MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 12: Receiver Wes Welker #83 of the New England Patriots catcges a pass against defensive back Bennie Sapp #27 of the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on September 12, 2011 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Well, as a Dolphins fan, I must admit that the result of this game was a bit disappointing. But even though the Fins lost, there were some very positive notes to take away from this game.
First, let's look at some of the positives:
Chad Henne played extremely well!
DolFans, this is HUGE! The biggest offseason question facing the team was whether they could find a way to raise the level of quarterback play from that of last season. As most of you know, the team looked at several options for upgrading the position and for reasons we will not rehash in this column, the team decided to stand pat with Chad Henne as the signal caller.
Last season, Henne looked good at times, but was very inconsistent in his decision making and accuracy, leading to some games lost in the last minutes that might have been winnable with better play in the 4th quarter. He also did not seem to have any kind of chemistry with Brandon Marshall, who was easily the most potentially dangerous offensive weapon on the team. Too many times, Henne was quick to check down to his outlet receiver and too few times did he connect on a play that Tony Sparano would term a "chunk yard" play.
Well folks, Monday night Henne showed us what he is capable of producing: 61% completion percentage, 416 yards through the air and another 59 on the ground, 2 passing touchdowns and 1 rushing touchdown - and this from a guy that almost everyone considered very likely to lose in a foot race with an elm tree. And though I have not been the biggest Henne groupie, even I will give him a pass on the last minute interception that wasn't much more than a "hail mary" toss-up made with 6 seconds left when the game was already decided.
Henne also appeared to have much more authority to change calls at the line than last season, when he appeared to be on a short leash. He seemed to handle this well, and overall, the game did not seem too big for him.
If Henne can build on his relationship with Marshall, and continue to get comfortable in Brian Daboll's offensive system, he could very well develop into the quarterback Miami has been looking for since Dan Marino retired.
Speaking of Brian Daboll brings us to the next point that was probably the second biggest question of the offseason:
Will the Miami Offense under new Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll be more creative and aggressive than last season, or will we see more of the "3 yards and a cloud of dust" play calling that dates back to the Dave Wannstedt years?
Well, based on this one game, I would have to say that Brian Daboll is a definite improvement over what we had with Dan Henning last season, and possibly the guy that can create the kind of high scoring offense that is needed to compete in today's NFL. Now I don't want to jump to any conclusions, and I still have a couple of nits to pick with the play calling or player preparation in a few instances, but overall I was impressed with the Dolphins coming out and hitting "chunk yards" totaling 54 yard on their first three plays, and adjusting throughout the game to take what the defense was giving. Miami totaled 10 plays that went for longer than 20 yards apiece in this game.
The Fins scored 24 points, and were about six inches from making it 31. This loss was less about the Offense not performing and more about the Defense getting torched by Brady and Company (more on this later).
Brandon Marshall looked GOOD!
He didn't get a score, but Henne looked to him often and the two of them seemed (mostly) to be on the same page. Marshall racked up 139 yards and easily could have had that missing score in what looked like a miscommunication between he and Henne on what should have been a fade in the endzone from the New England 2 yard line. And Marshall should continue to improve as he develops better chemistry with Henne.
Now, on to the areas of concern
But before anyone gets all bent out of shape, let me say that I am not intending to write a doomsday article. All of the areas of concern can be corrected. But let's face it, there are some areas that need to be addressed before the words "Dolphins" and "playoffs" can reasonably be used in the same sentence.
Reggie Bush is an asset on Offense, but is not a complete back.
Not a huge surprise here, but as good as Bush is out of the backfield in the passing game, he just doesn't look like the guy that can take it to a Defense and wear them down with 3 and 4 yard runs late in the game. The Fins brought in Lex Hilliard a few times, but they still seem to lack that "pound it inside" kind of back who can punish an opposing Defense. To Bush's credit, he threw a nice block to spring Henne for the first down on a scramble, so he doesn't appear to be afraid of contact. But for Bush to be successful as an inside runner, the Dolphins Offensive line would have to be able to open bigger running lanes, and so far I'm not seeing it.
The Fins O-Line is still playing average at best.
The Offensive line was okay at pass blocking, but they just did not seem to be able to control the middle of the line of scrimmage. This is probably why the Dolphins opted not to go for the higher percentage running play from the half yard line late in the game. Now, I understand that they were often facing Vince Wilfork (325) and Albert Haynesworth (350 lbs) together, but that wasn't the only problem. Richie Incognito drew a couple of holding penalties and the right side of the line with Vernon Carey alongside Marc Colombo appeared weak. Overall, the line gave up 4 sacks. On a positive note, rookie Center Mike Pouncey looked good, and should continue to get better with experience.
Tony Sparano - He let's his Coordinators call their own plays.
At least that what it looks like from my side of the television. But tell me, should this be in the "positives" or "negatives" category? I mean, at what point, when something is not working like the defensive strategy, should the head coach step in to change things up? Or when the ball is on the 1/2 yard line and your O-Coord wants to call a fade to Hartline, do you step in and say "let's not get cute".
Offensive calls/player prep
Generally, I really liked what I saw from new Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll. But there are two things that bothered me in this game. The first, which I just mentioned above, was the call to Brian Hartline on 4th down from the half yard line. Do any of you remember former Dolphins coordinator Mike Mularkey calling a Half Back Option in the Red Zone with Ronnie Brown that lost us the game a couple of years ago? The argument is the same - "If it had worked, you would be praising his ingenuity, but because it failed you are complaining." Well, my argument is the same today "It doesn't make it a good call just because it worked - and it doesn't make it a bad call because it failed". There are percentages you play for different situations and you call the play with the best chance of succeeding based on those percentages. So with one shot, from the half yard line, with the game on the line, you decide to pas rather than run? And you don't even use your biggest strongest, best Receiver? I get the "strategy" part, but let's face facts - if they tried to run the ball and it failed, we wouldn't even be having this discussion. Because most fans would agree that is was the right call. And if you ARE going to get tricky and throw a fade, WHY wouldn't you throw it to Brandon Marshall? Sometimes you can trick yourself right out of points, and I hope Daboll learns something from this one.
The other issue that had me scratching my head was why they did NOT throw the fade to Marshall earlier in the 3rd Quarter when they were in the red zone and ended up having to settle for a field goal? It looked like a perfect opportunity with Marshall behind the defender, but for some reason he and Henne weren't on the same page - and neither page of that play looked like a fade to the back corner of the endzone. You Fin Fans remember that same fade to Oronde Gadsden? That play was money! And Marshall is the perfect guy to make that same play! There is no excuse for not having that play down as a primary weapon inside the red zone.
And finally, we come to the big ugly issue that was the biggest cause for the Fins logging an "L" instead of a "W" in the Win/Loss column for their first game of the 2011 season - the Miami Defense!
Who would have thought that? Not me for sure. I would have said the Miami D was the strength of the team. But Brady and the Pats carved then up like a hot knife through butter! Where was all the supposed improvement in covering opposing Tight Ends? What happened to the run defense? And remind me who the best Corner Back tandem in the NFL plays for? Because they certainly don't play for the Miami Dolphins! I saw secondary play that looked like the third string players in a preseason game! Seriously, Sean Smith not wrapping up tackles, Nolan Carroll forgetting to look for he ball, just basic DB Class 101 stuff that let the Patriots turn 5-6 yard plays into 10-15 yard plays. But the bigger issue in my mind was the complete lack of pressure on Tom Brady! ONE SACK? And ONE Tackle For a Loss? Are you kidding me? But what I want to know is WHY, if it wasn't working, didn't Mike Nolan change things up? For a Defense that was supposed to be a top 10 Defense last season, and was supposedly improved this season with the addition of players like Kevin Burnett and the return of former first round pick Jared Odrick, this was - to this writer - the most completely disappointing part of this painful home opener loss to the Patriots. The game was still tied in the 3rd Quarter of the game! With a little pressure, the Dolphins had a chance! But the Miami Defense couldn't get to Brady, and Brady made them pay.
Last season, we were worried about the Miami Offense not being able to score enough points to win a low scoring defensive battle. But this season, unless they get these defensive problems turned around quickly, the Dolphins are going to have to plan on becoming the Miami Saints and scoring 40 points per game to get a win.