27 Sep 2005
by Ned Macey
Three weeks into the season, the Carolina Panthers have proved one thing; they love to play games that end in upsets. After losing at home to the Saints in Week 1 and rebounding in Week 2 to defeat the Patriots, they traveled to "rebuilding" Miami and dropped a close game 27-24.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, are off to a very impressive start to the season. Not only are they 2-1 and tied for the division lead, but all three of their opponents, the Broncos, Jets, and Panthers, were considered strong contenders for playoff spots. The Panthers were undone again by a costly mistake by Jake Delhomme who, admittedly, has no legitimate second option. As for the Dolphins, they have recaptured the formula that made them an annual playoff contender until last season, a formula predicated on a dominant defense.
Carolina was a chic pre-season Super Bowl pick for a variety of reasons. Whatever people may have felt about Jake Delhomme, those selections were made in part because of him rather than in spite of him. As I pointed out after the New Orleans loss, Delhomme, despite his reputation as an efficient quarterback, is a turnover machine.
Never has it cost the Panthers as much as it did yesterday. They survived his fumble deep in their own territory when Miami quarterback Gus Frerotte kindly returned the favor by completing a pass to Carolina's Chris Gamble. But when driving for what would have been the winning score in a tie game, Delhomme tried to make a hot read against a blitz but did not see Lance Schulters. Schulters returned the interception into field goal range, and Olindo Mare ended the game five plays later.
While Delhomme's turnovers are problematic, he is being hamstrung by the lack of a second receiving option. Yesterday, he threw 15 passes to Steve Smith, who impressively caught 11 for 170 yards. Of his other 15 attempts that did not go to running backs, only three were caught. In Keary Colbert's defense, he did draw three penalties on Miami defensive backs, but he did not manage a single catch. For the season, Colbert and Ricky Proehl have combined for six catches for 93 yards.
A year ago, Muhsin Muhammad was the third most productive receiver in football according to DPAR (which along with other stats used in this article is explained here), while DVOA rated both Colbert and Proehl below average. With Muhammad in Chicago, Smith has returned ably to the role of # 1 receiver, but once again the Panthers have no second option. Both Smith and Muhammad have been successful catching passes from Delhomme, so it would seem that Colbert and Proehl, not the quarterback, are the problem.
In Miami, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year with new coach Nick Saban remolding an aging franchise in his image. Coming off a 4-12 season that was their first losing year since 1988, a quick fix seemed unlikely. Between 1991 and 2003, the Dolphins won between eight and eleven games each year, a model of consistency but a team that lacked upside. They have not made an AFC Championship game since 1992. After such a disappointing season a year ago, the team could finally afford a complete makeover that had been needed since Dan Marino retired.
Clearly Saban saw something different, as he reloaded his team with veteran free agents and apparently decided to make a run at being competitive this year. In the off-season, he signed Kevin Carter, Lance Schulters, Tebucky Jones, Keith Traylor, Vonnie Holliday, and Gus Frerotte. All of them will be 30 by the end of the season. All are currently starting for the Dolphins. The only rebuilding move they made in the off-season was trading veteran cornerback Patrick Surtain to the Chiefs for a second round pick. Whether this is a wise strategy long term is far from determined, but Saban clearly has the Dolphins in a better position this year than even the most optimistic predictions anticipated.
For a reason to try and win now, Saban only had to look back at the early parts of this decade to find a successful model for the Dolphins. Between 2000 and 2003, the Dolphins never ranked higher than 18th in the league in offensive DVOA but never ranked below 6th in the league in defensive DVOA. Even carting along the mediocre offense, the defense was good enough to help the team go 41-23. Last year, even though the defense was always on the field due to the offense's incompetence, they still ranked 9th in the league in DVOA. With all of the veteran additions plus two highly-drafted rookies, defensive end Matt Roth and linebacker Channing Crowder, the defense is loaded and good enough to make any team with a mediocre offense a contender.
This revamped defense has been particularly strong against the run. Through the first three games, they have a league-leading run defense DVOA of -52.1%. They have given up only 229 yards on 80 carries, a 2.9 yard per carry average. They have allowed no rushing touchdowns. By dominating the opposing running game, they have put opposing teams in difficult situations on third down. Those frequent third and long situations mean that Miami has allowed just 13 conversions on 40 third downs. Combining third and fourth down defense, the Dolphins have a tremendous -60.4% DVOA. (In other words, the average defense tends to stop the other team on third and long, and the Dolphins played better than average on top of that.)
Of course, early last year the Dolphins' defense dominated, only to have offensive incompetence undermine its efforts. Through Week 5 a year ago, the Dolphins' defensive DVOA was -30.1%, even better than the -26.6% they have posted so far this year. Unfortunately, with an inept running game and poor quarterback play, the offense was the worst in the league. By the end of the year, the Dolphins had improved all the way to 31st in the league ahead of only the woeful 49ers. The Jay Fiedler/Lamar Smith offenses were bad, but last year's offense was atrocious.
The convenient excuse for the Dolphins' offensive struggles was the last second departure of Ricky Williams, but the real culprit was an offensive line that had been bad for the past two years. In 2003, Ricky Williams had a DVOA of -11.6%, 42nd in the league. For those into conventional statistics, he averaged only 3.5 yards per carry. A year ago, the overall Dolphins' running game was only slightly worse than Williams with a DVOA of -17.9%. Sammy Morris, who led the team in carries but was injured for much of the season, averaged a respectable 4.0 yards per carry and was a more productive back in 2004 than Williams was in 2003.
Consistent poor performance by a variety of running backs is a sure sign that your problem is the offensive line. Saban spent time upgrading the defense, and he switched the main backfield positions with the acquisition of Frerotte and rookie running back Ronnie Brown. The offensive line, however, remained unchanged. Through two games, this appeared to be a major mistake, with Brown gaining only 92 yards on 34 carries. On Sunday, the line gelled, and Brown gashed the Panthers for 132 yards on 23 carries.
Two seasons plus two games of poor performance followed by one quality game makes Sunday's affair appear to be a fluke. I would likely subscribe to this theory, but the one thing working for the Dolphins is the presence of offensive line coach Hudson Houck. Houck is being paid almost $1 million a season for what is normally a secondary coaching position. He turned San Diego's offensive line around a year ago and is widely respected throughout the league. Inheriting a roster filled with holes, Saban apparently decided he could only upgrade a limited number of positions. Unable to fix the personnel on the offensive line, he felt that getting Houck to coach would allow for an upgrade at a position that returned the same under-performing players from 2004. The line has very little talent, so I still would attribute yesterday's performance to a one game phenomenon, but if Houck can get the line to play even at an average level, the Dolphins' offense will be good enough to win.
Three weeks ago the Carolina Panthers were on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the predicted Super Bowl champs, while the Dolphins were universally considered the fourth best team in a strong division. Now, the reemergence of the Buccaneers and a strong start by Atlanta have Carolina fighting an uphill battle in their own division. Meanwhile, quarterback issues in New York and Buffalo have made teams frequently picked to be playoff contenders look very shaky early. It appears right now that the Dolphins may finish higher in their own division than the Panthers, a shocking thought when the season began.
The Dolphins have traditionally excelled in early season home games due to the hot conditions in Miami before struggling as the weather changes. The Panthers have a friendly schedule that has inter-divisional games against the laughably bad NFC North. Despite their early season success, the Dolphins still have a bad quarterback situation, with Gus Frerotte having completed fewer than 50% of his passes the last two weeks. Jake Delhomme may struggle with turnovers, but at least he can complete half his passes. Still, while the Dolphins are not likely to unseat the Patriots, they appear to be serious about contending this year, a reality that only Nick Saban envisioned before the season started.
15 comments, Last at 25 Oct 2005, 11:27pm by Jason