schedule misunderstanding between the Dolphins and the league. So Miami did not practice.]

At any rate this is the official injury report for Wednesday...

NEW YORK JETS at MIAMI DOLPHINS

JETS (The New York Jets did not conduct a practice on Wednesday).

DID NOT PARTICIPATE IN PRACTICE
Ellis Lankster (jaw), TE Kellen Winslow (knee).

LIMITED PARTICIPATION IN PRACTICE
LB Quinton Coples (shoulder), CB Antonio Cromartie (hip), WR Santonio Holmes (foot, hamstring), DT Sheldon Richardson (finger, shoulder).

FULL PARTICIPATION IN PRACTICE
DT Kenrick Ellis (back), T Austin Howard (knee), RB Chris Ivory (quadricep, ankle), WR Jeremy Kerley (elbow), C Nick Mangold (toe), LB Garrett McIntyre (knee), DE Muhammad Wilkerson (wrist)
 
DOLPHINS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE IN PRACTICE
RB Daniel Thomas (ankle).

LIMITED PARTICIPATION IN PRACTICE
 S Chris Clemons (knee, hamstring), WR Brian Hartline (knee), LB Koa Misi (triceps), WR Marlon Moore (wrist), DT Jared Odrick (wrist), DT Paul Soliai (ankle).

And below is the injury report for the other game that matters to the Dolphins.  Also, the Chargers and Chiefs game is important to the Dolphins but practice for both teams was not complete at the time the NFL generated the report. 

BALTIMORE RAVENS at CINCINNATI BENGALS

RAVENS (Baltimore did not practice on Wednesday).

DID NOT PARTICIPATE IN PRACTICE
G Gino Gradkowski (knee), CB Asa Jackson (thigh), DT Arthur Jones (concussion)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION IN PRACTICE
LB Elvis Dumervil (ankle), LB Albert McClellan (neck), RB Ray Rice (thigh), WR Torrey Smith (thigh).

BENGALS (Cincinnati did not conduct a practice on Wednesday).

DID NOT PARTICIPATE IN PRACTICE
 LB Vontaze Burfict (concussion), TE Tyler Eifert (neck), CB Terence Newman (knee), TE Alex Smith (concussion), DT Devon Still (back).

LIMITED PARTICIPATION IN PRACTICE
TE Jermaine Gresham (hamstring), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (ankle), LB Vincent Rey (ankle), T Andre Smith (ankle)

FULL PARTICIPATION IN PRACTICE
LB James Harrison (concussion)

December 25, 2013

Christmas gift: Chiefs will rest starters

Once again, Merry Christmas everyone. As I didn't really get you anything, let me do so now:

The Kansas Chiefs, locked into the No. 5 playoff spot and not excited about exposing their players to injuries, are expected to rest their starters against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.

Translated, the Kansas City Star reports, that means the Chiefs, 11-4, likely will approach this game against San Diego, 8-7, much like KC coach Andy Reid did four times in Philadelphia when his Eagles’ teams were locked into playoff positions going into a final week, the same way most teams approach a final preseason game.

He’ll give the starters a series or two and then go to the backups. Unlike in the preseason, a team with 53 players on the active roster can’t rest everyone. But don’t expect to see much of quarterback Alex Smith, running back Jamaal Charles or outside linebacker Tamba Hali, who did not practice Tuesday because of a swollen knee.

“I’m going to work some guys in,” Reid said. “Most of them have already worked in. … I talked to the team, and I will have it figured out by the end of the week exactly how I’m going to work it."

Why is this important news to you on Christmas Day?

Well, the Chiefs play the San Diego Chargers. And the fact they're going to play reserves gives the Chargers, who've already beaten the Chiefs once this season, a greater chance of winning this game as well.

And ...

For the Dolphins to make the playoffs, they need to win on Sunday against the New York Jets and hope for one of two other things to happen: Miami needs Baltimore to lose OR San Diego to beat Kansas City.

The Chargers' chances just got better.

Merry Christmas.

Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2013/12/24/4712392/chiefs-reid-to-mix-and-match-players.html#storylink=cpy
Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2013/12/24/4712392/chiefs-reid-to-mix-and-match-players.html#storylink=cpy

Merry Christmas: God bless us, everyone!

Merry Christmas!

I wish you and yours all the blessings this day represents.

God bless us, everyone.

Enjoy:

 

 

December 24, 2013

Joe Philbin addresses the media before Christmas

The Dolphins adjusted their schedule this week so players and others could have Christmas Day off and celebrate the holiday with their families if they wish.

So the team practiced Tuesday and will return to work Thursday.

Coach Joe Philbin talked to the media today.

This is what he said:

(Opening statement) – “I thought our players had a good practice today (in) our normal down-and-distance preparation for the Jets. We talked to the team this morning about playing our best game of the year. There is nothing to wait for or hold back for. We have to play our best game of the year Sunday at 1 p.m. It should be a great atmosphere. We get to close out our season at home. That’s where we are.”

(On where he would rate his one-two receiving combination of Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline at this point) -  “I think they’ve both made a good contribution to the offense. I think they’ve been consistent throughout the course of the year. I like what they’ve done. I think they can do different things, complementary skills to one another. I think they’ve been good.”

(On if Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline’s production is what he expected out of them) - “I think it’s good to have balance as an offensive unit and have more than one guy that you can go to throughout the course of the season or a game for that matter. I think it’s been great.”

(On what Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler have done well against the run) – “I think they’ve played downhill. I think their play-speed has been good. I think they’ve done a good job attacking the line of scrimmage. I think overall they’re tackling has been good. Not unlike other teams, our defense at times, we’ve got to continue to work on our run fits as a unit, not necessarily just those two individuals.”

(On what does a sack do to an offense besides jeopardizing a quarterback’s health) – “The objective is to move the ball into scoring position and ultimately score points, touchdowns hopefully. Negative plays are something you as an offense you coach against. You don’t want penalties. You don’t want negative yardage runs or sacks. We approach it kind of from the opposite that we want to teach good pass protection fundamentals, good schemes that are sound and protect our quarterback. At times we protected our quarterbacks well. At times we haven’t.”

(On the 65%-35% ratio between passing and running on offense)  – “Again each game is a little bit different. I know after 15 games that’s where we are in terms of the run-pass ratio. As I said the other day, I would like to have run the ball more than 12 times the other day. I also would have liked to have a longer run more than three yards. I think game-to-game you are in different situations, and the scoreboard dictates some of the play-calling. I think in a perfect world we would like to be running the ball more.”

(On what number he would strive for per number of rushes) -  “I haven’t really thought about it, but yeah more than where we are at now”

(On why the team doesn’t run the ball more on third down) – “There is no opposition to it. They hadn’t really done a lot of that prior to this game. To their credit they had a couple of good looks and executed their plays well, but we are certainly open to any way we can move the chains. It’s not like we are not going to run the ball. It’s just the defenses we anticipate we don’t think it is real advantageous to do that.”

(On what is the cost benefit of running the ball) – “Usually football is a game of leverage. If you have leverage or advantage numbers wise, you may want to run it as opposed to pass it. If they have more than you got, it becomes a little bit of a dicier proposition. You just have to weigh those factors when you are putting your plan together.”

(On if the Jets have progressed the three games since they’ve played) – “I think their quarterback’s playing better.  We knew (Chris) Ivory was a good player, he seems to be more productive.  Their sack total is down a little bit so they’ve been staying out of the situations we were in the other day.  Offensively when you’re in better down and distance, your second down is more manageable, you’ve got a bigger playbook, you have more play action, you have movement passes and those type of things that we were kind of out of.  I think they’ve just been doing a better job managing the sticks and playing sound football.”

(On what he can take out of the first meeting) – “I thought we executed relatively well.  Our guys made a couple plays. We broke some tackles especially in the second half.  Certainly want to do a better job in the red zone, we kind of went down the field a lot we got a lot of yardage, we need to score more points the second time around.  I think we’ve got to take advantage of our field position and the opportunities we get when we’re in the red zone.  I thought we moved the ball consistently well but we’ve got to score more.”

(On how the players who have played with a one year contract have performed) – “They’ve done a good job.  I thought (Tyson) Clabo played a very good game the other day, Brent (Grimes) has been consistent all year long.”

(On what the pressures are while playing on a one year contract) – “I think those guys are professionals, they’ve been in the league for a long time.  They are professional and come into work every single day looking for a way to contribute to the success of the team.  I think when you’ve been in the league for a while you understand, really the fact of the matter is most everybody that plays or coaches is (on a one year contact), your paper might say different, but that’s kind of life in the NFL.”

(On the decision to give players Wednesday off) – “I did make it a little while ago as I looked at the whole season and how we do things.  It is a little bit of a change for us, we talked about it.  We’ll do something things a little bit differently on Thursday than we typically would do.  I just think Christmas comes once a year and when you have an opportunity to spend Christmas with your loved ones you should do it.  I think it’s a doable thing, sometimes we may not be able to do that, but I think when you can do it you should do it.”

(On how he promotes playoff atmosphere through the holiday week) – “We talked to the team today about it.  This is truly a one game season and it’s going to be December 29th and we need to put together our best effort in all three phases of the game.  It’s as simple as that.  There are nine millions scenarios that everybody can get into and worried about but our players need to be worried about preparing well and playing the game at one o’clock.”

 

PFF Tuesday: Relive the Buffalo nightmare

No frills today, folks. It's Tuesday. It's the day this blog turns to the folks at ProFootballFocus.com for their tape review of the last game.

The last game was a nightmarish 19-0 loss to the Bills.

This is the review of the nightmare:

Offense

Left guard Sam Brenner played just 20 snaps, but clocked in with a -4.8 grade, doing poor work in the run game (-1.5) and even poorer work in pass blocking (-3.4). He was replaced by Nate Garner and its going to be interesting to see this week which of the two starts against the Jets.

RB Daniel Thomas got more snaps than Lamar Miller for just the third time this season, and second if you don’t count the game Miller suffered a concussion.

TEs Michael Egnew (three snaps) and Dion Sims (11 snaps) combined for just 14 snaps, as the Dolphins were in 11 personnel for most of the game.

Ryan Tannehill dropped back 34 times. He was under pressure on 17 of those dropbacks.

TE Charles Clay caught passes against Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, Jim Leonhard, and Jairus Byrd.

Defense

It was a rough day for the defensive line. Cam Wake (-2.5) and Jared Odrick (-3.1) had their worst graded games of the season and Olivier Vernon also had a poor game (-3.5).

MLB Dannell Ellerbe has been trending in the wrong direction. He also had his worst graded game of the season (-5.5), and worst in run defense (-3.7) as well.

DE Dion Jordan played just 14 snaps, most coming when Olivier Vernon needed a breather on a long drive. Coach Joe Philbin mentioned last week that Jordan is getting around 40 snaps a game. Not even close.

Despite giving up the biggest gain of the game in tight coverage to Robert Woods, Nolan Carroll allowed just two other catches on six targets for 27 yards.

Bills QB Thad Lewis was able to attack Phillip Wheeler and Ellerbe. They combined to allow five catches on six targets for 58 yards. These guys were supposed to be better in coverage than Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. Not this day.

By way of reminder, as fans continue to ask about this, the Dolphins must win or tie against the Jets and need help to make the playoffs. These are the scenarios:

Miami clinches a playoff spot with ...

1)    MIA win + BAL loss or tie OR

2)    MIA win + SD win OR

3)    MIA tie + BAL loss + SD loss or tie OR

4)    MIA tie + BAL tie + SD tie

December 23, 2013

Mike Sherman defends abandoning the run

The Dolphins abandoned the run on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, seeing the nine runs he called in the first half not working all that well, basically abandoned the idea of running the ball in the second half.

The Dolphins called only three run plays in the second half.

And Sherman believes that was the way to go.

“I just did not feel at any point that of those 12 carries our longest run was three yards," Sherman said Monday. "We really haven’t had many explosive runs this year which is not good, we need to continue to build towards that.  A lack of productivity in the run game caused me to veer off into another direction."

And this is where the words sound fine but the logic is simply absent.

The run game wasn't working for the Dolphins so Sherman went in another direction.

Did he go in another direction when the passing game stunk? Or did he keep calling passing plays?

By abandoning the run, Sherman thought he was doing what was best for the Dolphins. Wrong. He was playing right into the hands of the Buffalo Bills.

The Bills wanted the Dolphins to pass the football. They were praying the Dolphins would pass. You know why?

The Bills lead the NFL in sacks. The Dolphins lead the NFL in sacks allowed. The only way the Bills were going to collect more sacks and build on the momentum those plays deliver is by having the Dolphins throw the football. And Sherman obliged.

Another thing: The Bills are not a good run-defense. They were ranked No. 26 in the NFL against the run. So by abandoning the run, Sherman was declining to attack the weakest part of the Bills defense.

And all this happened in a game where the score was 13-0 with over six minutes to play. So it is not as if the Dolphins were totally out of this game and needed to pass out of desperation.

Look, the Dolphins are passing team. I get that. They throw the football more than any other NFL team save one. Despite this, Sherman claims he believes in balance.

“Believe it or not, my history has always been with the run game," he said. "There is a definite place for it, as well as the pass game. You’re talking about post season play, people are going to defend what you do the best.  If you can’t keep them from having numbers to take away your run game by being able to throw it, then you’re going to have a tough time running it.  Because a of weather situations that you may face and the grunt and grind of it all you have to be able to run the football, I think to be successful.

"To be successful in the playoffs I believe this too and people are going to stop what you do best, if you’re a really good running team you can’t throw the football and capitalize on situations where there is an overpopulated box then you’re going to have a tough time too. I think you have to be able to do both and you have to be able to have balance."

To be able to do both you have to commit to both. The suggestion the Dolphins are committed to running the ball is a joke.

Running the ball requires persistence. It doesn't always work. It doesn't always work early. Teams that do it well stay with it.

The Dolphins don't stay with it. And not surprisingly, they don't do it well. 

After trampling by Bills, Dolphins still in hunt

The Dolphins allowed the Buffalo Bills to trample all over their playoff hopes on Sunday. It was the combination of bad offense, bad defense and bad coaching coming together to form one enormous disappointment of an outing.

The bad offense? Six first downs. Only 103 total yards. A shutout.

The bad defense? The Bills rushed for 203 yards.

The bad coaching?

Miami couldn't stop a team from running the ball after that team came into the game without its starting QB, its No. 1 wide receiver, and then lost it's No. 2 wide receiver (ejected) and No. 3 wide receiver (knee injury). The Bills were effectively one dimensional in the second half and was still able to rush for 141 yards in that half.

Also, the Dolphins had to run the ball to beat the Bills. The Bills expected the Dolphins to try and run the football but the second-most pass heavy team in the NFL ignored the run.

I know the Dolphins -- specifically Mike Sherman -- will argue that there is no use running the ball when you've tried it and it has failed early. I say ridiculous. Did Sherman quit throwing when it failed time and again and his QB kept getting sacked?

You have to continue to run the ball to be able to run the ball.

Amazingly, the Dolphins today are the No. 6 seed. They actually are in better shape today than they were last week. But they still need help to make the playoffs.

The Dolphins make the playoffs if they win AND either the Bengals or Chargers win next Sunday. The Bengals host the Ravens. The Chargers host Kansas City.

Amazingly, the two teams that were tied for the final AFC wildcard spot heading into Sunday both lost ... by a combined score of 60-7.