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November 03, 2013

2 p.m. update: Cowher blames Philbin; Fins' rookie play time lagging; Fins, Heat; UM-FSU notes

The SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN is below. A quick update on the Jonathan Martin saga, which has mushroomed in the past few hours amid numerous network reports that contradict the team's earlier statement.

NFL Network and Fox are reporting that the Dolphins will place Martin on the non-football injury list, and NFL Net says he has no plans to come back any time soon unless the Dolphins change their workplace environment and protect him from harrassment. CBS says the Dolphins are refusing to do that.

In that, the Dolphins deny there is any harrassment ongoing. ESPN reported Joe Philbin tried to get Martin's father to release a joint statement -- essentially saying that Martin never told the Dolphins he was being harrassed --- but Martin's father balked. ESPN says Martin is upset about the harrassment and upset the Dolphins have portrayed Incognito in a positive light, but that he is now afraid of retribution should he ever return.

The Dolphins then released this statement:  “We received notification today from Jonathan’s representation about allegations of player misconduct. We are taking these allegations very seriously and plan to review the matter further. We have also reached out to the NFL and asked them to conduct an objective and thorough review. As an organization, we are committed to a culture of team-first accountability and respect for one another.”

On Sunday night, the Dolphins suspended Incognito indefinitely while the NFL investigates the Martin situation.

Meanwhile, CBS' Bill Cowher --- who doesn't often criticize coaches --- is holding Joe Philbin partly responsible for this mess.

"In the NFL, perception is reality," Cowher said today. "Perception you have here is the coaching staff does not have a pulse for their football team.... The head coach immediately should have addressed this from the top. Because now it's taken on a life of its own."



As they chase a playoff berth, the Dolphins also hope to use the second half of the season to gain insight on assorted issues, beyond observing Ryan Tannehill’s growth. Assessing several at the midway point:      

### What exactly do they have in this rookie class?

Aside from Seattle, which didn’t have a first-round pick, no team has fewer offensive/defensive snaps from its first four draft choices.

Third overall selection Dion Jordan’s 169 snaps (excluding special teams for everyone) are fifth-fewest among all first-round rookies, ahead of only Indianapolis’ Bjoern Werner (picked 24th) , Green Bay’s Datone Jones (26th), Denver’s Sylvester Williams (28th) and Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson (29th).

Jordan, who has 10 hurries and one sack in 111 pass rushing opportunities (but none Thursday), said coaches want to see him play effectively against the run before they give him more playing time: “I have work to do with that.”

The Dolphins like the skill set of rookie cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis, but it’s telling that Davis has been inactive for a month, and Miami opted for RJ Stanford over Taylor when Dimitri Patterson left with an injury late Thursday.

Taylor has played just 45 defensive snaps and allowed all four passes thrown against him to be completed, for 100 yards. “It’s tough when you see teams like Buffalo playing their rookies, but we have good cornerbacks here,” he said. “I believe I will be a damn good NFL cornerback. [But] the stuff that worked in college isn’t going to work here.”

Among the other Dolphins rookies: There’s no great optimism among some Dolphins players about Dallas Thomas, who has been working at both guard and tackle but hasn’t distinguished himself at either. Mike Gillislee hasn’t come close to unseating Daniel Thomas for the No. 2 running back job....

The Dolphins like the blocking ability of tight end Dion Sims, but coordinator Mike Sherman said he has a lot of work to do. The staff sees potential in Jelani Jenkins to be an effective third-down linebacker....

Only Houston’s Randy Bulluck has missed as many field goals as Caleb Sturgis, though he redeemed himself with his 44-yarder to send Thursday’s game to overtime. And safety Don Jones projects as a special-teams player. So the book remains very much incomplete on this class.

### Which of these offensive linemen is worth keeping?

Both guards are in serious jeopardy. Richie Incognito’s six sacks allowed are most among NFL guards, and though he has graded out well against the run, the Dolphins hadn’t conveyed interest in re-signing him as of recent weeks. Figure on Miami again trying to replace John Jerry, who has allowed three sacks and graded out 55th of 70 guards in run blocking, per ProFootballFocus.com.

The Dolphins likely will sign or draft a tackle in the early rounds, and ESPN’s Scouts Inc. gives first-round grades to four of them, topped by Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan. But Bryant McKinnie has played decently and would be a 2014 stopgap if the Dolphins fail to find an immediate starting left tackle in the draft or via trade. McKinnie said one reason he re-signed with Baltimore in May was because Miami was offering only a one-year deal.

What will be most telling is how Jonathan Martin plays after returning from his hiatus. He has allowed seven sacks, ranks 61st of 73 tackles and must prove he can be projected as an undisputed 2014 starter. He's cheap and has upside, so the Dolphins are counting on him being a starter next season unless he proves he's not worthy of that.

### What to do with a defensive backfield with multiple free agents?

Brent Grimes (rated ninth among all cornerbacks by PFF) and Chris Clemons (11th among all safeties) will be free agents, and the Dolphins likely will make offers to both unless their play significantly diminishes.

Dimitri Patterson has four picks in his past four games after intercepting five in his first 73 in the NFL. The Dolphins assuredly will keep him around at $5.4 million unless his recurring injury issues become too much of an impediment. Miami would have no cap hit if it cuts him, but his value when healthy is obvious.

### Which free agent defensive tackle to keep between Paul Soliai and Randy Starks?

Even with $30 million in cap space, it will be challenging (though not impossible) to retain both, because of needs elsewhere.  

Both fill valuable roles: Starks ranks third among 69 defensive tackles, and only two tackles have more than his 20 quarterback hurries, even though he plays less than many other tackles. Soliai ranks 19th of 69 and is the linchpin of the run defense.

Though contract talks have gone nowhere with either, Soliai has said how much he enjoys playing here and is optimistic something will be worked out. Starks re-signing here seems less likely, but the Dolphins figure to make an attempt.

### Are these running backs enough moving forward?

Lamar Miller certainly seems to be a keeper; his 4.8 per carry average is tied for fourth-best in the league, and second best behind Washington’s Alfred Morris (5.2) among backs with as many carries.

But Thomas’ 3.6 average ranks just 35th.

And on third down and 1 or third and 2, Thomas has just 26 yards on 20 carries (and nine first downs) in his career. The Dolphins still need to find a short yardage back, unless Thomas suddenly becomes good at it. Miller, by the way, has just one first down in four such situations (3rd and 1 or 3rd and 2).

### Are these tight ends good enough without an addition?

Even though Michael Egnew has made admirable progress and Sims has potential, the Dolphins loved the idea of teaming Dustin Keller (whose 2014 status remains uncertain because of his gruesome knee injury) with Charles Clay, and they still figure to explore adding a natural stretch tight end, to allow Clay to return to his jack-of-all trades job. Clay, Egnew and Sims have eight games to prove they’re good enough without Miami adding another player at the position. Keller's deal is up at the end of the season; he still stays in contact with the team's tight ends.

### Who stays if the Dolphins stumble down the stretch?

This will be a decision for owner Stephen Ross only if Miami flops. And even then, associates expect him to stand by coach Joe Philbin. One friend of Ross reiterated that the owner loves Philbin, and the people who have Ross’ ear like Philbin, too.

But not everyone is impressed. One NFL front office official said people are still waiting for Philbin to come up with something creative, some solution that genuinely makes a meaningful difference.

A prominent network analyst who asked not to be named reminded me that Philbin isn’t the quarterback/offensive guru that some people thought they were getting.

“His background was an offensive line coach – that’s his expertise,” the analyst said. Just like Tony Sparano’s. And Miami’s line remains among the NFL’s worst in pass protection.

Players respect Philbin’s organizational skills and appreciate that he didn’t rip into them during the losing streak. He hasn’t lost the locker-room by any means. But he hardly inspires passion and hasn't corrected the Dolphins’ shortcomings.

“Players loved or hated Sparano,” said a close associate of several Dolphins. “With Philbin, it’s ‘eh.’ Just a guy.” Among players, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman receives most of the criticism, but it’s difficult to fathom Philbin ever replacing him unless he was ordered.

As for general manager Jeff Ireland, Ross has been his biggest advocate, and it remains to be seen how much that faith would be shaken if Miami finishes below .500. Ireland’s offseason extension is immaterial, the friend said, considering Sparano was fired after an extension.

Though Ross will make up his own mind, one friend of Ross points out that not everyone that Ross trusts remains sold on Ireland as a GM. “The feedback is stronger on Philbin,” the friend said.


### Among complaints voiced inside the Dolphins locker-room: Some players are not putting in the extra effort during the week that others are. And some of Ireland’s offseason personnel moves are also being questioned by players. But Thursday’s win is a tonic, in many respects.

### To quantify the Dolphins’ short yardage woes: They have made a first down on only 10 of 17 situations in 3rd and 1 or 4th and 1, which is 23rd in the league. Miami is 6 for 11 when it runs, 4 for 6 when it passes – one reason why it lined up in the shotgun in that situation late Thursday.

### Though ESPN insisted the NFLPA is investigating Incognito for bullying Martin, the NFLPA released a statement Saturday night saying it is not doing that. By the way, Incognito said earlier this season that "Mike Pouncey and I took as a project to toughen him up. He's not as soft as he once was."


### No bigger disappointment tonight than Duke Johnson's season-ending ankle injury. That aside, among the troubling developments from a UM perspective was the lack of a pass rush. UM entered with 22 sacks -- and ranked 11th in the FBS in sacks per pass play -- but mustered only one (a late sack by safety AJ Highsmith on a blitz) and just two genuine pressures, according to ABC's calculations.

Al-Quadin Muhammad got penetration on three early passing plays before Jameis Winston escaped, picking up a first down each time. And Tyriq McCord and Anthony Chickillo couldn't get any heat on Winston.

UM rushed only three several times, but Winston still found open receivers when Miami played a soft zone. And UM gave up a couple big plays when it blitzed. Equally troublesome was UM's inability to defend screen passes, one reason why FSU topped 160 yards in yards-after-catch.

### Despite the improvements made by UM's run defense through the first half of the season, FSU finished with 192 yards on the ground on 4.4 yards per carry. That wasn't far off from FSU's 218 rushing yards in last year's game at Sun Life Stadium, a 33-20 Seminoles victory. But here was the difference: Last year, FSU's offense -- led by EJ Manuel -- was just 3 for 10 on third downs. Tonight, FSU was an absurd 11 for 15 on third downs. Miami was just 4 for 11.

### Al Golden's take afterward: "There's no excuses. We had some guys that lost their poise, made some mental errors and it was costly. We came up against a team that executed better. That's it. End of story."

### An NFL scout told me last week how disappointed he was in Stephen Morris because he loves Morris' arm and was hoping to recommend that his team's front office draft him. But the scout said he cannot and will not make that recommendation now because Morris is simply too erratic and not accurate enough.

That continued Saturday, with Morris delivering two terrific TD throws to Allen Hurns but also throwing two ugly picks (one badly underthrown) and closing with just 192 passing yards. His TD-to-INT ratio (10 to 8) is much worse than last season (21-to-7).

### After Tuesday's Heat win against Chicago in the season opener, the Bulls’ Taj Gibson said even if the Heat doesn't use any of its new players, Miami is actually a better team because “Norris Cole is a lot better. They’re a lot more confident, how their second unit is moving without the ball. They know where to be on certain plays better. But we’re awfully close to them.”

But as evident in the past two losses, rebounding remains an issue (-20 over the three games). And the Heat is allowed teams to shoot 48.1 percent --- fifth highest in the league. Last season, Heat opponents shot just 44 percent, which was third best from a defensive perspective.

### Heat forward Rashard Lewis marveled before Tuesday's game that "we haven't even started the first game of the season yet!" and already LeBron James had purchased two more gifts for all his teammates: snazzy headphones and a Galaxy Note computer Tablet. “Awesome teammate!” Lewis beamed. (James bought at least five gifts for each teammate last season).

###  Twitter: @flasportsbuzz.