Well well well. It seems as if the sky is falling! How foolish of me to proudly criticize the skeptics of the Dolphins organization. Or am I?
Make no mistake about it: MIA vs. CLE was a complete debacle. Even if we pulled out a win, the game should have never been that close, or as nerve-wracking. But does this game, and further, this 0-3 start, indicate that our team is fundamentally screwed up, and that, we need a complete restructuring? Again, nonsense.
Before I begin, let me start by saying I was a little reckless in the comments of my previous fanpost. People called me an "optimist", and I didn't disagree. How could I be an optimist if I was being critical of the team? Of course, being a fan, I have a bias to be cheerful about the future season. But I try not to let that bias get in the way of me analyzing what are the team's weaknesses. My perceived optimism stemmed from looking at our problems as being fixable, instead of being eternally damned. I still feel that way.
It is important for me to declare my aim for writing this in comparison to individuals who place all the blame on Chad Henne, for instance. This is not to say those individuals are right or wrong-they are clearly wrong, as I have repeatedly shown-but that they have no merit in their opinions other than being emotionally charged. The point of my posts is to make this less emotional and more rational. From there, we can help determine what the problem is with the team. In other words, spouting off opinions at one another doesn't resolve anything.
There are some who won't care for this discussion, and will respond with more emotional spew. As I mentioned in my previous fanpost, this is not for them. This is for the Dolfan that is trying to understand why his team is 0-3 and assumes he does not know what the answer is, which is a big leap of faith for some.
Today, one of the problem-children I mentioned reared its ugly head yet again: poor red-zone conversion. "Any Given Sunday" is the NFL motto. Playing games close, like our head coach likes to do, can back-fire. And today is the combined effect of playing an inferior team while being incapable of punching it in inside the 20-yard line. We had 4 red-zone opportunities (not even including Reggie Bush's fumble), but only scored 1 TD. Simply put, one more score would have put the game away.
Blaming the defensive play, the other problem-area from before, in this game won't cut it. Yes, they let the Browns go 80 yards on the game-winning drive. But they played solid defense most of the game and should never have been put in the position to win the game for us. QB pressure was really the only problem this defense had. Holding a team to 10 points for 57:37 minutes of football cannot be criticized, unless you considered our defense to be "shutdown", like the 2000 Ravens. It is not, and should not be considered as such. But it is good enough to win when paired with our offense.
So then if we improved in one problem area but not the other, the question is: is the red-zone conversion a permanent problem with the team, preventing them from being as competitive as their potential allows? Before answering, I should point out that a combination of my recommendations for solving our red-zone problems before the game -- screen play and Daniel Thomas -- were executed perfectly. Somebody listened for one drive ;-)
But anyways, let me make a couple of observations:
(1) The o-line is atrocious in pass protection. Even Jake Long is struggling, which highlights that this is the weakest part of the entire team. Despite that, and despite the 5 sacks allowed, we still had the opportunity to dominate this game from how easy we were able to move the ball. That should show that while the o-line is below average, it does not stop us from driving, setting us up to win games by...scoring points.
(2) Reggie Bush is the new wild-cat. I hope I wasn't the only one who noticed that Reggie Bush stalled drives today. He is being used improperly by Dabboll. Why can't he be used in the passing game? Because we need a RB blocker. The o-line cannot handle the rush themselves. But again, his poor utilization may have stalled 2-3 drives, it was not fatal to our scoring opportunity.
(3) Chad Henne is 9/23, 4 TD, INT, 2 Sacks in the red-zone. While I ignore the anti-Henne fanatics who are borderline religious with their convictions that he is rotten to the core (sustaining eleven 60+ drives in 3 games is good enough to be a starter in the NFL, but not enough for his dogmatic critics), his completion % inside the 20 is worrisome.
Henne has been below average in the red zone. That much is true. But how is it possible that a quarterback can be successful between the 20's (the statistics back up this observation. For Pennington lovers, Henne is achieving higher passing first downs per game than Chad did in 2008) but then fail in the red? What changes?
The answer is plainly obvious: the length of the field. For a defender, the boundary is your friend. The defense, in the red zone, gains one extra boundary: the back of the end zone. It dramatically effects how a defense can play the pass. Safeties don't have to drop back so far. Linebackers the same. There is less space for a receiver to find an opening.
This is why I believe running backs dominate red zone touches. Let us compare 2009 RB red zone touches with WR red zone touches. The top WR was Brandon Marshall with 29. Maurice Jones Drew has 74. That is more than 2.5 times the amount of the top WR. Why is this? Well, the simple answer is that it is easier to get the ball to your RB than to your WR. A handoff is all that is needed. Or, a sample flat route, which involves more open space than what the back of the end zone provides. In other words, in the red zone, it is easier to gain yardage with your RB than with your WRs.
Our base offense is running at a 58% pass / 42% run ratio. That is very aggressive. The problem I am identifying is this: Brian Dabboll is too aggressive in the red zone. What works in between the 20s doesn't work in the red zone, with a shortened field. How many times has a RB been targeted or touched the ball in the red zone? Not many. And yet 2 out of 4 of Henne's TD passes have come from RBs. Dabboll is too obsessed with getting Brandon Marshall and the WRs the ball. This leads to greater likelihood of a sack from the poor o-line, leading to long third down conversions, which are more difficult with a shortened field. Many of Henne's overthrown passes in the end zone are because he has no where else to go with the ball.
I only dissected the most glaring issue on this team. Fortunately, this is an issue that is correctable, unlike the offensive-line play, which is dependent on talent (or lack thereof). This is not an elixir; this team on defense still needs to put more pressure on the QB, and to return to form in the secondary (of course Chris Clemons was out again vs. CLE, along with Vontae Davis, but that is no excuse). Also, game management has to be scrutinized. Tony Sparano does not like to try to blow out a team. Our countless close-call wins over 4 years must be a result of his game philosophy. He is happy to lead by one or two field goals versus trying to lead by one or two touchdowns. Will his mindset change with his job on the line?
In conclusion, we are playing winning football, just not winning. We need to correct our red zone performance, plain and simple. If it is corrected, and we are still losing, then this team really is damned. But there is no reason why the sky is falling. There are still 13 games left.