Part of being a fan is the ability to wipe the slate clean each year and start afresh. I admit that in the past few years, I've lost some faith in the Dolphins during the season when it became obvious the team was treading water rather than advancing in any way. But every year is new and every team I do believe has the ability to change itself and take on a new direction if enough of the right people are in place - both players and front office/coaching personnel.
So will the 2013 Dolphin team be any different? I say yes.
Many fans will shake their heads and laugh in disbelief that someone like me can be so irrationally positive. What about Ireland as the GM - hasn't he screwed up enough drafts and personnel decisions to prove to you that the ship is going nowhere with his hand on the rudder? Or that the team overpaid in free agency for a one-trick pony WR and some borderline LBs? That the Dolphins couldn't keep their #1 pick Long and let all the leaders on the team walk out the door (or were shown out the door)? That Tannehill faded late in close games and didn't finish out wins like Luck and Wilson did last year/
All true, all true. I can't argue with any of those points above. There are many concerns and signs the team could be headed for another year of running on a treadmill rather than sprinting ahead free from their past.
All teams change over time. When I started watching football in the 70's the Giants, 49ers, and Packers were a joke. Then they weren't. Some teams churn GMs and coaches for years and years until they find the right pair (see the pre-Manning Colts) and the right QB. The fact remains that as a fan, you don't know if the right pieces are in place until you are looking back at the situation after the fact.
Parcells, Sparano, and Henne weren't the answer. Nor were Wannsteadt, Feidler, Speilman, Feeley, Saban, or any other GM/Coach/QB of the last decade. Or Johnson and Marino for that matter. Sometimes when it seems so obvious the perfect fit is in place, a team still doesn't seem to get to where the fans want it to go.
So now we are in the Ireland/Philbin/Tannehill phase. I have questions about all three guys. Ireland still has the stink of Parcells and his 80's brand football on him that he is trying to erase. Philbin came across as unlikable last year on TV with more than a few players seemingly not on board with him. Tannehill...well, I'm a Longhorn, so I'll just leave it at that ;-). Seriously though, after watching him lose a few 4th quarter games last year it reminded me of the Aggies losing 5 games in the second half after leading at halftime in Tannehill's last year there.
Dammit if I liked what I saw last year. And dammit if I like what the Dolphins have done this offseason.
I can really see what Ireland has been planning the last three years. He did throw Sparano under the bus two years ago to start his three year plan. A crappy thing to do to a coach and friend, but as a fan, I have a lot of respect for Ireland to make the tough decisions that year knowing the Dolphins really had no chance to be winners. Pretty sure that wasn't easy for him to do. It would have been easy to go out and get new toys for Philbin last year once he was hired, but again, Ireland held back and signed a bunch of cheap guys to at least try to put an average team on the field while a new culture and schemes where put in place.
So this is year 3 of the plan. What has Ireland done?
Ireland has decided to let go of any player that meets one of these three criteria: 1) If you are a leader on the team and you don't buy into Philbin's system, you are out (Dansby, Long - out); 2) If you are too old to be a core team player for the next 2-5 years, you are out (Fasano, Burnett - out); 3) If you are a borderline head case and can't be depended upon, you are out (Marshall, Davis - out).
I don't have any problems with any of these moves. The Dolphins now have one of the youngest teams in the league, and will most likely get younger with 6-10 rookies making the team this year. And they are Ireland's players. And Philbin's players. The new leaders on the team will be guys who buy into Philbin and Ireland's plan, guys like Wake and Pouncey and Hartline, and Tannehill.
Ireland is also buying in on the new NFL, not the old NFL. Wannsteadt, Saban, and Sparano didn't. Philbin and his staff want to be the Packers and the Saints and the Steelers and the Patriots, not the Lawrence Taylor Giants or the Aikman Cowboys. The Dolphins have gone from two above average receiving threats (Bess and Hartline) to potentially a top 10 passing team in the league with 5 weapons (add in Wallace, Keller, and Gibson). I wouldn't be surprised if they add more still in the draft. I expect to see at least one more WR and another TE added to the roster - and that concern about the Dolphins not having a blocking TE. I don't think Philbin or Ireland care. If a TE is drafted it will be a seam threat TE who can get down the field.
Ireland is banking on the draft. Building from the draft. Sound counter-intuitive? Big spenders in FA obviously, but I think Ireland has planned this year to be the one year exception to the rule. He cleared big space just for this year. He's pushed off the cap hit until year 2, where the Dolphins will again have plenty of cap space due to expiring contracts. 11 picks this year. Players with good potential the last 2 years on board. I wouldn't be surprised if someone isn't traded to add to the draft stock for next year? Does this sound like another team? It does to me - the Patriots. They spend in FA, just very carefully to fill in holes. And they always have more than the 7 draft picks they are allotted. Ireland is fixing some specific holes this year to push Philbin's system forward. Next year I expect the Dolphins to resign the players they want in FA who fit their plan (Jones, Starks) an let players that don't fit in potentially move on (Bess, Incognito). Maybe sign one FA with a splash. But the concentration will be on the draft.
So I see the plan. And I like the plan. Obviously Tannehill has to progress. Obviously the players drafted in the last two drafts have to progress (Vernon, Miller). Obviously Ireland has to nail it this year and next in the draft. But the plan is there, and it is a better plan than I have seen from the team than any over the last 10 years.
My prediction this year is that the Dolphins will be better on offense but not explosive yet. The running game will be comparable to last year with Miller stepping in to replace Bush and the line blocking being slightly better. The passing game will be more explosive with potentially 20 TD's thrown by Tannehill, but there will be some inconsistencies due to the new players and 2nd year growth of the QB. The line play will be improved but still not elite.
The defense will be a top 10 unit that still struggles against the pass. There will be more big plays and turnovers due to increased pressure on the QB and the new zone scheme, but there will be QBs that will still be able to pick the back end apart at times. The rush defense will still be excellent with only a slight drop off with more athletic but less consistent LB play.
Kicking game will be excellent, with Carpenter having a good year and Fields again deserving of a Pro Bowl berth. Return and coverage teams will improve as well with the Dolphins having better depth on the team.
I think the Dolphins will be a lot better in 2013 and definitely more exciting. But the record won't improve much due to the tougher schedule they play this year. Best case scenario is 10-6, but I wouldn't be surprised at an 8-8 season as well, which will make people scream and call for Ireland's head.
Where I see excitement is 2014, year 3 of Philbin and year 3b of Ireland's plan. The young core will have a couple of years in the offensive and defensive schemes. Tannehill will have 32 NFL starts under his belt. The passing game will have a year of working together behind them. The potentially young secondary will have a year of working together to allow for better communication. The team will STILL be incredibly young. Another draft to fill in the remaining few holes that weren't filled long-term by the team in 2013 (OG, TE, S maybe).
So I am optimistic. Maybe irrationally so. Or maybe not enough for some fans. The Dolphins I think will push the Patriots this year until the final few weeks. I think a playoff spot could happen - the AFC is the weaker conference this year. I'd say at this point it's a 50/50 shot. But too many new players, young players, and a young QB will create a year with some highs and lows. In 2014 I see the Dolphins taking the AFC East crown from the Patriots as they start to fade and the Dolphins youth comes into its own under Philbin's coaching.