In what is likely the best opening week of college football we've seen in years, we're treated to a series of neutral-site, out-of-conference matchups that could have a resounding impact on the entire college football season.
14 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
OK, so maybe HBO did not get the most glamorous team for this year’s "Hard Knocks." Not a problem –- you can still win Emmys with the Miami Dolphins. Since the day he bought this team for $1.1 billion, owner Stephen Ross has made no secret about his desire to turn the Dolphins into an entertainment darling. No gimmick is too kitschy for Ross -– anything to combat the empty orange seats that have become ubiquitous at (Whatever the latest sponsor’s name is) Stadium. Scoff if you want, but in the maddeningly apathetic South Beach sports community, kitschy gimmicks are part of doing business.
The "Hard Knocks" crew will be working with what will most likely be their most accommodating team. Not only that, but it is a team overflowing with training camp story lines. There’s a new coaching staff, led by first-time head coach Joe Philbin, who, along with new offensive coordinator, Mike Sherman, is bringing Green Bay’s system to South Beach. The quarterback orchestrating the system will be revealed sometime around, oh, probably the fourth episode. It’s currently a three-way competition between a veteran trying to make a comeback (David Garrard), the incumbent (Matt Moore), and Ryan Tannehill, the gifted-but-raw first-round rookie who is expected to rescue the franchise from its 13 years of post-Marino doldrums.
There’s more: first-time defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle will be teaching a new 4-3 scheme to what is potentially a rock-solid defense. His best cornerback, Vontae Davis, and top linebacker, Karlos Dansby, can be spotlight stealers (both on the field and for the cameras). Neither quite has the personality of Chad Ochocinco (errr, Chad Johnson) of course, but the show must go on. Running back Reggie Bush can still attract the Kardashian audience, and since he might just hold the key to a successful Year 1 for Philbin’s system, Bush still gives the show plenty of actual football juice.
There’s no reason Ross’s latest entertainment endeavor can’t pay off ... in the short term. "Hard Knocks" is a great platform. In the long term, however, the only chance of filling empty seats is filling the "wins" column. We know from recent record-setting ratings by NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN that great football makes great television. But that doesn’t mean great television makes great football.
Joe Philbin will oversee construction of the game plan during the week, and Mike Sherman will call plays on Sunday. Their intention is to beat defenses mentally as much as anything. Philbin’s system has an abundance of different formations and personnel packages. In fact, that’s what defines it. The Dolphins will run a lot of the same plays over and over this season, but those plays will come out of different alignments and with different players.
This seemingly rules out the possibility of Ryan Tannehill starting in 2012. Yes, young quarterbacks these days are showing a greater capacity for executing intricate pro systems, but Tannehill is an especially callow young quarterback. He played mostly wide receiver at Texas A&M until midway through his junior year. While he showed surprisingly polished pocket mobility as a senior, he wasn’t great at reading defenses. Philbin’s system can help Tannehill by featuring quick-strike throws and some rollouts -– designs that aid a young quarterback (especially one with questions about his arm strength and accuracy). But ultimately, in order for this multidimensional system to hum, the quarterback must be able to adroitly decipher everything he’s looking at. A lot of this occurs before the snap, which is why Philbin is adamant about the offense getting out of the huddle and to the line of scrimmage quickly.
In this sense, David Garrard would seem like the best solution for Miami, though it’s hard to fathom that actually being the case. Garrard, 34, was out of football last year with back issues. Before that, he struggled off and on in Jacksonville, showing limitations as an anticipation passer and improviser. Garrard would have to be managed and manipulated by this scheme (which is not ideal). Problem is, so would Matt Moore. The sixth-year pro showed improvements over the course of last season, but overall, he does not have very consistent accuracy, he’s often uncomfortable throwing from a muddied pocket, and he’s not a naturally smooth progression reader.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that all three participants in this quarterback competition are flawed -– flaws are what create any three-way competition. Whoever wins the competition won’t be throwing to great targets. Not one Dolphins receiver would have cracked the top three of the rotation that Philbin had in Green Bay. Brian Hartline and Davone Bess are expected to start, with Legedu Naanee most likely serving as the third option. This isn’t a grossly defective bunch, but there is no “go-to” option.
Hartline is smoother and faster than he looks. Bess has a tremendous skill set for the slot (if he played the Wes Welker role in New England, he’d catch 115 balls a year). Neither player scares defenses, though. That could open the door for Naanee, though he’s nowhere near dynamic enough to create separation on a consistent basis. Really, the Chargers had it right early in Naanee’s career when they used him in what amounted to a gadget-oriented H-back/tight end role.
There’s no room for Naanee to perform that role here, though, as Charles Clay is phenomenal in this sense. Clay is a fullback by trade, but he flashes an uncommon ability to run downfield routes out of the backfield and adjust to difficult balls. It would suit the Dolphins well to feature the 2011 sixth-round pick in the pecking order right behind Anthony Fasano, a controlled, reliable interior tight end. Of course, if the Dolphins had major aspirations for Clay as a receiver, they wouldn’t have spent a third-round pick on Missouri tight end Michael Egnew. Egnew’s lack of strength may limit him early in his career, but a creative coaching staff can find ways to use him, as he’s one of those super athletic ex-basketball player tight ends who are so popular these days.
A creative coach can also find ways to use Reggie Bush. Having run for over 100 yards in each of his last four games to crack the 1,000-yard mark last season, Bush has talked about chasing a rushing title in 2012. That is admirable ambition but nothing more. To Bush’s credit, he improved his patience and inside running down the stretch, but a few encouraging games do not overwrite his previous five years of work. Bush, at his core, is a finesse player, and the Dolphins would be wise to use him accordingly. He does not have the durability or makeup to withstand the pounding that a rushing title would demand. He does have soft hands, still-viable explosiveness in space and crisp lateral agility. He’s a mismatch-making X-factor.
It’s not as if the Dolphins don’t have other ball carriers to feed anyway. They spent a second-round pick last season on Daniel Thomas. Injuries and inexperience were hindrances to his rookie campaign, but there seems to be a role for him as an inside runner, both out of heavy formations and spreads. Thomas must get more explosive in short areas, though. Also in the mix is fourth-round rookie Lamar Miller, whom some might describe as a poor man’s Clinton Portis. Miller’s arrival suggests that General Manager Jeff Ireland and his staff may not have a lot of confidence in Thomas. Or it could mean they’re unsure about re-upping Bush’s expiring contract after this season.
Whoever is carrying the ball can expect solid blocking up front. Former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long might just be the best left tackle in football. He’s not necessarily spectacular, but he’s solid as granite in pass protection and capable of clearing roads in the ground game. Inside, second-year pro Mike Pouncey is on the verge of being an upper-echelon center. He offers phenomenal mobility as a run-blocker. The fact that he’s equally adept going left and right lends dimension and unpredictability to Miami’s rushing attack, as obviously Long is very good out in space and, presumably, so is light-footed rookie right tackle Jonathan Martin. The second-rounder from Stanford figures to be a great fit in Philbin’s new zone-blocking approach.
The only semi-soft spot on this offensive line is at guard. Richie Incognito is nasty on the left side but also mistake-prone. He can pull in short areas but is not known for his mobility. On the right side, journeyman Artis Hicks, a utility veteran signed in free agency, is set to start. A lowly veteran like Hicks starting tells you what the front office thinks of 2010 third-round pick John Jerry. The fact that they signed banged-up veteran Eric Steinbach also doesn’t bode well for him. Steinbach is worth a flyer, given that the only second-stringer with any experience other than Jerry is Nate Garner.
It might seem foolish to overhaul the defensive scheme considering this unit ranked sixth in points allowed last season. Rest assured, the classic 4-3 that first-time coordinator Kevin Coyle is implementing is a much better fit than the mixed 3-4 that his predecessor, Mike Nolan, ran. The Dolphins have ideal personnel for Coyle’s system.
Let’s start up front. Nose tackle Paul Soliai was re-signed to a two-year, $12 million contract over the off-season. Soliai is not a household name, but on film, he’s proved essential to Miami’s run defense. He can command double teams with sheer power or crisp initial get-off. In a 4-3, he will have more opportunities to penetrate, which is not his direct forte but is something he can be very destructive doing. Often though, Soliai will be lining up directly over the center and plugging two gaps (like Domata Peko, whom Coyle saw dominate while coaching defensive backs in Cincinnati).
Next to Soliai is Randy Starks, a consummate solid player who can attack inside or outside. Starks is also capable of shading the nose, if need be. His and Soliai’s stamina could be critical given that last year, Soliai came off the field on passing downs and played less than 50 percent of the snaps. The depth inside is limited to nickel gap-shooter Tony McDaniel and seventh-round rookie Kheeston Randall.
The depth at defensive end isn’t spectacular, either –- athletic but raw third-round rookie Olivier Vernon will compete with undrafted ex-Jet Jamaal Westerman for backup snaps -– but the Dolphins probably have a pair of three-down starters in Cameron Wake and Jared Odrick. Wake, a classic hard-working success story, is a tad small but plays with outstanding leverage and speed. He posted just 8.5 sacks after recording 14 in 2010, but he drew a stunning 13 holding penalties, a number that was six higher than any other player in the league. Smartly, the Dolphins signed Wake to a new five-year, $33.9 million contract ($17 million fully guaranteed) over the off-season.
As for Odrick, he is a very intriguing breakout candidate. Odrick, a first-round pick in 2010, is coming off a stellar debut season (he missed virtually his entire rookie year with a foot injury) in which he recorded six sacks playing inside and outside for Nolan. Odrick sort of resembles a thicker Jason Taylor; he’s very sinewy. He doesn’t quite have Taylor’s quickness, but he offers more power.
Power along Miami’s defensive line is important because these linebackers must be kept clean from blockers. Middle linebacker Karlos Dansby and outside linebacker Kevin Burnett are both prototypical finesse players. Dansby has elite physical tools and, most of the time, solid diagnostic instincts. The more he can run and chase before reaching the point of attack, the better. Burnett is the same, just with less flair. At the other outside linebacker is Koa Misi, who hasn’t shown up much on film his first two seasons and probably won’t this season given that he does not play in nickel.
Dansby and Burnett are both good enough pass defenders to handle the all-important nickel linebacking duties, though Burnett might be pushed just a bit by newcomer Gary Guyton. Guyton was an on-again, off-again starter for the New England Patriots. Though he has never been able to hold on to a starting job, he at least runs pretty well and could probably cover most tight ends. It is just a matter of whether he has the awareness to handle a heavy load of disguises and schematic variations.
Most defensive disguise and schematic variations involve the safeties. This is the make-or-break position for the Dolphins. The other nine spots in the lineup will be filled by reliable players. How much trust Coyle has in 2009 fifth-round pick Chris Clemons and 2010 fifth-round pick Reshad Jones could determine the intricateness of his scheme. Clemons and Jones have both flashed, but neither has completely put things together yet. They spent last season competing for playing time opposite Yeremiah Bell (now a Jet), with Jones winning the job thanks in part to his being a regular standout in practice. If either were to struggle for some reason, the Dolphins could turn to Tyrell Johnson, though he’s spent his first four years struggling in Minnesota. Incumbent backup Tyrone Culver would be a better choice. Another option would be last year’s seventh-round pick, Jimmy Wilson, who is moving to safety after being torched as a fill-in cornerback.
Coyle wants his safeties to be interchangeable, which fosters disguise and blitzing. His boss in Cincinnati, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, liked to regularly bring one and sometimes two safeties down in the box. Zimmer could do that because he trusted his corners in press coverage. Coyle should be able to trust his corners, too.
Vontae Davis is a rising star with big-play abilities as an off-coverage man defender. He plays with excellent tempo and positioning -– and should finally show it on a consistent basis in this, his fourth season. Opposite Davis will be Richard Marshall or Sean Smith. Marshall, a solid free agent, is the more dynamic player, but Smith is lankier. The starting job may go to whoever proves better in run defense. Because the Dolphins will be in nickel a majority of the time, Marshall and Smith will see plenty of snaps together anyway. Both are capable slot defenders (Marshall is the more natural here) who can also blitz.
Depth at cornerback is, like the depth throughout the rest of this defense, an issue. Mental mistakes and a poor feel for timing have made No. 4 corner Nolan Carroll just about every team’s favorite player. The only experienced man to challenge Carroll is hit-or-miss journeyman Jonathan Wade.
Punter Brandon Fields netted 41.1 yards per boot last season, fourth best in the NFL Kicker Dan Carpenter’s combination of power and accuracy earned him a Pro Bowl in 2009. After a downtrodden 2010 campaign, Carpenter rebounded to have another sterling season, succeeding on 29 of his 34 attempts in 2011. In the return game, Davone Bess is serviceable on punts, though Reggie Bush gets the nod if field position allows for a crack at a big play. Disappointing fourth-round wideout Clyde Gates will most likely handle kick returns, assuming he makes the final roster. If he doesn’t, Lamar Miller could get a look.
The Dolphins’ defense has a chance to be an unheralded upper echelon group. Unfortunately, the offense is deprived of resources in the passing game. That’s a big problem in today’s NFL
2 comments, Last at 15 Aug 2012, 11:45am by johonny