Miami Dolphins find their groove through fresh look on coaching staff

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — How this entire year has unfolded for the Miami Dolphins reminds me of the old Lefty Gomez adage that "it’s better to be lucky than good."

In this case, it’s a little bit of both.

The franchise lucked into a quality general manager and two offensive coaches who have made a world of difference. And as evidenced by Thursday night’s 22-9 home win over Buffalo, Miami is a good 6-4 team.

Not great. But good enough to make the playoffs at 6-4 and earn Joe Philbin another year even if the Dolphins fall short.

Obviously, the latter scenario is of the worst-case variety for Philbin. Plenty of head coaches haven’t gotten a fourth year to reach the postseason if their team hasn’t made it in the first three. In fact, 23 of them have gotten fired since 2000 after just two seasons or less.

MEET THE GEEZERS

Yet in many of those cases, those clubs were either stuck in neutral or heading in reverse. The 2014 Dolphins continue moving forward with a stingy defense and a third-year quarterback who is among the NFL’s most improved players in Ryan Tannehill.

This leads us to the lucky part of things.

If Philbin had his druthers, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and offensive line coach Jim Turner would still be on his staff. The Miami Herald reported that Sherman, Philbin’s coaching mentor and a close friend, was forced out in January amid pressure from Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. The unit had plateaued under Sherman as evidenced by a mere one-touchdown output in season-ending losses to Buffalo and the New York Jets that kept Miami out of the playoffs.

Turner’s dismissal didn’t stem from his unit surrendering an NFL-high 58 sacks in 2013 but the criticism he received in the Wells Report that documented the bullying scandal involving Dolphins offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. This was a second move made above Philbin’s head.

Both decisions turned out for the better.

New coordinator Bill Lazor has given Miami an innovative offense that is a far cry from most of the systems of his predecessors. Miami is averaging 24.9 points a game, putting the team on track for its highest output since Dan Marino’s final season in 1995.

New coordinator Bill Lazor has given Miami an innovative offense that is a far cry from most of the systems of his predecessors. Miami is averaging 24.9 points a game, putting the team on track for its highest output since Dan Marino’s final season under Don Shula in 1995.

While he still has flaws, most notably accuracy problems on deep passes, Tannehill finally is looking like the franchise passer the Dolphins have sorely lacked since Marino’s retirement. Not only are the skill-position targets being used more creatively, Lazor has wisely taken advantage of Tannehill’s ample athletic skills with more read-option calls. Tannehill is on pace for 418 rushing yards with a 7.1-yard average, which would be franchise records for the QB position.

John Benton’s work as offensive line coach is equally impressive, especially considering Miami entered the season with different starters at all five positions from 2013. Buffalo did add to its NFL-leading sack total Thursday night by getting to Tannehill five times, but the Dolphins are still providing much stronger protection overall. Miami’s 127.6-yard rushing average also marks an increase of almost 40 yards per game.

There is one more major positive that resulted from the 2013 Dolphins debacle on and off the field: Hickey’s arrival following the firing of Jeff Ireland.

Again, this didn’t begin as a Dolphins masterstroke. If it were, Miami would have hired Hickey immediately last January rather than turning to him after getting spurned by more than a half-dozen other candidates.

GIVING US A FRIGHT

Hickey was just what the Dolphins needed beyond the personnel moves he spearheaded during the offseason. Hickey helped mend the general manager/head coach rift that had developed between Ireland and Philbin. Hickey and Philbin don’t always agree, but there is far more of a mutual respect and consensus reached on decisions than before.

Despite all this progress, the Dolphins still may miss the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season to tie the franchise record for futility set earlier this decade. Injuries have hit the offensive line, and while Lamar Miller is enjoying a nice season, Miami lacks a grinding, move-the-chains running back to help the team run clock and finish games. The absence of Knowshon Moreno (knee) was felt in last-minute losses to Detroit and Green Bay.

Barring injuries to Tom Brady and/or Peyton Manning, Miami will be an underdog for road games Nov. 23 at Denver and Dec. 14 at New England. The Dolphins will be at six losses if they drop both contests. That leaves little margin for error in their remaining four games, especially in a conference where 10 teams enter this weekend with winning records.

Another year sitting at home in January will understandably cause Ross and his seemingly never-ending list of advisors to assess whether a head-coaching change should be made. An available Jim Harbaugh would be especially appealing to Ross, whose failed attempts to hire his fellow University of Michigan alumnus in 2011 led to the disastrous derision that developed between Ireland and former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano.

Ross, though, doesn’t need to look outside Dolphins headquarters. He should feel lucky to have good people in place already.