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The LiveBall Sports Miami Dolphins Season Preview

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom

What we said about the Dolphins prior to the 2012 season

LiveBall Sports picked the Miami Dolphins to make the playoffs in the AFC.

What should we have known with hindsight?

The real projection was slightly above average.  But in a down conference, it made sense to rally behind a team on the upswing that was bringing in fresh ideas and some new talent at key positions.  The Dolphins fit the bill.  However, while the idea still seems okay with the benefit of hindsight, the 2012 Dolphins were not as good as the 2011 Dolphins.  Had the Dolphins actually improved their performance, they won enough close games over bad teams to have won 9 or 10 games, and given that they beat the 6th seed Bengals head to head, they really missed a great opportunity to make the postseason.

The main culprit in the decline was the defense and the special teams.  The offense also failed to improve, but the 2011 Dolphins featured Reggie Bush’s career year, Brandon Marshall at receiver, and Matt Moore’s best season at quarterback, so the Dolphins going laterally on offense after accepting performance regression at the skill positions was not a huge surprise.

The pass defense struggled after trading Vontae Davis to the Colts for a second round pick, and letting Yeremiah Bell walk in free agency.  Sean Smith had an excellent age 24 season in 2011, but struggled in 2012, and signed with the Chiefs this past offseason.

Where does the organization appear to think it is at?

GM Jeff Ireland clearly acted like a GM trying to justify his  continued employment this offseason, though he didn’t act in a desperate manner, if that dichotomy makes sense.  The Dolphins went through a pretty aggressive team makeover, one that will cost them a ton of money over the next three to four years, but they did not spend up to the limits of the salary cap, and did so intentionally, given that the team still has major holes.  In other words, the Dolphins spent more than $200 million in new contract money this past offseason, but left plenty of room in the budget to spend more if QB Ryan Tannehill progresses in 2013.  Ireland could be in trouble if the team regresses further in 2013 (as he should be), but even a quick glance at the team’s salary cap situation difuses any notion that the Dolphins are in a do-or-die season for the front office or coaching staff.  This is not a Dallas Cowboys situation.

With that said, there is significant risk here on the shoulders of the front office.  Whenever you spend that much of your owners money in a commitment to win games both now and into the future, you increase the internal scrutiny (not to mention external pressure) on the moves you made.  8-8 is not going to get Ireland fired, but 8-8 behind strong defense with Mike Wallace not getting the ball down the field, Tannehill not progressing, and getting pummeled behind a weak offensive line while Dion Jordan doesn’t make an immediate impact creates a problem for Ireland in a way that it wouldn’t for head coach Joe Philbin.  How the Dolphins look this year is almost as big of a storyline as how they finish: Ireland can not live off of finding Cameron Wake forever.

How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?

They brought in a bunch of receivers and traded up for Jordan.

Really, a lot of the spending the Dolphins did this offseason was about getting younger, and spending money to get players eligible for free agency for the first time, in the process replacing productive veterans like LBs Kevin Burnett and Karlos Dansby who were not going to get more productive into their thirties.  The spending was less about improving the Dolphins for the 2013 season as it was about building a core of talent around Ryan Tannehill rather than asking Tannehill to win with the core of talent they built around Chad Henne.

Wallace gives Miami the kind of deep threat it hasn’t had in two decades, which is a really big deal.  The issue may end up being that Tannehill struggled with the deep ball even going back to his college days: he was just as likely to rip off a long run at Texas A&M as he was to get the ball behind the defense from the pocket.  OC Mike Sherman designed Tannehill’s offense at Texas A&M, and is not likely to ask Wallace to simply run behind the defense so that Tannehill can put it up.   If Wallace doesn’t produce big numbers in 2013, Sherman (not Tannehill or Philbin) is going to get the blame.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

The Dolphins missed a nice window to compete starting either in 2008 or in 2010 when the team acquired Brandon Marshall from the Broncos, depending on how you view the Dolphins in the Parcells-as-overlord era.  When owner Stephen Ross made the decision to retain Jeff Ireland as General Manager without Parcells on board, he very much took full on rebuilding off the table for the Dolphins.  What the Dolphins did in 2012 had a lot of the elements of rebuilding (drafted a first round quarterback, traded team’s top receiver), but Ireland doesn’t have the capital to go through a double digit loss season.  So what we’re seeing is a bastardized rebuilding based heavily not on cheap youth, but on expensive youth via the free agent market.

Ireland’s plan not destined to fail.  Just a season ago, we saw the Redskins throw a lot of cash around trying to acquire free agents with their best years in front of them, like Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan.  That’s a team that won 10 games and its division: a division that featured a Giants organization not all dissimilar to the Patriots at this point.  The problem for the 2013 Dolphins is that a 10 win season is very much a pipe dream.  Given the increase in schedule difficulty and the team outperforming it’s underlying performance measures by almost a full game, a 10 win season would be almost a five win increase in skill from last year’s Dolphins team, which finished a fortunate 7-9.

The best case scenario is progress: 7-9 or 8-8 and competitive for a wild card spot deep into December, as such progress would allow the Dolphins to try to take the leap to competitor for a division title in 2014 with another aggressive offseason.  The worst case scenario is pretty ugly: a two win decline to 5-11 and major front office shakeup resulting in a lame-duck coaching staff (and possibly quarterback) in 2014 before the Dolphins begin a more traditional rebuilding after the 2014 season.  It’s a pivotal season for the Dolphins organization, to say the least.

Previously: Kansas City ChiefsJacksonville JaguarsOakland RaidersPhiladelphia EaglesDetroit LionsCleveland BrownsArizona CardinalsBuffalo BillsNew York JetsTennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers,

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