Questions linger for Dolphins after season-ending collapse
Two weeks ago, the Miami Dolphins expected to be preparing for a wild-card game this weekend.
Instead, a somber atmosphere pervaded the team’s training facility at Nova Southeastern University on Monday as players and coaches tried to cope with an 8-8 season that resulted in no postseason for a fifth straight year.
"We’re an 8-8 football team. That’s an average record, that’s .500," coach Joe Philbin said. "The performance of the team starts with me — offense, defense, special teams. The expectations here are high. I understand that.
"It was Week 17 and we had an opportunity to get into the playoffs, had we played better and won the football game. And then when you get into the playoffs you have an opportunity to compete for a championship. So, we’re not there yet, but we’re close."
The Dolphins’ year certainly had a roller-coaster feel to it. Three wins to open the season were followed by four straight losses. Then came the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito bullying scandal that attracted national media attention and resulted in the offensive line losing two starters.
Miami rallied to win four of five games to improve to 8-6 and grab control of its playoff destiny. But being outscored 39-7 overall in season-ending losses at Buffalo and against the New York Jets erased any hopes of the Dolphins playing in January.
"We gotta score more points, for sure. That’s the first and foremost thing we have to do is score more points," receiver Mike Wallace said. "In two weeks to end the season you can’t score seven points, not when you have a playoff berth on the line."
Second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill showed stretches of promise, but also showed inconsistency in directing an offense that ranked 27th (312.9 yards per game) among 32 teams. The unit allowed a league-high 58 sacks — eight more than runner-up Jacksonville.
Defensively, Miami ranked 21st (359.4 yards per game) overall but eighth (20.9) when it came to points allowed.
WHAT WENT WRONG
The Dolphins inability to both run the ball and to stop the opponents’ rushing attack, especially in the final two games, cost them a playoff berth.
The rushing defense overall ranked 24th (124.9 yards per game) and the rushing offense ranked 26th (90.0).
In the final two games, Miami was outrushed by Buffalo (203-14) and the New York Jets (154-92).
The Martin-Incognito bullying scandal.
Coaches and players insisted the midseason controversy was not as disruptive internally as others might assume. Still, the scandal became national news for several weeks and caused the NFL to appoint an independent investigator to look into the situation and the Dolphins’ locker-room environment.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
The Dolphins entered the season with the intent of improving their pass rush and accomplished that with 42 sacks, which tied Indianapolis for 11th most in the league. Miami also needed to find help in the secondary — something cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Nolan Carroll significantly provided.
Receiver Brian Hartline, who left the season finale with an apparent knee injury, led the team with 76 catches for 1,016 yards and four touchdowns.
Even more impressive than the season-opening winning streak was the Dolphins beginning December with three straight wins to grab control of their playoff destiny. Unfortunately for the team and its fans, Miami fumbled its chance to advance to the playoffs.
Cornerback Brent Grimes.
Grimes signed a one-year contract in the spring and showed he was fully recovered from Achilles’ tendon injury suffered in Atlanta’s 2012 opener. He had a solid season and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl after tying Dmitri Patterson for the team lead in interceptions with four.
1. Will there be changes at the top?
Stephen Ross has been a strong supporter of both general manager Jeff Ireland and coach Joe Philbin, but the Dolphins owner said he will evaluate everything after the end-of-season collapse. It would be surprising if Philbin were let go after two seasons.
2. If Philbin returns, will offensive coordinator Mike Sherman?
Sherman used to be Philbin’s high school English teacher, so the two men have a long history. Philbin likely will not want to fire his friend, but Sherman appears to be the type who would step down if he sees pressure on the head coach to make a change.
3. Will the Dolphins use the franchise tag on Grimes?
The cornerback on Monday said he "liked it here" but the franchise tag was "nothing anybody wants." Grimes played under the franchise tag with Atlanta in 2012.
4. What can be done to fix the running game?
Changes certainly will occur on the offensive line. Martin and Incognito probably have played their last games for the Dolphins. Clabo, Jerry and McKinnie all will be free agents. As for running back, Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas each had his moments, but neither appears to be the full-time answer.