DAVIE, Fla. — After Sunday’s closed practice the Miami Dolphins officially wrapped up their 2014 training camp, one day after their feel-good 20-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their second preseason game.
Head coach Joe Philbin’s third year with the Dolphins must show marked improvement across the board this season in order to reach the goal of a playoff berth, which has eluded them for six years and counting. "Champions Practice Here" is the team’s current motto, but their actions will speak louder then any words plastered across the practice field and on motivational t-shirts.
With injuries piling up, there is uncertainty at important positions on both offense and defense, as well as suspensions to two key players, safety Reshad Jones and defensive end Dion Jordan, to start the season. But where there are injuries there are also opportunities for others to shine, and players like WR Jarvis Landry, TE Brett Brackett and DE Terrence Fede have done well when given the chance.
Philbin continues to be optimistic that this year’s squad will reverse the team’s fortunes.
"I like the way they prepare every single day," he said after Monday’s practice. "I like the attitude they have when they come into the building. I like the way they work with the staff, with one another, the way they treat other people. I thought they’ve done a good job on the road on the two trips we’ve taken together. It’s a good group of men. It’s a high character group. I’m excited about what they’re going to be able to accomplish together."
The Dolphins will feel the pressure immediately to not just compete but to win now. Team owner Stephen Ross, who personally watched Monday’s practice, simply won’t have it any other way and long-suffering fans will certainly agree.
Will the Dolphins finally get the dominant game changer this season that they envisioned to pair with Cameron Wake when they drafted Jordan third overall in 2013? That’s still the $20 million question as it’s been before camp opened, and his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance enhancing drug policy along with his virtual disappearing act against the Falcons only further fuels the uncertainty.
Whether he’s feeling the pressure to perform above and beyond everyone’s expectations or not, Jordan is well aware of the work ethic he’ll need to have as he continues to adjust to the NFL game.
"Personally, my mindset is just come out here every day, whether I’m on the field or I’m in the meeting rooms or when I’m away the facility, I’m going to make sure I’m ready to play ball on a daily basis," he said after last Thursday’s practice. "That’s what it all comes down to. You look at vets like Randy Starks, (Jared) Odrick, Cameron Wake, that come and work every day and they’ve been doing it for a long time. Once I develop that mindset, just come out here and doing what I’m supposed to do, then I’ll be all right."
FIRST TEAM OFFENSE SHOWING SLOW BUT STEADY GAINS
After some up-and-down days early on in camp, it must be said that the first team offense and starting QB Ryan Tannehill have shown a steady overall development through camp and their first two preseason games under first-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
"You just watch the first two preseason games and you see a lot of improvement from week one to week two," said TE Charles Clay. "You see a clean pocket for the quarterback, you see the quarterback making good throws, and it’s just a matter of improving on those things we did good and also correcting things we didn’t do so good."
Players throughout camp have universally praised Lazor’s system, noting how the constant movement and variations to the offense have given all of them plenty of touches. While the offensive line continues to be a concern, Tannehill has unquestionably looked more comfortable in the pocket while also being encouraged to get the ball out of his hands quicker. Of course, it helps if he has clear options and the coaching staff has mostly succeeded in freeing his receivers to make plays.
"Well, offensively, it’s a new system, so we’re still working through some of that stuff," Philbin said. "But I think we’ve made good progress there. As we watched the film from the other night, we didn’t see a lot of mental errors that sometimes you would associate with a quote new scheme. I like how the guys are picking up the system."
INJURIES, SUSPENSIONS COULD PROVE COSTLY EARLY IN THE SEASON, SO WHO WILL STEP UP?
There’s nothing any NFL team can do to prevent injuries with so many players working their way back to shape in a concentrated training schedule, but for a team that needs to build as much continuity as they can in a make-or-break season, the Dolphins can ill-afford to keep shuffling players around with depth a concern in many positions.
Receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline have been slowed by injuries, but their absence has been overshadowed by the fact that the team is overloaded with quality at that position. While rookie Jarvis Landry has certainly been a revelation, other receivers such as Kevin Cone, Rishard Matthews, Damian Williams and Brandon Gibson have all made great catches in the preseason and the coaching staff will have to make some tough cuts soon.
Elsewhere, the team was forced to bring in veteran Samson Satele during camp to fill in for injured center Mike Pouncey, who was expected to fill a position of great need. Running back Knowshon Moreno was also expected to strengthen his position, but only recently has been incorporated into the fold after his early appearance on the PUP list to start camp. Even kicker Caleb Sturgis has been battling groin issues during camp and was unable to play against the Buccaneers after aggravating it during pre-game warmups.
"You never know where you’re going to end up with injuries and things like that that happen during the course of a season," said G Shelley Smith on Monday. "So we all try to prepare ourselves to be ready to hop in wherever we’re needed and just try to help the team any way we can."
HOW WILL THE DOLPHINS GET THEIR RUNNING GAME ON TRACK?
While there are elements of the offense that have looked good so far, the Dolphins need answers for an anemic rushing game that totaled just 52 yards vs the Falcons and just 46 against the Buccaneers.
With Moreno showing progress but still working his way back from offseason knee surgery, Lamar Miller continued to get the majority of the touches at Monday’s practice. Daniel Thomas and Damien Williams have had multiple opportunities in camp to impress as well. While the offensive line has been able to give adequate protection to their quarterbacks, their run-blocking hasn’t been nearly as effective.
"I thought there was too much penetration," Philbin said on Monday concerning the Bucs game. "When you have as many negative runs we had in the ball game, my first thought…is that you’re blocking units on the D-line and or the linebackers were into the backfield too much. I think that was problem number one. I would say problem number two is we didn’t break a lot of tackles, but I would say the first issue was the penetration from the front center."
Having a healthy Moreno will certainly help, but the offensive line that features many new players still has much to correct during the preseason.