The Los Angeles Rams return to the Coliseum today with rookie QB Jared Goff set to take the helm for the first time in his NFL career. Across from him will be the Miami Dolphins who are riding a four-game winning streak.
To get a better sense of what the Goff is facing, I linked up with Kevin Nogle of the Phinsider, the SB Nation community for Miami Dolphins fans.
So a 1-4 start parlayed into a four-game winning streak...what changed for you guys in between Weeks 5 and 6? Does the streak perhaps require some hesitancy to buy into with the last three games being as close as they were?
A big part of what changed with Miami was the return of the offensive line. Branden Albert, Mike Pouncey, and Ja'Wuan James all were healthy, and suddenly, Ryan Tannehill was not getting crushed every single play. Head coach and offensive play caller Adam Gase also fought his own tendencies to turn the Dolphins into a run-first team, rather than what he had been doing in trying to compliment the passing game with a few runs. I think a big part of it, also, was the team seemed to be much more comfortable in Week 6 with the new offensive and defensive systems installed this offseason than they did in Weeks 1-5.
On defense, I think the coaches stopped trying to out-think themselves and go to what works - mainly, Cameron Wake. The coaches were worried about a 34-year-old Wake, who was coming off an Achilles tear mid-season last-year, playing the snaps - and the run - that a true "starter" would play. He was listed as the top defensive end, but was a "pass-rush specialist" rather than a true starter. The coaches have opened up Wake the last four games, and after one sack in the first five weeks, Wake has 5.5 sacks in the last four games. Giving him more playing time - and he still has a snap limit but it is higher than it had been - has absolutely helped the defense find their own identity.
As for how close the games have been, I think it is actually a benefit for the fans, and maybe even the team. In the past few years, Miami does not win games like these, where they have to struggle through things that are not working and claw out a win. Under Philbin, the Dolphins likely crumble when they are faced with adversity. This year, the team seems ready to fight. They are not going to always be able to pull out close wins, and the funny-shaped ball is going to bounce away from them at some point, but the fact that they have proven they can fight back is a great sign for this team.
It's Ryan Tannehill's fifth year in the NFL. What is the general consensus among Dolphins fans in regard to his play? Is there any buyer's remorse after the huge contract from last year?
I think there has been way too much made of Tannehill's "huge contract." That $96-million number jumps out at people, but the contract, really, was a two-year deal with $21.5 million guaranteed in his signing bonus, 2015 base salary, and 2016 base salary. That means the 2017-2020 seasons are, basically, one year contracts that Miami can choose to escape if needed.
That said, I still think Tannehill is a better quarterback than people realize - even (and maybe especially) a chunk of Dolphins fans. He is not Dan Marino, and that will, forever, cause people to rail against him, even though Marino retired last century. The biggest issue for Tannehill his first four years is how badly he has been beaten up in the pocket - basically, the offensive line has never given him time to take a snap, drop back, progress through his reads, and find a receiver. There have been times - and it includes the start of this season - where Tannehill was being hit BEFORE he completed a three-step drop. That's unacceptable by the offensive line. Since the line has gotten healthy - and this week is scary given Albert is out and Pouncey is doubtful - Tannehill has looked much, much better.
I think Tannehill will be fine as the quarterback for the Dolphins. He may not be a future-Hall of Famer at this point (or ever), but he is a very good starting quarterback in the NFL when he is given time to throw and the team has a running game.
On the defensive side, how is the transition going under HC Adam Gase, an offensively inclined coach, with his defensive point man DC Vance Joseph? Having spent the majority of the quality draft capital in the 2016 NFL Draft on the offensive side of the ball, is the defense showing major personnel holes?
It depends on where you look. The defensive line is clearly the strength, especially with Wake starting on one side, the resurgent Andre Branch on the other, and Ndamukong Suh coming up the middle. Kiko Alonso has settled into his role as the middle linebacker, and he is doing well there. Safety was great with Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus as the starters, but is a little more of a question mark with Jones out for the year with a shoulder injury. Michael Thomas is a good safety, but he is not Jones.
The linebackers on either side of Alonso and the cornerbacks are the question marks, with injuries a part - but not all - of that. Byron Maxwell seems to be starting to play more like the Seattle Maxwell as compared to the Philadelphia Maxwell. He's not a Pro Bowl cornerback, do not think I am saying that, but he is playing better than he was at the start of the year. Tony Lippett, a second-year cornerback who played wide receiver in college, is starting to show the potential he has for the position, though he can be beat on double moves as he works to gain experience at the position. Rookie Xavien Howard has looked really good this year, but is dealing with a knee surgery he had a few weeks ago, and will likely continue to miss the next few games.
Vance Joseph is doing a good job of putting the players in the right position to make plays, and finding ways to try to mask some of the weaknesses. The biggest part of the defense will continue to be the team's ability to put pressure on the quarterback. Joseph wants an attacking defense, and that is what he has been getting in the recent weeks. If a team can halt that pass rush, forcing the secondary to cover more, that is when the breakdowns will happen and chunk yardage allowed.
Big picture, you guys have been stuck in the Black Hole of Mediocrity for longer than we have. Seven consecutive seasons between six and eight wins. If Gase is going to do what his predecessor Joe Philbin couldn't and pull you guys out of that hole, what has to be done? At what point does the franchise feel desperate under the pressure to get out of that hole to male a higher-risk calculation (yanno, like trading up for the #1 overall pick in a draft...)?
I think they kind of already did. I mean, trading up to the third-overall pick to grab Dion Jordan was clearly the greatest draft-day move the team has ever made. So you understand how awesome that move was for Miami, Jordan has played 26 games in 2013 and 2014, and has not seen the field since; he has three career sacks and three career drug suspensions; he has one start. This year, he has been on the Non-Football Injury list all season and does not appear to be anywhere near coming back.
I will admit, I was excited when they went up to get him. Jordan is such a freak athlete that he can rush the passer or cover players like Rob Gronkowski and Calvin Johnson step-for-step down the field - as he did before the suspensions started. But it clearly has not worked out.
As for what Gase needs to do, I think he is doing it. He is adding accountability back into the team. He has benched players (Jay Ajayi, Byron Maxwell, etc.), changed the starting lineup when players are not performing (Andre Branch in, Mario Williams out), and he has released players just days after they started for the team (Billy Turner, Dallas Thomas). He actually coaches to the strength of the players and team, rather than trying to force a system on players when it does not suit them. He has the players believing in themselves and him, and it has definitely been refreshing.
If you're predicting how the rest of this season works out for you guys, what is the fork in the road? What is the difference between a winning season with playoff football and missing the mark? When will you know which path you're headed down?
Before this season started, my stance was that this year was all about improvement. There are always teams that were horrible one year, change head coaches, become awesome for a year, then disappear back into the abyss. The 2007 Cam Cameron coached Dolphins were 1-15, then the 2008 Tony Sparano coached Dolphins were 11-5. After that, they went back to being mediocre at best. This year's goal had to be get better. The playoffs, and even a winning record, were not in the cards for this year. Instead, let Adam Gase come in, start building his systems, find his players, and next year, with two drafts and free agency periods to build what he wants, we should start to see better records.
Fast forward to now, and 7-9 might be a disappointment. That said, I do not think it should be seen as one, but I know it would be, and just writing that was hard to do. This team has given Dolphins fans some hope, and that has been a very rare thing lately. Being in the Playoff hunt like this is fun. I think, if I have to predict what happens, the Dolphins will probably finish the season right around the playoff cut-line, dropping a game or two they "should" win, and probably picking up an upset somewhere (come on, Week 17 versus the Patriots!). The schedule between now and the end of the season is fairly favorable for Miami, so they could make a charge.
I do not think the 2016 Dolphins are a playoff team in the terms of a Super Bowl contender who will be making a deep run in the playoffs, but I do think they have an ability to hang around in the picture for a while and set themselves up to make it next year.
Bonus since we're seeing early draft talk start to spring up. What are the biggest roster needs developing for the Dolphins? Anything related to that fork in the road that will help shape the strategy for the next offseason?
The Dolphins clearly attacked this year's draft for offensive players (other than Howard), while using free agency to re-tool the defense. Next year, I would imagine the defense gets the major focus in the Draft. That said, I would not be surprised if the team is looking for a tight end in the first round. Cornerback and linebacker probably are the other positions that have to be addressed early. Depth offensive line and defensive ends are mid-round targets as well.
Thanks to Kevin for the time.