Amid the whirlwind of reports related to the (surprisingly difficult) hiring of a new GM, it was easy to miss the announcement of a lower profile hiring that nonetheless could play a big role in the Miami Dolphins 2014 season. The Dolphins have formally announced that they have hired John Benton, formerly of the Texans, as the new assistant offensive line coach.
Normally, the hiring of an assistant position coach wouldn't be worth too much attention, yet Benton's background is intriguing. Per his Houston Texans' biography, Benton began his coaching career at the college level in 1987 with Colorado State. He spent 16 years as a coach for various college programs with 13 years spent as an offensive line coach. He then broke into NFL ranks in 2004, first as an offensive line coach with the St. Louis Rams, and then with the Houston Texans since 2006. He joins the Dolphins with 26 years of coaching experience, with 23 of those years being as an offensive line coach, and 10 of those years as an offensive line coach at the NFL level.
In addition, the performance of the Houston Texans' offensive line throughout his tenure was impressive, and he oversaw the development of multiple good to elite offensive linemen including:
LT Duane Brown, who was a former 26th overall pick in the 2008 draft by the Texans and developed into one of the most complete left tackles (run and pass blocking) in the NFL. He's been named a 2x All-Pro (2011 and 2012) and 2x ProBowler (2012 and 2013).
C Chris Myers, who was a former 6th round pick by the Broncos in 2005 who was signed and traded to the Texans in 2008 after his third season. After 3 years under Benton's tutelage, Myers became a ProBowler with the Texans in 2011 and 2012.
LG Wade Smith, who was a former 3rd round pick of the Miami Dolphins. Smith bounced around from team to team after leaving the Dolphins with 2-season stints with the Jets and Chiefs before settling with the Texans in 2010. Like Myers, Smith's quality of play improved after joining the Texans to the point where he was named to the 2012 ProBowl.
RG Mike Brisiel, who was a former undrafted free agent. Brisiel never developed into a ProBowler, but he was a consistent starter who started 47 games for the Texans before he was eventually signed by the Oakland Raiders in free agency to a hefty 5-year, $20 million deal.
RT Eric Winston, who was a former 3rd round pick of the Houston Texans. Winston developed into a top-tier right tackle before being cut in 2012 due to salary cap reasons.
That 5-man unit was the best offensive line in football in 2011, when the Texans had the best rushing offense in the NFL with both Arian Foster and Ben Tate rushing for over 900 yards. What's notable is that only one player was a former first rounder (Brown), and several players played better for Benton than they had for their prior teams. Those are the signs of good OL coaching - getting a lot out of non-elite talent, and players performing better than they had with previous teams.
The Texans OL dropped off in 2013, due to a combination of injuries limiting key players like Duane Brown and the Texans relying on inexperienced backups as starters due to the free agency losses of Brisiel and Winston. A decline in running game productivity along with Matt Schaub's pick-6 implosion meant the Texans had a very disappointing season in 2013 ending with the coaching staff - including Benton - being fired.
This hiring is significant for several reasons.
1. Player Criticism of Coaching Quality - When Joe Philbin took over as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, he hired coordinators in Sherman and Coyle who had coaching experience at the NFL level, but he notably hired several position coaches like offensive line coach Jim Turner who had never coached at the NFL level. A recent report from the Miami Herald claimed several players were unsatisfied by the instruction they were receiving from position coaches. Since then, the past two position coaching hires have been new linebackers coach Mark Duffner, who is a 16-year NFL veteran, and now Benton, who is a 10 year NFL veteran. This is dramatic change in the hiring philosophy for Philbin, who as recently as 2 years ago was hiring position coaching candidates with no NFL experience but now has hired 2 candidates with over a decade of NFL experience. It's perhaps a sign that Philbin has heard the criticism and is willing to adapt to the feedback he's getting.
2. Rookie Development - It is widely projected that the Dolphins will be spending at least 1, if not more, of their early round picks on offensive line, making it even more critical that the highly drafted rookie(s) receive quality coaching to develop properly. The failed development of Jonathan Martin - who was playing poorly before going AWOL - and the fact that the Dolphins weren't able to get productive snaps out of 3rd round rookie Dallas Thomas in 2013 were extremely disappointing in a season in which the offensive line was in chaos. The Dolphins simply cannot afford to invest early draft picks in offensive line YET still finish the year with concerns about the offensive line anymore. As I listed above, Benton has a history of successfully developing offensive linemen, including offensive linemen drafted in the mid-to-late rounds or who were even undrafted.
3. Ted Wells' Report on the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito Bullying Scandal - There's been speculation by fans and the media that Jim Turner has been kept despite the offensive line's poor performance because he'll be fired as a "sacrificial lamb" when the Wells' report is released after the Super Bowl. With this hire, Turner's new assistant coach is, if anything, more qualified than Turner, so if Turner is fired, the Dolphins have a replacement with sterling credentials on staff. If Turner isn't fired, then having a guy with Benton's resume on staff provides some pressure on Turner to improve.