As the heart of pre-season quenches our thirst for live football action, season predictions and win-loss totals begin to escalate. Many of us see the early onslaught of games and recognize that we have a most serious journey even before the bye week. @ Cle, @ Indy, Atl, @ NO, and Balt. This early slate of games gives a very reliable instrument of whether we make the Playoffs or not. 5 games is almost a 1/3 of the season, and if we falter here, our aspirations could potentially be squashed before we even start division games. Starting the season 1-4 can almost assuredly doom the rest of the season, which is why a multitude of Dolphins fans have pencilled in the 1st game against the Browns as a "W". Here's 2 tidbits of information you might find requisite before getting your #2's out (pencils, not poop...please find an appropriate "resting" place if your #2's are the latter).
Tidbit #1: The Dolphins are 2-8 in their last 10 season openers.
We are one of the worst teams in the NFL in this category in the past decade. A slow start in the NFL is perilous. True, teams bounce back and make Playoff runs, but they are few and far between. Since 1990, 22 of 184 teams (12%) who started off 0-2 made the Playoffs. And that's just 2 games! Granted most teams that start off 0-2 tend to have subpar years because they aren't very good to begin with. However, the sample size (184) is large enough to indicate that, although early season games aren't necessarily a barometer of how good a team is, it's enough to usurp later momentum. 22 teams in 22 years is, you guessed it, 1 team per year statistically make the Playoffs with this kind of start. The 2013 Miami Dolphins can be that team, but I don't want to take my chances.
Tidbit #2: The Dolphins are 0-4 in their last 4 meetings with the Browns.
What's particularly noteworthy is that 3 of these losses have come at Cleveland, fielding as good if not better teams than the orange and brown. For what it's worth (and I live in Cleveland), the fans will be particularly rabid as they usually are for home games, especially considering it's week 1 and spirits haven't been decimated just yet. Cleveland Browns fans are some of the most dedicated and loyal fans on the planet, and they will support the team tooth-and-nail. It will be a most hostile environment. Please, for the love of God, put your pencils away and know that this will be a dog-fight (pun very well-intended).
I, in my heart of hearts, think we get the victory here. But in the interest of being level-headed, let me give you 3 reasons for concern and 3 reasons for optimism as we look forward to this all-important 1st game of the season.
3 Reasons for Concern:
1. Norv Turner. Yes, I'm aware that he's a 61 year-old offensive coordinator and he doesn't actually play on the field, but many of us remember him: he was the offensive coordinator for the Dolphins in 2002 and 2003. He has a proven track record as a
head coach coordinator and there's no reason to think he can't improve the Browns' offense. His offenses run the ball well and attack the field vertically. Considering the 1st 2 pre-season games (YES I KNOW THEY ARE PRE-SEASON GAMES...BUT STILL), our run defense looks, well, different than what I'm used to. We were one of the best run-stuffing units in the league last year in the first part of the season. This might be the silver lining - that we play them early. However, we ended up 13th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game. True, it might be because we got fatigued and broke down, but considering what I've seen in terms of tackling and gap discipline so far, we've got our work cut out for us if we want to stymie their running game. Which brings me to...
2. Trent Richardson. Under Norv Turner's tutelage, Ricky Williams accumulated over 3,200 yards and 25 TD's. Trent Richardson didn't have near the same collegiate success that Williams had, but one can argue they have similar characteristics: they break tackles, they are punishing runners, they finish every run, they can catch passes out of the backfield, and they can make guys miss in the open field. Despite missing the entire pre-season last year, he racked up almost a 1,000 yards and 11 TD's. Norv Turner will make this guy better. If we tackle poorly and fail to maintain our gap discipline, Trent Richardson will undoubtedly make us pay in a major pay (he only accepts cash...PayPal is unacceptable). He is one of the up-and-coming RB stars in the league and goal #1 should be shutting him down.
3. Cleveland's offensive line. The apparent strength of the Miami Dolphins entire team is the front 7. Wake, Odrick, Starks, Soliai, Vernon, Jordan, Misi, Ellerbe, Wheeler. Those are enough names to get a Pavlovian salivation response, but Cleveland's 5th ranked 2012 OL unit based on PFF's ratings has the potential to neutralize this potent attack. If the OL can open holes for Richardson and give Weeden or Campbell time to throw, it inhibits our chance to cause turnovers, which in turn, dwindles our chances of winning the game. If Richardson gets 30 carries and has consistent running lanes, and our tackling is even twice as good as what we've seen so far, we are in for a long day. Stopping Richardson must, must, must be priority #1 in the game plan.
3 Reasons for Optimism:
1. Brandon Weeden. I won't overwhelm you with statistics, here. You know it, and I know it. This guy isn't very good and thank God we didn't draft this guy. He looked good against St. Louis in the pre-season opener, but I'm not buying it. If we contain Trent Richardson, then we are banking on Weeden beating us. No way in Hell he does that. Because...
2. No Josh Gordon. Cleveland's #1 WR from a year ago will be serving a suspension during week 1. He was undoubtedly Weeden's favorite target and his suspension leaves them even more devoid of offensive weapons than they had before. Miami's secondary should be able to handle Cleveland's passing attack (please don't tell this to Davone Bess), which means we can concentrate our efforts on their workhorse.
3. The Dolphins running game. Despite our pre-season struggles with the offensive line, we should be able to run the ball on the 19th-ranked run defense from a year ago. Our 0-4 record in the last 4 against Cleveland is an indication of our inferior QB play as opposed to our running game. Dustin Keller was a close "other option" when it came to this, but I think Lamar Miller can exploit the defensive weaknesses just a bit better than our intermediate route runners. The weakness of the Browns' defense is LB, and Lamar Miller should be able to find running lanes as well as Keller, Gibson, Hartline, and other receivers finding space in the middle off of play-action (especially considering the ultra-aggressive nature of their safety TJ Ward). Our running game should be able to control the clock and keep our defense fresh, even with the Browns' addition of Paul Kruger (who doesn't necessarily scare me anyway) in the off-season.
Well, there you have it. I will be there week 1 and I can visualize it now. Ahhh, the fresh scent of the broken economy of Cleveland at 6 a.m. as I load the car up with friends and family, with enough alcohol to kill a small 3rd-world country, all the while riding down some of the poorest paved roads known to man (James can attest to this). I look forward to some grilling, some cornhole (if you've never heard of the game, don't read too much into its name), and good times as we await the most important game of the year. I see no scenario where we lose to the Browns and make the Playoffs. I know crazy things happen in the NFL but a loss to start the season sets a dangerous tone. We will know what to expect from our team week 1. I will offer no prediction on the score of the game because it usually only serves to jinx us, at least when I'm in attendance of the game. I can only hope we get this all-important first victory of the season. But history tells us, it's far from given. Put the highlighters away. This is not a gimme "win".
What are your keys to victory? Will anybody (other than OFF4L) be at the game? We will be tailgating off of West 6th with an entourage of about 10. I will be obnoxiously dressed with a wig, Zach Thomas jersey, and about every other bit of Dolphins paraphernalia that you can think of! Just yell out "SUTTON!" and I will turn around! Hope to see you there! Go Phins!