One and done. After tonight's game against Miami, the 2014 NFL season is ready to go. Tonight though, it's a final evaluation of the guys fighting to make the 53-man roster...and a look at Shaun Hill in his first game as the Rams' starting quarterback for 2014.
Well, it's the last preseason game, so this isn't going to be a star-studded affair...let's start big picture. You guys have kinda been stuck in win-loss mediocrity for five years (which is a level the Rams were happy to get to after how horrible we were for after the five year skid we hit from '07-'11). Is this the year you guys finish with a winning record? What has to take place for that to happen? How much of it rides on the performance of Ryan Tannehill?
Ryan Tannehill is absolutely going to be the key to the success of this team, but, with that said, the offensive line is going to have to play better than it did last year if Tannehill is going to be able to put it all together. He seems to be learning Bill Lazor's offense, the first non-Mike Sherman offensive scheme he has had since high school, and he should be able to make quick decisions and place the ball accurately into the hands of the team's playmakers. Everything seems to be setting up nicely for Tannehill and the Dolphins, so 9-7 is not out of the realm of possibility, even though most analysts have them somewhere in the bottom quarter of the league, it seems.
The last two years, I nailed my pre-season record prediction for the Dolphins, going 7-9 in 2012 and 8-8 in 2013. Today, I don't know for sure what I will predict for this team, because there are a lot of variables that have to come together. I think they are a better squad than last year, so they should top their 8-8 record. I'll say this is the year the Dolphins finally come out of the non-winning season streak, so 9-7 is probably about right.
Back to the preseason. We've got this game two days before we whittle the roster down to the 53. Who has surprised in the Dolphins' 2014 preseason that has a shot to make it that Fins fans didn't expect going in? Which late-round rookies or UDFAs have stepped up to earn a bigger role?
Four names that have jumped out this preseason. The first is seventh round draft choice from Marist College, Terrence Fede. The rookie defensive end was the first player to ever be drafted from Marist, and because of him, the school held their first ever Pro Day back in the spring. He's raw and needs some development, but he should safely be on the roster and should see playing time this year. Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey took some criticism of his drafting multiple small school players this year, but if Fede is any indication, he knows exactly what he is doing.
The second is undrafted free agent linebacker Chris McCain. It is simply ridiculous how often McCain seems to be in on the play in practice and in the early preseason games. He has seen time with the starting unit, typically playing the weak side. He is actually very similar to Dion Jordan, and could develop into a great find for Miami.
The other two are Damian Williams and Damien Williams. The first, Damian with the "a", is a wide receiver and was the third round draft choice of the Tennessee Titans in 2010. He has 1,313 receiving yards in his career, with five touchdowns, all for the Titans, and joined Miami almost as an afterthought in free agency. He has absolutely surprised, and could wind up on the 53-man roster as the sixth wide receiver. Damien with an "e" is a running back, and he has been impressive since he signed as an undrafted free agent this year. The former Oklahoma Sooners runner appears set to be the team's third running back, and has been working as a kick returner as well.
There's also that Dan Marino guy who joined the Dolphins this preseason, albeit in an executive capacity. Good to have Danny home..
So the offensive line...goo goo ga choo. For all the drama, the results just weren't there. How is the newly rebuilt line looking? Any concerns for Ryan Tannehill's protection? With as much turnover as the unit has experienced, is the lack of developed chemistry showing or have they developed a rapport in their short time together?
The line is still somewhat a question mark. Branden Albert at left tackle and Ja'Wuan James at right tackle have been good, barely allowing a pressure on Tannehill, let alone a sack. The interior is where the questions start. The guard positions are still a work in progress, though it appears Daryn Colledge has settled at left guard and Shelley Smith at right guard. The center position is being manned by Samson Satele, who was actually a second round pick of the Dolphins in 2007 and returns to Miami this year after stints with the Oakland Raiders and Indianapolis Colts. He is simply a veteran placeholder to secure the position until the Dolphins can get a healthy Pro Bowler Mike Pouncey back into the lineup following hip surgery.
Opening day, the Dolphins will likely have five new starters on the offensive line, as compared to last year. That is rough, and I would expect some growing pains. The chemistry between the players seems to be there, especially along the left side. I would not be surprised to see the starting offensive line take a couple of series in Thursday's game, just to help them continue the development that is going to be critical for success against the New England Patriots and Vince Wilfork in Week 1.
Defense. It wins something, I heard once. How are things shaping up on that side of the ball? What components are you worried about, and what's the strength? (P.S. Watch out for that Cortland Finnegan guy. He's a great guy in the locker room and his jerkhole style is endearing when it pisses off your opponent, but it helps when your cornerbacks are good at playing cornerback)
The strength of the defense is clearly along the defensive line. Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon are great pass rushers, while Randy Starks, Jared Odrick, and Earl Mitchell will be able to collapse a pocket from the interior, or shoot the gaps to get after the quarterback as well. Starks and Odrick have both played defensive end, and Miami like to slide defensive ends into defensive tackle positions as well, so pressure can come from anywhere. Dion Jordan's return after his four game suspension should be a luxury bonus to the team.
The secondary should be solid, as long as people can stay healthy. You know the issues with Finnegan, so if he is healthy and can get back to form, Miami's starting duo of Brent Grimes and Finnegan should be strong. Behind them, Jamar Taylor and Will Davis are developing nicely, and should be able to play much more than their injury filled rookie years. At safety, the year will start with Louis Delmas, another potentially injury concern, and Jimmy Wilson in the back. Walt Aikens, Don Jones, and Michael Thomas could all make the roster as reserve safeties, and slide to cornerback as needed. Wilson, who has been the nickel corner for the last couple of seasons could also move back down there with someone filling in for him at safety.
Then, everything will of course change once Reshad Jones comes off his suspension after Week 4. That should bolster the secondary, by Jones sliding into the starting free safety position, and Wilson going back to nickel.
The weakness of the defense right now is the linebacker corps. I think they take more criticism than they necessarily warrant sometimes, as frustration from last year carries over to this year, but it is clearly the weak point. Dannell Ellerbe as the strong side linebacker has looked better the last couple of games than he did in the first preseason game. Koa Misi is adjusting to his new role as a middle linebacker, and Philip Wheeler looks at home as a blitzing weak side linebacker, but struggles in converage or run support. The depth coming up behind these guys is solid, including McCain, Jelani Jenkins, and Jordan Tripp. Any of the three could see extra playing time as the season progresses, especially if Wheeler does not improve.
All across the defense, the story so far this preseason has been tackling. Too many missed tackles have led to too many big plays. The Miami defense is great at getting to the ball carrier; they just cannot always bring him to the ground. That has to get fixed soon.
Let's go back to the big picture. How does the fan base feel about Philbin? Are there concerns about the overall direction or does it feel like the franchise is on the right track? What constitutes a "successful" (or replace that with your favorite overgeneralized term of choice) season in 2014? Is it going to happen?
Philbin is very polarizing, and a big reason is because of his demeanor. When the Dolphins are losing, or make a mistake, the fans want to see Philbin get angry, and he does not do that. He is a very even type of guy, never too high, never too low. At least, that is the personal he shows to the public. When you are winning, being a monotone type of guy works, and no one complains about how dry Bill Belichick is, but when you are not winning, it comes across as not caring, and that is one of the issues fans have.
There is also a thought that Philbin is just a bad coach. The same people who two years ago were ecstatic that the Dolphins got Green Bay's offensive coordinator are now saying Stephen Ross blew this hire. A lot of the bad coaching talk came out around the bullying scandal timeframe, then intesified when Miami went 0-2 in the final two weeks to lose their playoff berth. In the six weeks between Jonathan Martin walking out of the team facility and those two games, there was consideration of Philbin being in the Coach of the Year talk, because of how well he was holding the team together.
I do not think anyone would say Philbin is the greatest coach in the league, or in the top tier. I do not think he's a bad coach, either though. I think he is a first time head coach, trying to learn how to be an NFL head coach - something that happens to all head coaches in their first assignment.
This year is key for Philbin. He seems much more comfortable in the job than he did the last two years, and I think his confidence is starting to grow. In the end, however, it is all going to come down to the team's record. If they are improving, have a winning season, and make the playoffs, Philbin returns. If they are a losing team in 2014, the search for a new coach will begin again.
Thanks to Kevin for the time.