SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
The Dolphins must emerge from 2012 knowing exactly what they have in Ryan Tannehill, but also critical is this: Owner Stephen Ross must decide whether Jeff Ireland is the right man long-term for the franchise’s most important position, aside from quarterback.
Ross made clear he expects a winning team in 2012, though some of Ireland’s moves suggest he’s far more concerned with 2013 than 2012. A friend of Ross believes Ireland will be in serious trouble if the Dolphins bomb. He insists Ross does not have “blind faith” in his general manager.
Another close business associate of Ross said Ireland probably would not survive a 5-11 season but cautioned there could be scenarios in which the Dolphins have a losing record but Ross still keeps Ireland.
Such as: If Tannehill plays very well; or if Joe Philbin convinces Ross that he and Ireland work well together and have this franchise on the right track, with the prospect of huge 2013 cap space ($60 million) and two second-round picks.
“Steve really likes Jeff personally and gives him the benefit of the doubt,” that associate said. But now that Ross has a coach in whom he has far more faith than Tony Sparano, he presumably will begin to question Ireland if Miami isn’t a playoff contender – which is Ross’ expectation.
Not only are the Dolphins carrying $15 million in dead money (for players acquired, then dumped), but Ireland released six of the nine veteran free agents he signed this offseason.
The shame here is that for teams that make the right personnel moves, there is precedent for quick turnarounds from 6-10. Surprisingly, more teams that finished 6-10 over the past 12 years – like Miami did in 2011 – made the playoffs the next season than finished with a losing record again (12 to 10). Of the 32 teams that finished 6-10 between 2000 and 2010, 17 had a winning record the next season and six won at least 11 games.
Last spring, Ireland told us he hoped to emulate the 49ers’ rise from 6-10 to 13-3 last year. “They needed new inspiration and new leadership and that’s what we would like to be,” he said. “They’ve got a good defense, really good offensive line. That’s what you aspire to be.”
That notion of a 49ers-type turnaround seems highly far-fetched now. Here’s some perspective: The Dolphins entered March eager to upgrade at nine positions. Of those, there is reason for hope that they are better, long-term, at two: quarterback (Tannehill) and right tackle (Jonathan Martin). That must play out.
At backup defensive end, Miami had no plans to keep Jason Taylor even before he retired and decided not to outbid Buffalo for Mark Anderson (10 sacks in 2011), opting for Jamaal Westerman (later released) and Olivier Vernon. Vernon, as a rookie, will be hard-pressed to match Taylor’s seven sacks, but he could pan out long-term. There's certainly hope there.
But at six other need positions, the Dolphins either regressed or didn’t upgrade at all for 2012, including tight end (coaches do not believe Michael Egnew is ready); linebacker (the Dolphins wanted to find a challenger to Koa Misi but cut spring addition Gary Guyton); safety (they cut Yeremiah Bell, then signed and cut Tyrell Johnson).
At right guard, they passed on more than a dozen established, healthy veterans, ultimately replacing Vernon Carey with a player who retired (Eric Steinbach), another (Artis Hicks) who developed a neck condition and another (incumbent John Jerry) who keeps underwhelming. At cornerback, they offset the addition of Richard Marshall by trading Davis, which gives 2013 free agent Sean Smith more leverage in negotiations, leaving Miami needing maybe two corners next spring. (The free agent class, besides Smith, includes Brent Grimes, Quentin Jammer, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Aqib Talib.)
And finally, there’s the disappointing situation at receiver, where Brandon Marshall essentially has been replaced by journeymen Legedu Naanee and Anthony Armstrong. So what happened there? To refresh, Ireland opposed spending on pricey free agent receivers -- Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and Vincent Jackson --- and watched Laurent Robinson cancel his visit when the Jaguars gave him $14 million guaranteed.
Miami then decided its young receivers were good enough that it didn’t need the next-best, cheaper tier of free agents: Brandon Lloyd (three years, $12 million from the Patriots), Eddie Royal (three years, $13.5 million from the Chargers) or Mario Manningham (two years, $7.3 million from the 49ers).
And though the Dolphins liked several receivers in the draft (such as T.Y. Hilton), they always had other players rated ahead of them until they chose sixth-rounder B.J. Cunningham, who was cut. They compounded the problem in June by signing Chad Johnson over Braylon Edwards, who is expected to start for Seattle and has been "very, very good," coach Pete Carroll said.
The hope is that Miami can lure a potential 2013 free agent such as Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings, Victor Cruz or Malcom Floyd. But Dolfans know, by now, not to get their hopes up.
### Ireland still has support among Dolphins colleagues. One, defending the Davis trade, cracked: “I must have missed Vontae’s Pro Bowl appearances.”… But a veteran Dolphins player, still bemoaning the Davis trade, expressed more concern about Miami’s predicament at corner than receiver.
### Don’t underestimate how much respect Tannehill has earned from teammates. “Every part of what you want in a quarterback, he’s got,” Matt Moore said. Beyond the physical skills, “he’s extremely intelligent, not your typical rookie. Some rookies are shy, but he’s not. It’s awesome to see how he communicates.” Guard Richie Incognito put it this way: “He’s got a level of confidence in himself that some rookies don’t have. It shows in the huddle.”
### Ex-Dolphin Taylor called out Reshad Jones this summer, saying he needs to pay more attention in meetings and “can’t play the young card forever.” But teammates cite Jones among the most improved young players (with Smith, Nolan Carroll and Daniel Thomas).
“Jason probably meant I need to be more of a student of the game, which I’ve done this offseason,” said Jones, who said he has assumed the leadership role vacated by Bell. “Coaches and the guys here know I can play. I can cover, hit, run. I wan to be the quarterback of the defense.” When asked who in the secondary has emerged as a leader, Philbin named Jones first.
### MLB officials privately express disappointment and concern that the Marlins haven’t drawn better. Marlins attendance ranks 12th in the National League and 18th in baseball. “It’s not what we wanted it to be, but we’re to blame, not our fans,” Marlins president David Samson said on his 790 The Ticket radio show. “It’s pathetic how bad our team is.”
### One veteran Marlins baseball official, on speculation that owner Jeffrey Loria will demote executive Larry Beinfest: “Jeffrey can’t blame Larry for the guys Jeffrey wanted,” including John Buck and Heath Bell. “You have to look in the mirror sometimes. Jeffrey was a big George Steinbrenner fan, but Steinbrenner eventually realized he needed to let his baseball people make the decisions.”
### Chris Bosh is adding bulk (six pounds of lean muscle) to prepare for the rigors of playing a full season at center.... The Heat is still giving thought about whether to sign former Knicks centerJosh Harrellson, who worked out for them the past week.... Knicks center Marcus Camby told Newday that even though he considered the Heat this summer, "I knew it would have been very hard for me to put on that Miami Heat uniform, especially with all the battles we used to have back in the days with [Allan] Houston and those guys."
### The last word to local agent David Canter, who represents six Dolphins: “I’ve had enough interaction with Joe Philbin and been around the league long enough to know he’s smart enough, with their fan base, not to pump his fist after field goals.” (Unlike Sparano).
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FYI: For a look at what former Canes greats are saying about UM's embarrassing loss Saturday, and postscripts and thoughts from the game, please see our last post.