Miami Dolphins 2012 season review

With the season in the books, rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill left the Dolphins with some optimism.

A guy who wears No. 17 was the 17th quarterback to start for Miami since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season. The Dolphins hope they won’t need an 18th for a while.

The 2012 season was all about rookie Ryan Tannehill’s development. And while there’s not as much excitement in Miami as in rookie-quarterback cities Indianapolis, Washington and Seattle, what Tannehill did still has provided optimism that he can be the Dolphins’ first franchise quarterback of this century.

“He made a lot of progress,’’ first-year coach Joe Philbin said. “There’s no question about it. I’m confident with the work ethic that he has, the passion that he has for the game. This kid wants to do well. You hope in coaching and, as I said to the players, in between your first and second year, you see that growth and development. There’s usually a pretty big curve, and so we’re excited about the possibility of improvement for him.”

Tannehill’s stats weren’t overly impressive. He completed 282 of 484 passes (58.3 percent) for 3,294 yards with 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. But he rarely got rattled and he showed flashes at different periods during the season that he has what it takes to be an upper-echelon NFL signal-caller.

Tannehill helped steer the Dolphins to a 7-9 record. That’s hardly eye popping but is one game better than last season and well above what many had projected, especially after Miami had looked so ugly during a 0-4 preseason.

“I think I grew in most areas,’’ Tannehill said. “Obviously, with every rep you are going to get more comfortable. With every game you get more comfortable. So I feel like I grew in a lot of areas, but I still need to do a lot more growing.’’

The Dolphins certainly can help Tannehill’s development by using the nearly $50 million in salary-cap room they are expected to have and the five draft picks they will have in the top 100 selections to bring in some more weapons. Tannehill needs to be surrounded by some playmakers to help a team that averaged just 18.0 points per game.

But Tannehill at least has given the Dolphins what they hope will be a solid base for building. And that’s more than can be said for most of Miami’s seasons since Marino retired.

Here’s a look at the Dolphins in 2012 and how they stand moving toward 2013:

OFFENSE

The good

Tannehill’s development was helped by the continued progress of wide receiver Brian Hartline. He added some life to a Dolphins receiving corps that was deemed among the NFL’s worst entering the season.

Hartline caught 74 balls for 1,083 yards. He became just the eighth different player in Miami history to have a 1,000-yard receiving season.

The Dolphins might have had two receivers exceed 1,000 yards had Davone Bess, who gained 778 on 61 catches, not missed the final three games because of a back injury. Tight end Anthony Fasano was steady, catching 41 balls for 332 yards with a team-high five receiving TDs.

In the backfield, Reggie Bush just missed becoming the third Miami player to have consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. After being held to 26 yards on eight carries in the finale at New England, he finished with 986 yards on 227 attempts for a 4.3 average.

The Dolphins also were pleased with the development of Lamar Miller, a rookie running back from the University of Miami. He gained 250 yards on 51 carries, including looking really good with 73 yards on 10 carries in the next-to-last game against Buffalo.
                                                                          
On the offensive line, the bright spot was center Mike Pouncey. Many thought the second-year man did enough to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl.

The bad

Tannehill still needs plenty of work throwing downfield. It would help if the Dolphins could get him a big-play receiver during the offseason.

Hartline and Bess are possession receivers, both having averaged less than 15 yards a catch in 2012. Fasano averaged just 8.1 yards per catch, down from 14.1 last season. The Dolphins are in desperate need of a deep threat who can stretch defenses.

While Bush had his moments, his production was inconsistent. During a five-game stretch in the middle of the season, he gained just 158 yards.

It didn’t help matters that Daniel Thomas, Bush’s primary backup until Miller emerged, didn’t progress in his second year the way the Dolphins had hoped. He gained 325 yards on 91 carries for a 3.6 average.

On the offensive line, left tackle Jake Long missed the final four games because of a triceps injury. Nate Garner filled in, but he didn't do anything special.

The jury remains out on the young right side of the line. Tackle Jonathan Martin was a rookie and guard John Jerry a third-year man.

The bottom line is the Dolphins didn’t score enough points. They were just 27th in the NFL in that category.

DEFENSE

The Good

Cameron Wake, after a bit of a drop in 2011, showed he’s clearly one of the best defensive ends in the NFL. Wake was fourth in the NFL in sacks and made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years.

Among others on the front line, defensive tackles Paul Soliai and Randy Starks were steady. They helped the Dolphins finish a reasonable 13th in the NFL in yards allowed on the ground.

Middle linebacker Karlos Dansby talks a big game, having told FOX Sports Florida before the season he expects to be a Hall of Famer. Dansby, 31, never has made a Pro Bowl. But he did gain consideration in 2012 for leading the Dolphins in solo tackles with a career-high 101.

Outside linebackers Kevin Burnett and Koa Misi also were solid. The Dolphins did a good job of going from a 3-4 under previous coach Tony Sparano to a 4-3.

In the secondary, safety Reshad Jones emerged as a Pro Bowl candidate in his second year. Jones, who had a game-clinching interception and two fumble recoveries in the penultimate game against Buffalo, might have made it had that performance not come after voting had concluded.

The Bad

The Dolphins had problems all season in the secondary. They ranked just 27th in the league in passing yards allowed.

It didn’t help that cornerback Richard Marshall, whose strong preseason led the Dolphins to trade Vontae Davis to Indianapolis, was lost for the year after just four games because of a back injury. Other than Jones, Miami’s starters didn’t distinguish themselves. Even well-regarded cornerback Sean Smith had his problems.

The Dolphins were looking for big things out of defensive end Jared Odrick, a 2010 first-round pick who showed some signs of breaking loose in 2011. But Odrick didn’t step up as anticipated. Even though he started 12 times, he had one less sack (five) in 2012 than he did when having started just seven times in 2011.

While the Dolphins did have 42 sacks as a team, taking the ball away was a big problem. Miami had just 16 takeaways, 10 interceptions and six fumble recoveries. That led to a minus-10 differential, ranking the Dolphins 24th in the NFL.

“That’s one part of the program that needs to be addressed ASAP,’’ Philbin said. “Yeah, I’m not happy with minus-10. ... When you have 16 (takeaways) for the season, you’re going to have to look at a lot of different ways to create more.”

SPECIAL TEAMS

The good

Punter Brandon Fields didn’t make the Pro Bowl despite having one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. 

Fields led the NFL with a 50.2 gross average, not far behind Sammy Baugh’s 1940 NFL record of 51.4. It was the fifth-best average in NFL history and marked just the seventh time a punter has averaged 50 or more yards in a season.

Kicker Dan Carpenter had some shaky moments early in the season. But he bounced back to make 22 of 27 field goals on the season before missing the final two games because of a groin strain.

Returner Marcus Thigpen, in his first NFL season after having played in Canada, proved to be a nice addition. He returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. His 12.2 average on punt returns ranked fifth and his 27.4 average on kickoff returns was eighth.

The bad

Carpenter took the blame for a 23-20 home overtime loss to the New York Jets on Sept. 23. He missed a key 47-yard attempt in the fourth quarter and botched a 48-yard overtime kick that would have given the Dolphins the win.

With Carpenter missing the final two games, he was replaced by Nate Kaeding. That didn’t work out too well as Kaeding missed two of his three field-goal attempts. He misfired from 41 yards and had a 46-yarder blocked that was kicked low.

Long snapper John Denney, who made the Pro Bowl two years ago, doesn’t mess up much. But he had a bad snap on a punt in early in the 23-16 loss to New England on Dec. 2. That led to Fields bobbling the ball and the Patriots taking over at the 12 and soon scoring a touchdown.

ROOKIE OVERVIEW

The Dolphins have no regrets about taking Tannehill with the No. 8 pick. He’s the first quarterback Miami has taken in the first round since Dan Marino in 1983, and the Dolphins hope he can bring some Marino-like stability to the franchise.

Among players taken in the first four rounds, it generally was a good draft for the Dolphins. Second-round pick Martin moved in as a starter; third-rounder Olivier Vernon, a defensive end, was steady with 3 1/2 sacks; and fourth-rounder Miller showed promise.

The one big exception was tight end Michael Egnew, a third-round pick who so far has been a disaster. Egnew got off to a bad start when offensive coordinator Mike Sherman blasted him before the season on an episode of HBO’s “Hard Knocks.’’ Egnew was inactive for the first 14 games and did next to nothing when he got in for the final two.

FREE AGENTS

The Dolphins have 13 total free agents, a number of them key contributors.

Heading the list on offense are Bush, who has said he wants to return, and Long, a four-time Pro Bowler. If the price isn’t too high, figure on Bush being back. Long, however, might get an offer too rich for Miami to want to match.

Two of Miami’s top receivers are bound for free agency. But look for the Dolphins to seek to retain Hartline and Fasano.

Figure on Miami needing to find a new backup quarterback. Matt Moore is a free agent, and he’ll likely want to move somewhere he'll have a better chance to start.

On defense, the top two free agents are Starks and Smith. The Dolphins are expected to look to retain both.

Safety Chris Clemons also is a free agent. But if the Dolphins emphasize significant reconstructing of any area on the team, it most likely would be the secondary.

FINAL ANALYSIS 

The Dolphins might have improved by one game from their 6-10 finish of 2011. But there was a feeling they could have been much better and been a serious playoff contender.

Miami blew double-digits leads on consecutive weekends in September in losing overtime games to the Jets and at Arizona. The Dolphins also lost a very winnable November game at Buffalo.

Still, Philbin’s first year has to be regarded as more of a success than a failure. He quickly seemed to earn the respect of Miami’s players.

But the key to the season was the development of Tannehill. He showed enough as a rookie to generate ample optimism for 2013.

Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter @christomasson

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