2016 Record: 10-6; 2nd AFC East; Lost AFC Wild Card Game 30-12 @ Pittsburgh
Head coach: Adam Gase (Dolphins W/L: 10-7, Career W/L: 10-7)
General manager: Chris Grier
Key ins: S Nate Allen Raiders; TE Anthony Fasano Titans; DE William Hayes Rams; S TJ McDonald Rams; TE Julius Thomas Jaguars; LB Lawrence Timmons Steelers
Key outs: S Isa Abdul-Quddus; LB Donald Butler; TE Jordan Cameron; LB Jelani Jenkins; LB Spencer Paysinger; S Bacarri Rambo; TE Dion Sims; DE Mario Williams
Draftees: R1 (22) DE Charles Harris, Missouri; R2 (54) LB Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State; R3 (97) CB Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson; R5 (164) G Isaac Asiata, Utah; R5 (178) DT Davon Dochaux, LSU; R5 (184) S Nate Gerry, Nebraska; R6 (194) DT Vincent Taylor, Oklahoma State; R7 (237) WR Isaiah Ford, Virginia Tech
Before last season, the last time the Dolphins had visited the playoffs, Tony Sparano was head coach, Chad Pennington was throwing to Tedd Ginn Jr and Rocket Ronnie Brown running the Wildcat was officially a thing. Prior to that, Zach Thomas was in the middle of the defense as Dave Wannstedt’s team went 11-5 in 2001. Enter rookie head coach Adam Gase, the offseason’s hot candidate for his work with [spits] Jay Cutler. With a record of futility the like of the Florida side’s, moving the needle wasn’t going to be an insurmountable task.
Gase, however, cranked the knob and almost sent the comedy gauge into the flashing red bit with the loud honky noise. Almost. A 1-4 start, including two-point and seven-point losses at Seattle and New England respectively, could have derailed the Gase Express before it got rolling. But a steady hand on the tiller, a six-win streak and an overall 9-2 finish put his side into the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Job 1 for the 38-year-old first-year boss was to sprinkle his QB pixie dust over Ryan Tannehill. The QB whisperer head coach had reached the playoffs with Tim Tebow and won a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning in Denver before shaving seven interceptions off [spits] Cutler’s 2014 total in 2015.
Tannehill responded with a career-best 93.5 rating as he went 8-5 as a starter and completed 67% of his passes with a 19 to 12 TD to interception ratio. And if the former Texas A&M player hadn’t suffered a season-ending knee injury with three games to go, who knows how differently the Dolphins’ run-in could have been. Stout back-up Matt Moore was at the helm for the Wild Card loss to Pittsburgh but had performed well in relief, with eight TDs to three picks in three games.
The offense overall clicked and topped 30 points six times (by comparison New England achieved that feat eight times). On the ground, they were powered by the UK’s own Jay Ajayi, who went over 1,200 yards and was Player Of The Week three times. The J-Train began his sophomore season behind Arian Foster but emerged when given his opportunity (the second time he got double-digit carries he racked up 204 yards v Pittsburgh).
A week later, Ajayi hit a double century again against Buffalo and then in Week 16 got 206 more against the hapless Bills. It was a bit of a season of feast and famine for the youngster, however, as in nine other games he rushed for 61 yards or under. Running like the defense stole his lunch, his angry style meshed well with the scheme and he’ll be expected to carry the load in 2017.
The beating heart of the offense is the soft-handed, fluid-footed slot receiver Jarvis Landry. He became the fastest player in league history to reach 200 receptions (33 games), only to see his former LSU running mate Odell Beckham Jr break that mark a week later (30 games). Landry did follow up his 2015 record of most receptions in a player’s first two seasons by catching his 288th pass in 2017 to set the three-season record (a mark tied by OBJ hours later).
He was ably supported by second-year receiver DeVante Parker, who added 744 yards and four scores, and former New Orleans speedster Kenny Stills who found paydirt nine times in 42 catches. Tight end Jordan Cameron’s two seasons in Miami were nothing to write home about, while Dion Sims parlayed a career best in receptions and TDs into a move to Chicago so in comes Julius Thomas. He was a disappointment at Florida neighbours Jacksonville but had Pro Bowl seasons with Gase running the offense in Denver.
Nine offensive starters return in 2017 and one of the most welcome will be centre Mike Pouncey. The man in the middle missed all but five games last year and has started 16 games only twice in his six-year career. When healthy, he’s one of the best as three Pro Bowls will testify. After a strong gasmask-bong-less rookie season at left guard, Laremy Tunsil slides to left tackle to replace the departed Branden Albert. The other side of Pouncey, Jermon Bushrod enters his 11th NFL season at guard, while 2014 first-rounder Ja’Wuan James starts at tackle.
While the offense responded to Gase’s tutelage, this season it’s the defense that is in dire need of the pixie dust. With 2016 defensive coordinator Vance Joseph now head coach in Denver, the superbly-bearded Matt Burke was promoted from linebackers coach to run the unit. That underperforming crew finished 30th against the run and 29th in total defense last season.
DOLPHINS IN THE PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS TOP 101 PLAYERS OF 2016 LIST
31 Jay Ajayi (2015 RANKING NR)
45 Cameron Wake (2015 RANKING NR)
52 Ndamukong Suh (2015 RANKING 27)
Ndamukong Suh, who arrived with a fanfare in 2015, returned to the Pro Bowl at the end of 2016 and remains the best player on defense. Linemate Cameron Wake went to his first ever playoff game in his eighth year (a big bone of contention when I interviewed him in 2015!) on the back of 11.5 sacks and a fifth Pro Bowl selection and like Suh is a playmaker.
The rest of the unit features scant big-play material, however. Reshad Jones, another player on Miami’s injury list last season (shoulder), had a career year in 2015 and his return bolsters the two up front and free agent linebacker Lawrence Timmons will be expected to improve the run-stopping capability of the Miami D. His presence will allow last year’s team-leading tackler Kiko Alonso to shift to the weak side.
Veteran Byron Maxwell and second-year man Xavien Howard are expected to man the corners but neither is a Sherman-esque shutdown corner. Tony Lippett bagged four interceptions last time out and will be in the mix. As will big-hitting TJ McDonald, joining from the Rams – only slight snag is he’s suspended for the first eight games of the season.
On special teams, Landry and kick returner Jakeem Grant share punt return duties with Kenyan Drake also running back kicks. Both Grant and Drake found the end zone in 2016, while punter Matt Darr ranked fifth in the NFL in yards and net yards.
In summary, Year 2 of Gase’s regime offers great promise but if the defense can’t better stop the run (and the pass), the offense is going to need to score in bunches to keep pace with likely division champs New England.