November 19, 2015

Dolphins homestretch means exactly that this season

The Miami Dolphins return to Sun Life Stadium on Sunday, which happens to be November 22, and it will be the first time this team beholds that facility since October 25 when it last played a home game.

That's important because the last three games on the road, in which the Dolphins were 1-2, marked the end of the trek around the NFL that stretched beyond this continent. It was a trek Miami agreed to before the season schedule was constructed.

The Dolphins asked for a backloaded home schedule and got exactly that for reasons, they say, include issues related to stadium renovations -- which isn't total logical to me, but whatever.

That meant a front-loaded away schedule. That early portion is complete now.

The Dolphins survived played seven of their first nine games away from home. This included the "home" game against the New York Jets in London.

The Dolphins on Sunday thus embark on a run which will see them play five home games the season's final seven weeks. (I can unpack!)

"It’s great to be able to have an opportunity to be at home, but we need to be able to take advantage of those things and like I said, be consistent and we had an excellent showing the last time we were at home and we should be able to build off of that,” defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said in a run-on sentence Wednesday.

The Dolphins are 1-1 at home this year. They got blown out by Buffalo. They demolished Houston.

What happens Sunday with the Dallas Cowboys may set the stage for the remainder of this homestand. And how fans react Sunday as their team returns home for the first time in a month may also set precedence.

Regardless, the stadium is going to be full.

We just aren't sure how many of those people occupying the seats will be Cowboys fans.

According to SeatGeek, which tracks this stuff, the average price of a ticket for this game on the resale market is at $258, which is the highest any NFL ticket has been in Florida since 2010. And while SeatGeek doesn't make this leap, I would say the reason prices are high is because demand is high.

And if demand is high for a resale ticket, that's because a lot of Cowboys fans are putting in demands on those tickets.

So there's that.

The final seven games, with those five at home, is going to be something of a social experiment. If the Dolphins use it to rally from the AFC East cellar to a playoff spot, there will be those who say backloading a schedule with home games is a wise idea.

If the Dolphins do not, however, take adavantage of the looming opportunity, it will speak to the benefits of a more balanced schedule. And I would hope owner Stephen Ross gets that message because he was the one who more or less requested that backloaded home schedule.

It was Ross, wanting to get a Super Bowl, who agreed to surrender that Jets game to London. And it was Ross who requested to open the season on the road to make certain construction on Phase I of the Sun Life refurbishments would be complete by opening day.

(This is the part I don't get because the Hurricanes played in the stadium before Miami and the Dolphins played preseason games in the stadium in August.)

Anyway, if the Dolphins take advantage these next few home games, Ross will feel more comfortable asking the NFL to again backload Miami's schedule with home game against next year because, that's right, Phase II of the stadium refurbishments must be given ample time to be completed early in the year.

If the Dolphins don't rally, however, maybe Ross will see that a balanced schedule is better for his team and try to get his construction squad working overtime if necessary so they can get that canopy installed without affecting 2016 regular-season scheduling.

November 18, 2015

Ja'Wuan James out again, issues at LB, Parker update

The bad news for the Miami Dolphins first because, well, it is also the more important news:

Right tackle Ja'Wuan James, three weeks from suffering a toe injury at New England, is not practicing today and not playing Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. It will be the third game in a row James misses. It will be the third game in a row Jason Fox starts at right tackle.

More ...

Linebacker Jelani Jenkins (ankle) is in a walking boot today and not practicing. Linebacker Koa Misi (unknown injury) is also not practicing today.

That means the Dolphins linebackers working with the starting unit are Zach Vigil, Kelvin Sheppard and Spencer Paysinger.

Paysinger, out last week, is obviously back at practice.

[Update: Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell said he is "optimistic" both Misi and Jenkins would play Sunday but that both would likely be a game-day decision.]

So what's the good news?

Rookie wide receiver DeVante Parker, who was limited all of last week as he recovered from a scar tissue issue on his surgically repaired foot, told me he was back to full practice Wednesday.


Mike Pouncey: Great year but coming off a bad week

Mike Pouncey is have a pretty great year.

He signed a six-year, $52.438 million deal that included $22 million in guaranteed money last offseason, signaling the fact the Dolphins trust him to be an excellent player on the field and an asset off it.

And so far, he's met the team's expectations.

Interim coach Dan Campbell told me weeks ago the offensive line is "Pouncey's crew," meaning the line follows Pouncey's lead. When the Dolphins took the field in Philadelphia Sunday, the team huddled around Pouncey so he could spit some fire and get them going just before kickoff -- a role previously held by defensive end Cameron Wake.

And Pouncey has graded out very well on the field this year despite some shotgun snap issues between him, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and, in one instance, right guard Billy Turner.

But last week was not a good one.

It was a bad week for Mike Pouncey.

You saw it most obviously when Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox got under Pouncey's pads and basically threw him away on his way to a sack of Tannehill. Everyone saw it and then saw it again on replay.

Indeed, after the game, Dolphins left tackle Branden Albert approached Pouncey -- not in a critical way, mind you, but more in a brotherly way -- and implored Pouncey to understand that the moment was evidence he needs to take his time in the weight room much more seriously in the future.

Pouncey, not known as a great weight room fan, nodded his agreement.

That bad moment against Cox aside, Pouncey didn't exactly distinguish himself. He graded out 27th of the 28 centers graded this week.

Yeah, tough week.

This week has started out better. The team announced Pouncey has been named to its all-time Top 50 best players.

Of course, the success and failure of this week will be decided Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. Call that a build-up to a meeting against a New York Jets defensive line that is perhaps the best in the NFL.

It is going to be interesting.

Get in that weight room, like Albert says, Mike.


November 17, 2015

Olivier Vernon, no sacks versus Philly, increasing his worth

Olivier Vernon did not get a sack on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. But he made himself some money anyway.

In one of the most quiet ways, the Miami Dolphins defensive end dominated Philadelphia left tackle Lane Johnson and was a key part of Miami's defensive dominance of the line of scrimmage the final three quarters of a 20-19 win.

Vernon had six quarterback hits. He had a quarterback hurry. He also had four tackles, including two for loss. (He also had two missed tackles, and there's that for the sake of full disclosure). Generally he played very well.

But because he didn't get a sack the only folks that will likely notice are people that watch tape -- the Dolphins organization. And, yes, other organizations.

Vernon, you see, is scheduled to be an unsigned free agent after this year. And as has been their policy for most (if not all) their upcoming unsigned players, the Dolphins are not rushing to the bank to offer a contract extension.

Receiver Rishard Matthews, for example, has been Miami's most productive player who is scheduled to become a free agent in 2016 and his people and the Dolphins have not spoken about a new deal at all.

The thing is the Dolphins have wide receivers now and will have wide receivers in '16 -- with Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker all under contract relatively cheaply.

The thing is also the Dolphins are going to be thin at defensive end. Cameron Wake may or may not be back from his torn Achilles tendon at a cap cost of $9.8 million and at age 34. Dion Jordan, suspended this season for violating the NFL drug policy, may or may not be in the team's plans but regardless, who is counting on him, anyway?

And so, Olivier Vernon.

Only two sacks so far this season.

Yet, valuable for the unseen kind of stuff I shared earlier and the fact he attacks the offensive left tackle, who is often the better lineman for offenses rather than the right tackle.

The Vernon camp has been silent on what is looming as have been the Dolphins. That's because nothing is happening right now.

But in the next few weeks, you'll hear speculation of a possible franchise tag on Vernon or a transition tag on Vernon. You'll hear talk of the Vernon side wanting $30-$35 million in guaranteed money to re-sign.

And as we inch closer to free agency, you'll hear about a handful of teams interested in Vernon after the Indianapolis Combine -- which is an annual tamperingfest in the NFL.

So what's going to happen?

The Dolphins believe Vernon, a Miami native who attended high school and college here, will or should give them a hometown discount for the privilege of staying home. The other side believes Vernon is going to the highest bidder. Surprising, right?

The Dolphins hold the trump card in that if they do not want to lose Vernon, they can franchise him. But the other side looks at that trump card and sees a guaranteed $15 million payday to play for one year.

That is 10 times what Vernon is making this year.

And what if the Dolphins do not franchise Vernon? What if that price is too steep?

They can transition him for about $12 million for one year. And they still might lose him on the open market as they lost Charles Clay because while there is right of first refusal there is no compensation of any kind for signing a transition tag player.

What does this mean?

It means it is puzzling why the Dolphins don't try to get a better deal. Now.

It is shocking why the sides aren't already meeting to at least establish a footing for getting a deal done. Here's the thing: The common thinking is that conducting talks during the season is bad policy because it potentially distracts a player from performing on the field.

I call phooey on that.

I say a team approaches a player during the season, it sends the message, "Hey, we value you. We want you going forward." That isn't a distraction. That's a motivator to the player to perform better and show the team it's right to show interest.

And yet ... nothing.

While Vernon quietly goes about increasing his worth to the people who watch tape -- including other teams.




November 15, 2015

Miami Dolphins beat Philadelphia Eagles, 20-19

PHILADELPHIA -- Total team effort. Everybody helped. Only person who didn't play for the Miami Dolphins was backup quarterback Matt Moore.

This 20-19 victory that seemed so destined to be another blowout when the Eagles took a 16-3 first-quarter lead has got to be the most satisfying of the season.

The Dolphins fought back from the deficit.

They won on the road.

They won the game late.

And, again, everyone helped -- both high-priced vets and rookies.

Ndamukong Suh had his best game of the season with seven tackles, including three for loss, a sack and three hurries. He set the tone on defense.

The Dolphins hurried Philadelphia quarterbacks 10 times Sunday, including six for Olivier Vernon.

Reshad Jones had another impactful play with an interception of Mark Sanchez in the end zone to preserve the lead and victory.

Bobby McCain played well.

Jelani Jenkins went out with an ankle injury and Neville Hewitt got major snaps and finished with six tackle.

Ryan Tannehill, under tremendous pressure and absorbing many big hits, threw two touchdown passes and had a 04.3 quarterback rating.

It was a day to savor.

Good work.

And thanks Caleb Sturgis for missing that 32-yard field goal, costing the Eagles thee easy points in a game they lost by one.

Miami Dolphins without cornerback Brent Grimes today

PHILADELPHIA -- Starting cornerback Brent Grimes is inactive thus not playing for the Miami Dolphins today against the Philadelphia Eagles, meaning the defense will be without its two best defenders today.

The Dolphins already knew they would be without defensive end Cameron Wake, who is on injured reserve. But Grimes was a surprise when he became ill late Saturday night. Grimes came to the game today and tried to prepare to work but had a bit of a relapse and ultimately could not go.

As this is the second time this season Grimes suffers a bout of food poisoning prior to a game, it might be smart for the Dolphins to monitor what Grimes eats or bring him specialized food for the day prior to the game. 

The Dolphins will start Brice McCain and rookie Bobby McCain at cornerback today. It says something about the fall of Taylor and the rise of McCain that even without Grimes, it is the rookie who starts.

Interestingly, receiver DaVante Parker, who was limited in practice throughout the week, is active today.

The inactives are Grimes, Spencer Paysinger, Sam Brenner, Ulrick John, Ja'Wuan James, Matt Hazel and Brandon Williams.

November 14, 2015

Keys to the game: Miami Dolphins at Philadelphia Eagles

Some days I leave Miami Dolphins camp, the work day done, thinking these guys must be messing with my head because it is either that or they don't know what they're talking about.

As I was thinking about Sunday's matchup between the Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles this week it occurred to me that perhaps the Miami defense could draw on some of the insight and knowledge it has from facing the Miami offense so much in training camp. I was thinking that can help Miami against the Eagles Sunday.

After all, the Dolphins and the Eagles run a very similar offense. And Miami offensive coordinator Bill Lazor came from the Eagles where he was the quarterbacks coach.

So I asked defensive tackle Earl Mitchell if this similarity could help Miami?

"It can," Mitchell said. "At the same time, the you have different guys and different playmakers and stuff. But anytime you can get points just from practicing because we see our offense every day ever since training camp, going into the game there should be a lot of concepts we should be familiar with."

Makes sense.

It makes so much sense that Ryan Tannehill was asked if he watched a lot of Eagles tape when Lazor took over as OC in Miami. And then Tannehill kind of dismissed the notion.

"... We do a lot of stuff that’s different," Tannehill said. "Some stuff is similar, but a lot of it is different."

So how much is actually similar because watching these two offenses, they really do look similar -- maybe not in the results but certainly in their approach and the plays they run.

“I don’t know, it’s tough to say," Tannehill said. "I don’t know, 25 percent maybe."

Mitchell said there are a lot of concepts that will be familiar. Tannehill said the offenses are different and maybe only 25 percent is similar.

My head hurts.

The matchups:

When the Dolphins pass the football: The Dolphins have actually tried to take a few more shots down the field in recent weeks with some success. Ryan Tannehill and Kenny Stills had a 46-yard hookup last week even in the face of what was expected and was good quarterback pressure by the Bills. The Dolphins would like to get the football more to tight end Jordan Cameron because he is a matchup problem down the seam and in the red zone, but Cameron has been slowed by an ankle injury and that's one reason he had only one catch last week. The Eagles secondary is a collection mostly of free agents, including Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond, who joined the team this year. Former Dolphins draftee Nolan Carroll starts and generally plays well but, as Miami fans remember, he is sometimes prone to giving too much cushion particularly along the sideline. The Dolphins must be aware of Brandon Graham who has four sacks the past five games. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Dolphins run the football: The emergence of rookie Jay Ajayi last week promises something of a different combination for the Dolphins backfield. Lamar Miller, a speedster who likes to slash, still starts and should get most of the carries. But Ajayi, a downhill runner unlike any the Dolphins have had in a while, seems poised to be the short and tough-yardage back. He had a fine NFL debut against Buffalo last week, gaining 41 yards on nine carries, including a 23-yard run. The Eagles run defense, No. 21 in the NFL, has allowed opponents to gain 4.6 yards per carry or better in three of the last four games. This seems like an area the Dolphins should be able to exploit. The Dolphins will likely spend much of the afternoon double-teaming defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, as most teams do. ADVANTAGE: Miami.

When the Eagles pass the football: The Eagles started slow this season, losing three of their first four games, and some of that seemed to fall on new quarterback Sam Bradford, who was still getting familiar with coach Chip Kelly's offense. Bradford has still delivered some clunkers of late, notably against Carolina and the New York Giants, but he's completed nearly 65 percent of his throws the past four games as the team has won three of four. There is a question about this team starting slow in games (sound familiar?) and Bradford is still trying to get in synch with tight end Zach Ertz to overcome that. It should help Philly that receiver Riley Cooper, who has missed time with a toe injury, is expected back in the lineup. The Miami secondary is coming off a disappointing performance in which Brent Grimes got toasted by Sammy Watkins and Buffalo QB Tyrod Taylor completed 11 of his 12 passes. The Dolphins must get a more consistent pass rush on Bradford, particularly from the outside, to make the quarterback uncomfortable. I'm told it is unlikely left tackle Jason Peters will play against Miami. That means Lane Johnson will start at left tackle. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Eagles run the football: The Eagles run game has taken flight in recent weeks. Since Week Five, Philadelphia is second in the NFL in rush yards per game and is averaging 5.1 yards per attempt. Ryan Matthews and DeMarco Murray are as good a 1-2 combination as there is in the league and then the Eagles throw in draws and screens with Darren Sproles. The Dolphins are 31st in the NFL in run defense and this isn't an old problem that has been resolved of late. Indeed, Miami allowed Buffalo to rush for 266 yards last Sunday. The Bills not only ran well but gashed the Miami defense with runs of 48 and 38 yards.  ADVANTAGE: Philadelphia.

Special teams: Kicker Caleb Sturgis, a doppelganger for The Great Gazoo,  is doing a good job for the Eagles after being cut by the Dolphins. He's connected on two of his three kicks of 50 yards or more but has missed two extra point tries from this year's longer distance. Sproles is a scary punt returner and the Dolphins would be wise to kick away from him because Philadelphia ranks first in the NFL in punt returns and Sproles has three punt return touchdowns the past two seasons. The Miami special teams is coming off a game in which it collected five penalties that hurt Miami's field position and, yes, led to points for the opposition. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Coaching: Chip Kelly brings a downhill run offense that works extremely fast so as to vex opponents and is improving week to week. He has an experienced offensive coordinator in Pat Shurmur and defensive coordinator in Bill Davis. Dan Campbell had a rough game against the Bills and, the thing is, no one really helped him in deciding to call time out with only seconds to go in the first half and the ball at the Buffalo 1 yard line last week. What should have been three plays turned into only one. Inexperience. ADVANTAGE: Philadelphia.

November 13, 2015

Dan Campbell says Dolphins can turn bad to good, but has no experience of that happening

One of the impressive things about Miami Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell -- and there are quite a few things -- is that he can relate to players better than most because he was an NFL player for a long time and he's seen things they see and done things they're doing or want to do.

That's why it would seem to be uplifting when Campbell, at the helm of a team that has lost two consecutive division games, can and apparently has said to his team to take solace in the idea that they can rally from 3-5 and suddenly, improbably, get hot and race into the playoffs against all expectations.

Campbell can say, and players have taken note, that he was on teams like the current day Dolphins that unexpectedly turned a bad season into a good season.

"I don't see why not. I've been part of teams that all of a sudden make a run," Campbell said after the loss to Buffalo on Sunday. "You win seven straight, I've been part of that. I've been part of teams that won six straight. And you were counted out and all of a sudden you were the hottest team going in."

This is something to grasp on to at a time the season seems to be slipping away. If, after all, coach says he lived through something similar then it can apply to us, players may think.

"I think he’s been in this position before and went on to be in the Super Bowl so, he can speak at that from his perspective, which he went through by himself," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "I think he does a good job of translating what he’s been through and experiences he’s been through over to the team so we can learn from them."

So why not us?

Well, maybe because it isn't accurate.

Campbell played in the NFL from 1999-2009 and none of the teams he was on were "counted out" after a terrible string of losses and all of a sudden put together six or seven wins in a row to get in the playoffs.

Now, Campbell has been on very good teams, that is true. And he's been part of a couple of Super Bowl teams to one degree or another -- as a starter on one and on injured reserve another time.

He was a starter on the 2000 New York Giants and they went to Super Bowl XXXV where they lost to the Baltimore Ravens. But those Giants were 6-2 at the halfway mark in the season. And after falling back a bit to 7-4 (Miami would throw a parade for the Dolphins if they were 7-4), the Giants won their final five games to close out an NFC East division title.

So a team that was pretty good the first half of the season with a 6-2 mark finished the second half of the season with a 6-2 mark. Where's the surprise in that? A team that lost two in a row the first half of the season and still was 6-2 lost two in a row the second half of the season and finished 6-2 in the final eight games. Where's the improbability in that?

Yes, the over-reactionary New York media may have been counting out the Giants at 7-4, but the very idea that this might apply to the 3-5 Dolphins misses the mark.

Campbell was also on some other solid teams that won some and lost some. He was on the Lions when they lost every game. He was on the New Orleans Saints (on IR) when they went to the Super Bowl.

In 2009, Campbell signed as a free agent with New Orleans but he suffered a knee injury in training camp and was placed on injured reserve in August.

Despite the loss, the Saints started the season 13-0. So, yes, they strung a lot of wins together. But they didn't come back from the brink to do it. They weren't counted out. Yes, they lost their last three games of the regular season, but I'm not sure anyone was worried.

In fact, Drew Brees sat out the season-finale to rest and avoid injury before the playoffs because the Saints had home field advantage throughout. They were arguably the NFL's best team. So while Campbell was on a team that strung 13 wins together, they didn't do it improbably. They didn't come out of the grave to do it.

They were simply a really good team.

Campbell on Wednesday wisely walked back the narrative of being on a team similar to his 3-5 Dolphins that suddenly made the playoffs.

"Not a 3-5 but I’ve been on teams where you win a lot of games," he said. "I’ve been on one where we won seven in a row to get to the Super Bowl. My point with it is when you get hot, you get hot.

"Here’s what I do know as well, when you hit November, no matter what your record is, and I told the team this, this is where the teams really start to separate themselves because it’s that part of the season. Everybody is a little beat up, everybody is a little tired, everybody is a little testy especially when you lose a couple of games. But no matter where you’re at, teams will rise and teams will fall. There will be some teams that will end up being the hottest teams by the end of the year and some who are sitting pretty nice right now and they only win another one or two games.

"It happens every year.”

Maybe it happens in Miami. Maybe the players buy into the narrative despite its holes.

Bobby McCain arrow is pointing up for Miami Dolphins

Amid the bad news and disappointment and frustration of the 2015 Miami Dolphins season so far, there have been a couple of bright spots that give hope all is not lost.

(Quickly trying to think of bright spots now).

(Still thinking).

(Trying not to take a shot at Joe Philbin or Kevin Coyle).

Anyway, I know there are bright spots because one of them is rookie cornerback Bobby McCain.

Quietly, slowly, surely, McCain is developing into something of a contributor. Indeed, when pressed into service during the absence of veteran Brice McCain (no relation) the rookie McCain played quite well against Tennessee and Houston.

How well?

He's played well enough that even as Brice McCain is almost back to 100 percent and even as Jamar Taylor remains the starter on the outside opposite Brent Grimes, Bobby McCain has earned more playing time.

And we're not talking if someone gets hurt. We're talking sharing some plays with Taylor. Just as he shared some first-team snaps with Taylor at practice this week.

“Well, Brice is going to play a little bit," coach Dan Campbell said Thursday before quickly correcting himself. "Brice is going to get an opportunity to play, but Jamar will too, Jamar’s still going to play, but Brice has earned the right to get out there and compete.

"I mean, I’m sorry, Bobby McCain. Bobby McCain will play a little bit, Brice will still be in the nickel Ok, but Bobby excuse me, we got like three McCain’s on this team – Bobby will play a little bit. Yes he will.You’ll see what happens. Just know this: You will see some of Bobby.”

Just know this: In a year when the first round pick has not really contributed, and the second round pick has been inconsistent, and there was no third-rounder because it was traded away, and the fourth-rounder is a backup who won a starting job and then lost said job, the two fifth-rounders are on the rise.

Running back Jay Ajayi had a good outing in his NFL debut last weekend against Buffalo.

And McCain has been playing pretty well for a couple of weeks. And, yes, McCain still makes mistakes. He is by no means a perfect technician. He has a lot to learn, including his opponents. But he is showing flashes of aggressiveness and fight and coverage skills that are encouraging.

McCain has three passes defensed in his limited action. Taylor has one pass defensed this season and he's played much more and even started the past three games.

Now, I'm not saying McCain is moving ahead of Taylor. Campbell didn't say that, either.

But McCain is going to continue to get opportunities as long as he keeps improving. His arrow is pointing up.



November 11, 2015

Jonas Gray rejoins Dolphins but the backfield is Miller and Ajayi

Jonas Gray, cut from the Miami Dolphins 53-man roster Monday, has rejoined the team as a practice squad player, agent Sean Stellato said.

(First reported by Mike Garafolo of FS1).

And that's good for Gray who obviously stays (although in a diminished capacity and salary) with the team he's played for since the start of the season.

But if you're wondering how this impacts the Dolphins' running back situation you're getting into the weeds because the only way Gray factors the rest of this season is if an injury springs up among Lamar Miller, Jay Ajayi and Damien Williams.

And, meanwhile, we have what the Dolphins hope is a legitimate 1-2 combination taking shape in the Miami backfield with Miller and Ajayi.

Miller remains the starter. But Ajayi, fresh off his five-carry, 41-yard performance against the Buffalo Bills, has now earned himself carries in Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles and probably beyond.

“I think he did," coach Dan Campbell said when I asked. "For the carries that he got, I thought he made the most of them and he proved it, he pressed the hole and put his foot in the ground and go downhill.”

This doesn't mean Miller is about to lose his job. But it means the plan is for him to share carries with Ajayi, a rookie who spent the first seven games of the season on the injured reserve list with designation to return.

“Lamar has proven that he deserves to have to ball in his hands too however it comes down," Campbell said. "He’s done a heck of a job on those screens and he’s good out in space. I think if Jay continues to do what he did or what he flashed in that game then you have a couple of backs and they’re different in what they’re able to do.”

Miller and Ajayi are a good combination because they are dissimilar. Miller is not a downhill runner but he is fast and so he has great big-play potential. Ajayi has great slobberknocker potential because he's physical. Miller is a good pass-catcher. Ajayi seems better suited for short-yardage attempts.

So, yes, Jonas Gray is back on the Dolphins practice squad.

But the backfield is Miller and Ajayi.

Parker returns to practice (limited), offensive line in flux

The good news is that DeVante Parker is back to practice this week.

The first-round draft pick returned to practice today and said he would be limited to individual drills as he works his way back from a scar tissue issue on his surgically repaired foot. Parker missed last week's game at Buffalo.

The not-so-good news is that while practicing on a limited basis, it is unlikely Parker will be able to make the kind of coaches are hoping to see before they trust the rookie with more snaps in a game. So even as Parker progresses this week, it is hard to fathom him getting, say, 30 snaps at Philadelphia Sunday.

On the other hand, at least he's back working to a degree.

Not working at all today are right guard Billy Turner (unknown injury) and Spencer Paysinger (shoulder) did not practice today.

The Dolphins right side of the offensive line in practice today was Jason Fox at right tackle and rookie Jamil Douglas at right guard -- two backups.

Yes, starting right tackle Ja'Wuan James is still not practicing and not expected to play Sunday.

Parker returns to practice (limited), offensive line in flux

The good news is that DeVante Parker is back to practice this week.

The first-round draft pick returned to practice today and said he would be limited to individual drills as he works his way back from a scar tissue issue on his surgically repaired foot. Parker missed last week's game at Buffalo.

The not-so-good news is that while practicing on a limited basis, it is unlikely Parker will be able to make the kind of coaches are hoping to see before they trust the rookie with more snaps in a game. So even as Parker progresses this week, it is hard to fathom him getting, say, 30 snaps at Philadelphia Sunday.

On the other hand, at least he's back working to a degree.

Not working at all today are right guard Billy Turner (unknown injury) and Spencer Paysinger (shoulder) did not practice today.

The Dolphins right side of the offensive line in practice today was Jason Fox at right tackle and rookie Jamil Douglas at right guard -- two backups.

Yes, starting right tackle Ja'Wuan James is still not practicing and not expected to play Sunday.

November 10, 2015

Miami Dolphins fans ache over another season headed in wrong direction

It is only a game, right? So if the Miami Dolphins lose on Sunday, life goes on, no harm, no foul. The only people really, truly affected are the people directly involved with the team, right?


Sports, like it or not, are woven into the fabric of this country because we are a competitive people and we pick sides on just about everything and then compete both within and without the country to see if we can be the best.

And even when we're not directly involved in the competition Americans are often invested in the competition. That investment never reaches heights that determine life and death, but certainly the investment can, as you will soon understand, determine the quality of our lives and deaths.

That is what is so sad about the Miami Dolphins of the past dozen years or so.

Once upon a time, Miami's professional football team was a source of pride.

No matter come what may, Miami could count on the Dolphins to represent us and speak to the nation for us. In good times and bad.

We had hurricanes in the summer. But we had the Dolphins in the winter.

We had immigrants and some natives didn't like that. But natives and immigrants sat next to each other in the Orange Bowl cheering for the Dolphins.

We had racial riots and parts of our city were set on fire. But the Dolphins gave us reasons for parades. And the pride they instilled would sometimes set the community aglow.

We had drugs and crime and economic downturns and political scandals. But, dammit, we had the Dolphins. And Don Shula. And Larry Csonka. And Paul Warfield. And that undefeated season. And the No-Name defense. And those Super Bowl wins. And Dan Marino. And we sure as heck made the playoffs every year.

We might have had trouble six days a week. But on Sunday we had God. And the Dolphins.

We could count on both.

Then the decline came. It wasn't that the team was no longer great. We could handle not winning a Super Bowl every year. It was just that they were no longer a source of pride.

We had instead what can best be described as a source of ridicule.

We had coaches quit in their heart before the season was over, as Jimmy Johnson did in 1998 and again in '99.

We had 62-7.

We had great businessmen make poor decisions as Wayne Huizenga did by letting Johnson pick Dave Wannstedt, followed by the hiring of Nick Saban and Cam Cameron and, even Bill Parcells.

We had not just poor draft picks but historically bad picks like Yatil Green and John Avery and Pat White and others.

We had that 1-15 season and the drafting of the Ted Ginn family and the failing forward fast.

And then we got a new owner and we didn't get any better. We got worse. We didn't get Jeff Fisher because the new owner valued Jeff Ireland more. And we got that plane trip across country to hire Jim Harbaugh as head coach while the current head coach sat in his office in Davie.

We got Gator Day at Sun Life the day Tim Tebow pulled a comeback. We got orange carpets and celebrity ownership. We got fist pumping field goals. We got extensions for coaches that needed to be fired. And then we got a late-season firing of one head coach whose contract had been extended and and an early-season firing of another head coach whose contract had been extended.

We are told the organization is "first in class." But the standings say they're fourth in a four-team division.

And why do I say all this? Because all those terrible things, all those disappointing years, all those daggers to the hearts of the men and women who invested time, tears and treasure in the Miami Dolphins come at a cost.

The Dolphins have lost a generation of fans.

Around the country, the kids that grew up idolizing Shula and Marino are having their own kids now. And those kids idolize .... who?

Who is the face of this franchise?

In South Florida, the Dolphins ruled once upon a time. But that reign has ended. The Heat has won three titles the past decade and been to five NBA Finals. Children don't grow up singing the Dolphins fight song anymore because the idea of "Miami Dolphins No. 1" is unrealistic.

And the generation that came before, the one that inhaled Dolphins football with every breath, is disappointed -- again. And it is passing away.

I'm not making this up. Let me introduce you to Capt. (Army retired) Kurt F. Ziebis. He is a civilian contract and fiscal law attorney in the office of Staff Judge Advocate for III Corps and Fort Hood in Texas. He was reared in South Florida and graduated from the University of Miami law school. 

He grew up a Dolphins fan. His father before him was a Dolphins fan. I've never met him face to face. But like many Dolphins fans, Kurt has emailed me over the years to ask questions, send suggestions, and sometimes just vent about his Dolphins.

He sent this email Monday:

"My Dad lost his third battle with cancer a couple weeks ago. He passed away at home in Colorado about 20 minutes before my plane landed in Denver. I was able to see him last month and spend good time with him, even though he was clearly deteriorating. One of the last things we did together was watch the Jets beat the Dolphins in London on TV. My God, how he loved the Dolphins, Mando.

"He was cremated in his favorite suit, and along with family photos and mementos, we placed one of his Dolphin hats in with him -- my mom insisted. His funeral announcement included two team logos: Mets, and Dolphins. I guess they can sue me for copyright violation if they want to.

"Anyway, it's just so sad that he never got to see them at the top again. He was such an ardent fan, all his life. I look at this team today and I wonder if I'll pass before they are relevant again. But here we are again, Week Nine, and the Dolphins are out of it. Looking for a new coach. Probably needing a new QB as well. Same old, same old.

"I wanted them to be better for my father, it was one of his last remaining joys -- to watch them on Sunday Ticket. I'm sure they don't give a damn about Armin Ziebis, but he sure gave a damn about them. Right up until the end."

These Dolphins, once great and a source of pride and joy, have hurt themselves badly the past dozen years or so.

I hope they realize they've also hurt their fans.


Jonas Gray cut, Sam Brenner re-signed, Bill Belichick happy

The expected move that was telegraphed when Jay Ajayi had a solid game at running back for the Miami Dolphins on Sunday happened this morning: Running back Jonas Gray has been cut.

And all that means in Miami is the Dolphins could fill the vacant roster spot with offensive lineman Sam Brenner, who was re-signed after he was cut Saturday to make room for the addition of Ajayi to the roster.

Ajayi, as you might know, had been on the injured reserve list (with designation to return) and had been practicing with the team for a couple of weeks. He played at Buffalo and gained 41 yards on five carries, including a 23-yard run.

He was one of the few Dolphins bright spots in a 33-17 loss.

The Dolphins, who looked running back heavy the past couple of weeks, are at three running backs now -- Lamar Miller, Ajayi, and Damien Williams.

One more thing: Miller has had a solid season. He's rushed for 478 yards on 91 carries for an outstanding 5.1 yard per carry average.

But he is simply not the downhill runner the Dolphins seem to want. Ajayi, on the other hand, seems to be.

This requires scrutiny the next few weeks because if Ajayi continues to push piles and run hard as he did in Buffalo, it raises the possibility he and not Miller might be the future at the position. Miller is unsigned for next year.

Miller is a good player the Dolphins should want to keep. But if the money for him gets crazy next offseason ...

At the very least, the Dolphins now have a combination that brings  both physicality (Ajayi) and breakaway speed (Miller) to the backfield. This seems like a good 1-2 combination for the moment.

So how does Bill Belichick get a mention in the headline?

Well, the Patriots lost Dion Lewis for the season when he tore his ACL in a victory (yeah, another one) over Washington. So now, the Patriots, needing running back help, have the option of picking up a running back that once had a 200-yard-plus game for them.

Gray was cut by the Patriots before the start of the regular season after spending most of training camp on their roster.

There is no certainty Gray returns to New England. But, yes, the Patriots have options.

(And if things go as they've gone in recent history, Gray may lead the NFL in rushing the rest of the year if he goes to New England. Just the way things go, apparently).

November 09, 2015

Miami Dolphins defense gets shredded again

THE PLACE SO MANY DOLPHINS SEASONS GO TO DIE -- So yes, Dolphins coach Dan Campbell blew it on a couple of key decisions on Sunday and he took responsibility for it and I wrote in my column that's problematic.

But the biggest problem for Miami right now?

The defense.

This unit has allowed 95 points over the past 10 quarters starting with the second half against Houston in which it allowed 26 points, then 36 points against New England, and another 33 points against Buffalo on Sunday.

The defensive ugliness was all over the field for the Miami defense.


The Bills had two 100-yard rushers. That's the first time Buffalo, not a great team, by the way, accomplished that feat since 2007 -- when they did it against Miami. LeSean McCoy rushed for 112 yards on only 16 tries, including a 48-yarder. Karlos Williams had 110 yards on nine rushes, including two touchdown runs.

The Bills also had a 100-yard receiver. It marked the first time in Buffalo history that they had two 100-yard rushers and a 100-yard receiver in in the same game.

Sammy Watkins was that 100-yard receiver and he did all of his damage against Brent Grimes, Miami's best corner.

Grimes, who has been excellent for three years in Miami before this one, has been merely good for Miami this year. And while that wouldn't mean anything in most instances, the fact Grimes is now 32 years old raises the possibility he is starting to decline.

That may or may not be the case, but Sunday didn't help anyone who thinks Grimes is the same player he's been. He gave up eight catches to Sammy Watkins while shadowing the Buffalo receiver all over the field. The thing is, the Bills threw to Watkins only eight times.

In other words, Grimes lost on every single play the ball came to his man.

When asked what went wrong on the defensive side of the ball for Miami, Grimes was succinct.

"Um, me," he said. "I messed up. Made some mistakes at the line and when you do that in this league, they can make big plays so I take the blame for it. I didn't bring my A game today and hats off to the Bills ... you play in the league long enough, some stuff's going to happen like that."

There's more ...

The Dolphins are getting into this terrible habit of making mediocre QBs look great.

Tyrod Taylor looked great against Miami for the second consecutive time. He completed 11 of his 12 passes for 181 yards with one touchdown. His rating was 146.8.

Taylor in two games against the Dolphins: 32 of 41 for 458 yards, 4 TDs and 0 INTs. His passer rating is 145.7.

The Dolphins are going to gift him a jersey with the name Rodgers or Brady on the back, whichever Taylor prefers, because he's played in that quarterback orbit against Miami.

The Miami defensive front that was supposed to be so good this year once again was on its heels this day.

Olivier Vernon had five solo tackles, including two for losses. Everyone else? Ndamukong Suh, Jordan Phillips, Earl Mitchell and Derrick Shelby had one unassisted tackle each. Suh and Phillips also had a sack each.

But the Bills rushed for 266 yards, most of that through the heart of the defense.

"We manhandled them all day," Buffalo guard Richie Incognito said. "We were physical, we tossed them around and we got into a nice rhythm."

After the game, Robert Woods, who basically did nothing, was asked about McCoy's touchdown on which he had a key block.

"I'm trying to remember which one," Woods said. "We had so many touchdowns and motions today."


November 08, 2015

Buffalo Bills beat Miami Dolphins, 33-17

ORCHARD PARK -- This was the game Dan Campbell showed he is not yet ready to be an NFL head coach.

The man who has earned the respect of everyone in the Dolphins building since he made the jump from tight end assistant to interim head coach, made multiple questionable decisions in today's loss to Buffalo.

The end of the first half was a disaster, as you can read here. Then a second half decision was equally questionable.

In that situation, the Dolphins stopped the Bills on third down and forced a fourth-and-four situation that might have brought out Dan Carpenter for a 51-yard field goal try. But the Bills had been penalized for holding on third down.

So Campbell accepted the penalty, giving the Bills a third-and-14 situation. Tyrod Taylor passed 44 yards to Sammy Watkins for a TD on that extra down -- which never should have happened.

Call it second-guessing all you want, but not giving an offense another down is basic coaching 101 stuff.

That's not the reason the Dolphins lost. The Dolphins could not stop the Buffalo run game. They allowed 266 rushing yards.

The Dolphins couldn't finish drives well enough, either.

But the Dolphins are in last place in the AFC East for multiple reasons. And with Joe Philbin and Campbell today, coaching is one of them.

Clock mismanagement costs the Dolphins prior to halftime

ORCHARD PARK -- The Dolphins trail the Buffalo Bills, 19-7 at halftime, but the frustration in this is not that the defense has struggled to stop the run, or that special teams is costing Miami unseen yardage via penalties.

The Dolphins blew an opportunity to score at the end of the half and make this a 19-14 game when questionable clock management cost the team at least two chances at the end zone.

The Dolphins had a first and goal at the 9 yard line when a Lamar Miller pass completion from Ryan Tannehill started with 29 seconds to play. The completion was complete to the 1 yard line but the Dolphins did not call time out. They instead snapped the next play with five seconds to play.

A timeout would have ensured them two or three more plays. The botched clock management cost the Dolphins at least a dozen seconds.

And so when they got a first and goal after a pass interference, the team had only two seconds to take one chance at the end zone.

The Dolphins threw a pass that fell incomplete. They could have kicked the field goal but that they didn't was not a bad decision.

The fact they mismanaged clock was. Oh, by the way, the Dolphins went to the locker room with a timeout let.

Dolphins and Bills say things ... time to prove it today

This is the day the 2015 NFL season takes one direction or another for the Miami Dolphins and so, yes, this is as "win or die" season for the team, as defensive end Olivier Vernon said during the week.

And the Dolphins say the team you saw earlier this year is not really them. (Cue the mystery theater music because that contention seems strange to me.) But regardless of whether it was them or not, I ask this team to do one thing when making such contentions:

Show us that you're better than you say you are. My column asks this team to prove it because I (we?) are tired of hearing you have all this talent, and the coaching is so much better, and the attitude is greatly improved.

But there must be tangible evidence of all this showing itself on game day.

In Buffalo, by the way, the Dolphins face another team that talks as if they're really good but haven't proven it. They face the ultimate gas bag in Rex Ryan. He's made a career of telling you how great his players and teams are and yet, he's won zero Super Bowls. He's won zero division titles. He's won zero conference titles.

His Bills, which he predicted would be vying to overtake New England in the division, are 3-4 as are the Dolphins. That vaunted home field advantage?

The Bills are 1-3 at Ralph Wilson Stadium this season.

The Bills are coming off a bye and that would suggest they've had extra preparation for the Dolphins. But no.

Rex, whose career record in  the game after a bye is 1-5, gave his team the week off last week. So they had a week to prepare. Just like Miami.

Like the Dolphins, the Bills are 3-4. Yes, these two teams are in the same boat today. In more ways than one. 


November 07, 2015

Keys to the game: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills

Do I have to say it? Fine, I'll say it:

Sunday's game between the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills is, more than anything, a meeting of two teams trying to not stink and be in last place in the AFC East. The winner will find itself at .500 with a viable chance to continue a reach at the playoffs the second half of the season.

The loser will be in bad shape (if it is the Bills) and terrible shape (if it is the Dolphins). The Bills have lost three of their last four games, folks. They're not exactly headed in the right direction. The Dolphins are coming off a blowout loss to New England and trying to actually win a division game for the first time in four outings (the reason a loss would put them in terrible shape).

So, at the end of the day, as Ndamukong Suh says incessantly, this game is relevant because these teams are trying to avoid becoming irrelevant.

Those are the stakes. It's not about vying for a division lead. It's about trying not to be the division's worst team right now.

Sorry to put it in those terms but, well, facts.

And this is how these teams seem to match up:

When the Dolphins pass the football: There's a myth that the Buffalo Bills are a great pass-rushing team because that's what they were two years ago and again last year. The truth is the Bills are 30th in the NFL in sacks and the reason, according to Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, is because teams are getting the football out of the quarterback's hands quickly, throwing slants and taking short drops. That's likely the approach the Dolphins will take against the Bills. Ryan Tannehill has historically struggled against the Bills in Western New York to the point three of his worst career games have come against the Bills in that venue. Of course, Tannehill threw three interceptions against Buffalo in the first meeting and that was in Miami. The Dolphins must stay out of third-and-long situations because Miami converted only 31 percent of their third down situations in the first meeting and have gotten worse at it since. ADVANTAGE: Buffalo.

When the Dolphins run the football: At some point the Dolphins have to find out if their running game is legitimate or a mirage that only appears against poor teams such as Tennessee and Houston. Miami had ample success against Buffalo in the first game, averaging 5.1 yards per carry but the problem was the game got out of hand so quickly the Dolphins had to abandon the run. That limited the Dolphins to only 20 run plays. The Dolphins would love to be a in a close game that allows them to stay balanced. The Bills have the No. 6 run defense in the NFL but the absence of defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who is out, weakens the interior line. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Bills pass the football: Tyrod Taylor put up a career-best 136.7 quarterback rating against the Dolphins in their first meeting and his 277 net passing yards were also a season-high for the Bills. So is that likely to repeat against a secondary that has generally played well under new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo? Hard to fathom. What does work in Buffalo's favor is that the pressure on Taylor, who has been battling a knee injury, doesn't promise to be as fierce as usual because the Dolphins are now playing without elite pass-rusher Cameron Wake. The Bills are also expected to get Seantrel Henderson back in the lineup after he missed time with a concussion. The wildcard remains the availability of Buffalo receiver Sammy Watkins who has been limited by an ankle injury for weeks. He has said he's going to play but is listed as questionable. Tight end Charles Clay did major damage to his former team in the first meeting, catching five passes for 82 yards and a touchdown. The Dolphins, who struggle with tight ends, need to figure out why so many tight ends have played so well against them in recent years. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Bills run the football: The Bills backfield of LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams has been hurt most of the season but seems healthy now. That's bad news for Miami because the Bills have managed to be the No. 11 run offense in the league despite the injuries. The problem for the Dolphins is containing quarterback Tyrod Taylor whose mobility and desire to run adds a dangerous dimension to the Bills run attack. Taylor, however, is returning from a knee injury and still is wearing a brace so his desire to get outside the pocket and up the field might be diminished. The Miami run defense has improved the past few weeks since the team fired defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. In a strange twist, the replacement of injured Cameron Wake in favor of Derrick Shelby on early downs might be a benefit because Shelby is bigger than Wake and considered a slightly better run defender. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Special teams: Leodis McKelvin is expected back for the Bills this week  -- he broke his ankle at Miami last year -- and that could be a boost for the Bills kick and punt returns because Buffalo is 16th in punt returns and 32nds on kick returns. The Dolphins continue to be excellent on punt returns and pretty good on kick returns. The Bills, however, are ranked second in the NFL on kickoff coverage. As for the specialists, the Bills have gotten solid work from former Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter, who has connected on two of three attempts from 50 yards or more. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Coaching: Rex Ryan tried to hire Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell a couple of years ago but was blocked by the Dolphins. That shows the disparity in experience between the coaches. But the truth is that under Campbell, the Dolphins have generally been more competitive than under Joe Philbin. In Buffalo, meanwhile, Ryan has not gotten the results he expected from his defense and the team has lost three of its past four games. Both teams got extra preparation time prior to this game, the Bills because they had a bye and the Dolphins because they last played on a Thursday night game. ADVANTAGE: Buffalo.

November 06, 2015

Chris McCain, perhaps an unpolished diamond, gets a chance to shine

Chris McCain started training camp as the Dolphins strong side outside linebacker. And eventually when it became clear he hadn't won that job and probably wasn't suited to play the position, the Dolphins moved him to defensive end -- a move McCain says he found out about on twitter.

"I actually saw a tweet. Some people added it to my mentions," McCain said this week. "Somebody said 'Oh, I heard Chris McCain is a defensive end.' I found out on twitter. And then I came to practice one day and Coach [Dan] Campbell told me now you're a fulltime end."

And while that doesn't say great things about the speed the Dolphins might sometimes communicate news to their players and does speak highly of twitter, the move nonetheless is important starting this week.

With Cameron Wake on season-ending injured reserve, the Dolphins are looking for pass-rushing defensive ends. And newly minted pass-rushing defensive end Chris McCain, formerly a linebacker, is their guy.

McCain will not start against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. But he will be active for the game and get snaps in obvious pass-rush situations. It will be the first game McCain is active since the Oct. 4 game against the New York Jets.

"It's a good opportunity," McCain said. "Now you get to show to everyone why you should dress every week or should have been dressing every week. It's an opportunity that's coming this game and I'm not going to let it pass me by."

It might have been easy to think the 2015 season was going to scoot right past McCain because he was in limbo most of October. He wasn't a linebacker, so that was out. And as an end, he was usually the ninth defensive lineman.

The problem is the Dolphins activated eight defensive linemen for games.

So something had to happen to change the math.

The Wake injury did that.

McCain, frankly, is something of a tweener. Too big to play linebacker. Not quite big enough to have a prototypical defensive end body. So he spent much of the offseason managing his weight.

 "At one point in the offseason I was 257 and they were saying I was too heavy to be a linebacker so I lost that weight and then lost a few more pounds during camp and whatnot.," McCain said. "Now I have to start  playing catchup. I'm not starting over. But I'm starting back eating a little more, maybe throwing a couple of extra shakes in during the day. Now I have to be working on gaining weight."

McCain says he weighs 243. Most NFL 4-3 ends are about 270-280 pounds. He's not going to get there this season. But there are other preparation factors McCain says he does have under control.

"I was preparing to be a linebacker for the season coming in so I didn't keep on the weight that I believe I could have if I had known I was going to be a defensive end," McCain repeated. "That would have helped me out for the long run. But as far as being ready and figuring out their schemes and their setup and everything I believe I'm ready for that. But there's still stuff I can work on to be an every down defensive end. I don't feel I'm quite, quite ready for that right now but not too far off."

The move to defensive end was a wise one for Miami to make. McCain didn't look or play natural at linebacker. The many reads, the multiple responsibilities were probably too much too fast for him to play instinctively.

Defensive end?

Not much hard about see the ball, get the ball.

"Not too much thinking," McCain said. "You just play free and play loose."

The Dolphins have seemingly found a niche for McCain that suits his skills and abilities. Now it is up to him to show he merits the snaps.

And fans can take comfort in the idea that the Dolphins have found multiple players on the back end of their roster that were thrust into playing roles and responded well to the surprise of, well, even coaches.

Jelani Jenkins, for example, who was mired as a backup until a rash of injuries befell the linebacker corps the first game of 2014. He's a stalwart starter now. Jason Fox last year was a third-string tackle because coaches refused to play him, thinking they Dallas Thomas was a better fit at right tackle. Fox finally played when Thomas got hurt and played better than Thomas had.

Maybe McCain is that kind of diamond needing some polish.