Dec 24, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (23) celebrates a touchdown during the first half against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
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Reviewing the Miami Dolphins’ 2016 season with a report card for the entire team
The Miami Dolphins season may have ended in disappointing fashion with a loss to the Steelers in the AFC Wild Card round. However, based on preseason expectations, or especially fan expectations after the first month of the season, the 2016 season was a resounding success.
This was an eventful season for the Dolphins by any measure.The year got off to a rocky start for Miami and rookie head coach, Adam Gase. They came out of the blocks 1-4, including an embarrassing loss to the Tennessee Titans. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a switch flipped and the Dolphins went on a six-game winning streak.
The six consecutive wins started with an improbable, dominant performance against Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jay Ajayi burst onto the scene with what would be his first of three (including two-straight) 200-yard rushing games. The defense was stout, and held Roethlisberger and all-pro wide receiver Antonio Brown in check. During the streak, the Dolphins would go on to notch wins against the Bills, Jets, Chargers, Rams, and 49ers.
After another embarrassing loss, this time at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, the Dolphins would again pull themselves together. The team finished the season with wins in three of their final four games to finish the season 10-6. A mark that would be good enough for the squad’s first playoff appearance since 2008. By nearly every measure, the 2016 season was a complete and utter success.
But just how good was the season for the Dolphins? Was the team really as good as their record indicates, or did they benefit from lucky breaks? Let’s take a look at how each squad (offense, defense, special teams, and the coaching staff) grades out in their season review.
The Miami Dolphins offense took some time to get its legs under them, but they did make a lot of strides under first-year head coach Adam Gase. During the last half of the season, the offense was spearheaded by an improved running game, and franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The season didn’t start off well for the young Dolphins quarterback. After the 1-4 start, which saw Tannehill achieve meager, at best, production along with a bevy of sacks and interceptions, calls were made for his head. However, to both Tannehill and Gase’s credit, the light came on down the stretch. Tannehill made significant strides in the offense. He ended the season on pace for some of the best numbers of his career. If Tannehill can recover from the knee injury suffered late in the season, his future is bright.
The offense wasn’t all Tannehill, of course. Jay Ajayi was one of the best running backs in the league down the stretch. He finished near the top of the league in rushing yards, yards after contact, and broken tackles. The guys catching the ball for Tannehill played well, too. Jarvis Landry had yet another season of 90+ receptions and over 1,100 yards. His counterpart, Kenny Stills, was explosive. While Stills only had 42 catches, he made the most of them with a wopping 17.3 yards per catch, and nine touchdowns.
Ultimately, injuries derailed what could have been a (even more) special season for a young Dolphins squad. All-pro center Mike Pouncey only played in five games for the Dolphins, and the Dolphins offensive line as a whole struggled to stay healthy. When the line was together and healthy, they were dominant, but with an aging Branden Albert and Jermon Bushrod, it is an area of significant concern once again for the team.
The biggest news on the injury front, by far, is the blown ACL suffered by Ryan Tannehill against the Arizona Cardinals. Reports have differed a bit as to just how severe that injury is, but the Dolphins need him at full strength next season to continue on their upward trend.
The Miami Dolphins franchise has a long and storied tradition of great defense. Which made watching the 2016 squad all that much more difficult. By all rights, this defense was one of the worst in the league this season. And one of the worst in franchise history. The defense gave up the fourth-most yards in the league this season, and was on the field an average of four minutes more per game than their opponents.
Miami’s defense was the epitome of a “bend but don’t break” squad. They gave up a ton of yardage and were on the field longer than anyone in the league except the 49ers and Browns. However, the team was in the middle of the pack when it comes to points allowed per game, third-and-fourth down conversion percentage, and penalty yardage.
The most troubling aspects for the Dolphins defense were two-fold. One was how the squad performed against the run. For a team that boasts one of the better defensive lines in all of football, the team couldn’t stop the run to save their lives. They gave up the third-most yards on the ground per game, again only being worse than the 49ers and Browns in that category.
Their woes against the run aren’t completely the fault of the defensive line, however. Equal blame in that phase of the game goes to the linebacker corps. And the lion’s share of the blame for the defense’s ineptitude against the pass lands here as well.
For the entirety of the 2016 season, the Dolphins linebacker corps was one of the worst in franchise history, and probably the worst that I have ever seen. Every Sunday it seemed there were receivers running as if frolicking in an open meadow, and there were missed tackles abound.
The future of the Dolphins defense is in a bit of turmoil this off-season. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has left to become the head coach for the Denver Broncos. This leaves the Dolphins promoting former linebackers coach Matt Burke to the position. Burke will have his work cut out for him to improve a dismal squad. It remains to be seen what he’ll do with the squad, and a lot will hinge on what they do in the draft and free agency.
The team will need to address the linebacker position without a doubt. They would also be wise to address the defensive end position with a young edge rusher. Cameron Wake is coming off a mind-boggling season and should be the Comeback Player of the Year. But he’s 34. His counterpart for much of the season, Mario Williams, will not be back with the team. Relying solely on Wake and Andre Branch, who did play well, is a scary proposition.
The Dolphins special teams squad had a few hiccups over the course of the season, but overall is a pretty solid unit. Matt Darr is a very solid punter. Darr’s net average was in the lower half of the league, but he didn’t have any of his punts blocked, and finished inside the top 10 with 32 punts downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Darr was not helped out by his offense, however, racking up the fourth-most punts in the league with 90.
Field goal kicking was another weak point for the 2016 Dolphins. Andrew Franks isn’t necessarily a bad kicker, he just doesn’t have the opportunity that other kickers have, which skews his numbers toward the negative. Franks was 30th in the league in field goal attempts made, with only 16, and was tied for 29th in the league in field goals attempted with 21. His field goal percentage was near the bottom of the league, coming in at 31st.
The return game was a case of Jekyll and Hyde. On one side, we had rookie Kenyan Drake. Drake is a solid kick returner, and emerged in both the offense and special teams game as a potential dynamic play-maker. On the other side of the coin, we had Jakeem Grant. Grant, like Drake, made some spectacular plays in the return game. But unlike Drake, Grant made some serious gaffes in the area, and could not see the field in the offense.
Grant is a player that I personally like. I want to see him develop as both a return man and as part of the offense. He had himself a rough rookie season, though. I’m very interested to see his development in year two.
I will be the first to admit that I was skeptical of the Adam Gase hiring at the start. I’ve seen plenty of so-called gurus come into the league and completely face-plant. When the Dolphins started the season 1-4, I was certain that was the direction that Gase and this coaching staff was headed. Needless to say, they turned things around and proved me wrong in a big way.
I don’t know what, exactly, it was that made the switch flip, but Adam Gase and the rest of his coaching staff found something to light a fire under this team. After the disastrous start, the Dolphins went on one of the more surprising runs in recent memory, all the way to a playoff berth. It’s always an impressive feat when you can qualify for the playoffs in your first season. Even more impressive when you do it with a franchise that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2008.
Gase was able to find a rhythm with his young quarterback, and the offense made strides throughout the season. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of work to be done yet, but the groundwork is being laid. If the team can come back next season fully healthy and add some pieces (primarily depth), they could be a formidable unit in 2017.
If this grade took into account only the performance Adam Gase turned in, I’d be tempted to give an overall grade of an A. The staff loses a bit of steam for just how poorly the defense played all season. The defensive coaches, the bulk of the onus falling on defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, never quite got it together with this squad.
When you really break it down, looking at at the season from all sides, the Miami Dolphins exceeded expectations. The record turned out better than I think their overall performance indicates, though. A lot of really good, really encouraging things happened in 2016, but the season left a lot to be desired for fans.
2017 is going to be interesting for both the Dolphins franchise and their fans. What will the coaching staff and front office do in the draft to address the glaring holes? What role will free agency play in that process? How is the defense going to look with a new defensive coordinator?
A lot of big decisions will be made in this offseason that will shape the future of this franchise. Will the Dolphins be able to keep big-play receiver Kenny Stills? Or will he cash in on a big season and move on? Will the Dolphins make good on their word and give Reshad Jones a significant boost in his contract, or will he hold out yet again? How does Jones’ injury affect that process? Do the Dolphins re-sign potential free agent Andre Branch?
The future in Miami may be a bit uncertain as of right now. But it’s undeniable that the 2016 season set the groundwork for a potential franchise resurgence. For fans that have been struggling through the past two decades with this team, that has to be encouraging.