ORLANDO -- Cornerback Xavien Howard is among the players who traveled with the Miami Dolphins to this "home" game tonight against the Atlanta Falcons. He is not expected to play.
(Neither are other players who traveled with the team such as running back Kenyan Drake and cornerback Chimdi Chekwa, and safety Walt Aikens. Maybe next week.)
But Howard is different from those other players and indeed different from any player on the roster for the combination of multiple reasons:
- He's a rookie.
- He missed all of training camp because he was injured.
- He's never played in an NFL game.
- The Dolphins want him to play -- a lot -- and perhaps even start at Seattle in the regular-season opener.
So this is where the team stands with Howard:
The players are scheduled back in South Florida tonight after the game and then are supposed to have a lift day on Friday. They will be off Saturday and be back to practice Sunday.
Assuming no hurricane or other weather issues affects the schedule, it looks like the Dolphins are going to continue to step up Howard's workload in practice. And that should happen throughout the week leading up to the final preseason game.
Assuming no setbacks and Howard handles the workload well, coaches will have a decision to make on his status for the final preseason game. But there is a desire to get him snaps in that game.
And then this:
The Dolphins believe if that plan pans out ... Howard can continue to improve and get stronger and better in the five or six practices between the final preseason game and Seattle opener. And then he can play tons, and perhaps even start against the Seahawks.
And what's more, this coaching staff is already eyeing a strategy whereby they can simplify the assignments for Howard so that he can do what he does best -- cover a wide receiver -- without concerns that might plague other rookies or inexperienced players.
"... For the most part, he’s playing one-on-one coverage a lot of the times," coach Adam Gase said. "At the end of the day, that’s his strength and I’m sure the more we’ve talked about it with (defensive coordinator) Vance (Joseph), we’re going to try to lean on his strength of just matching him up with somebody and letting him go."
And this is where coaching is a huge asset.
Some coaches would freak at the thought of putting a rookie with no training camp and perhaps limited snaps in the preseason on the field for the season opener. The reason makes sense in the abstract. You don't put an unprepared player on the field in a game that counts.
Reality happens, folks. And injuries happen. And games don't wait on anyone. And needs must be met as best as possible. And some coaches -- including those on this coaching staff -- have decided that preparing that player, in this case Howard, as much as possible to do what he does best and only what he does best, even if that does not include the million details of his given position, is better than having him inactive for the opener.
I'm not saying one approach is better than the other. Both can fail, depending on the situation.
But I like this coaching staff's thinking better. They're not willing to throw up their hands and give up on a situation as lost simply because every preparation I is not dotted and T is not crossed. They're adjusting what they do to fit the player. They're not eliminating the player based on the fact he is not yet ready to do everything they do.
I must tell you this requires a certain type of player to work. By a certain type of player, I mean a gifted guy. And Howard has already shown the Dolphins he is that.
I'm told that before his injury, in the offseason camps and workouts, coaches saw Howard playing up to a level that suggests he's an NFL starting cornerback. They didn't reward him with starter reps at the time because they wanted him to travel the long road to the job.
But then his knee injury that required surgery happened. And that detoured the long road map. The point, however, is that Howard showed enough back then to give coaches confidence he's good enough to be used in the coming opener and early in the season even without a full training camp and a handful of preseason games.
And so that's the plan that gets Xavien Howard to the regular-season opener.