From the middle of June until the middle of July, the NFL is in what has become the only real dead period of the year. Teams have completed their offseason workout programs and are just waiting for training camps to start. The down time gives everyone a chance to look back at the previous season, as well as preview the upcoming year.
NFL.com is doing just that, counting down their Top 100 Plays of 2013. The Miami Dolphins make an appearance on the list at number 48 with Charles Clay's demolition of the San Diego Chargers' defense. It was a great play, with Clay running over and through would-be tacklers in route to the endzone and helping Miami to a 20-16 win over the Chargers.
"It was huge," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said of the play after the game. "I saw a void, threw it to him in the opening and never thought it was going to be a 39-yard touchdown. He's a tough runner, big physical guy who showed his physicalness [sic] and toughness getting in the endzone."
After briefly discussing the Clay touchdown, the discussion between Jeff Darlington, Jordan Babineaux, and Curtis Conway turned to the 2014 Dolphins. Darlington asked the two former players, "What must Ryan Tannehill do to take the next step in 2014?"
"I don't think it's just Ryan Tannehill that needs to take the next step," Babineaux replied. "I mean, this whole team, collectively, needs to take the next step. Last year, they were in the position to have a chance to make the playoffs, and didn't finish the season as well as they wanted to.
"The problems with the Miami Dolphins were up front, they were on the offensive line. We already know what happened with the situation with [Richie] Incognito and Jonathan [Martin], but they gave up 58 sacks last year. It's the reason why they went out and got a first round draft pick like Ja'Wuan James. It's the reason they went out and acquired Branden Albert through free agency.
"I mean, the problems were up front. Mike Pouncey goes out now for three months. These guys will have five new starters on the offensive line. How do you feel as a quarterback with five new starters? Your center is out, who has been your field general, and now you have to sit here and basically find a new correlation with these guys, to find protection, and some continuity through this offense. That's the problem. It's not just Ryan Tannehill. They have a nice passing game with Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace, but the guys up front, they have to be better."
Babineaux gets to the root of the major issue from last season, and their biggest challenge ahead of 2014. It really will come down to the offensive line, and how well they can keep Tannehill upright. That does not change the fact that Tannehill also has to get better. He needs to increase his deep ball accuracy, though, as Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel recently pointed out, "Tannehill connected on plenty big plays, deep balls last season."
Kelly explains, "We saw Mike Wallace bring in a decent amount last season (seven plays that produced 35-plus yards or more), and Charles Clay and Brian Hartline caught a few. Our perspective is skewed a little bit because of how many opportunities Tannehill and Wallace missed on. Last year he had 10 passing plays that produced 40-plus yards. Only five quarterbacks - Drew Brees, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Nick Foles and Peyton Manning - produced more big passing plays in 2013 than Tannehill. The problem Tannehill has is he doesn't have good chemistry with Wallace, and they struggled to deliver on many of their deep ball opportunities."
It's a very valid point that, as Dolphins fans, we do not typically consider. Tannehill did hit on a lot of deep passes last year, but all we remember is the overthrown and underthrown passes to Mike Wallace. We all hope to see that chemistry and timing between Wallace and Tannehill better in 2014, but it does not mean Tannehill cannot complete the deep ball even if it does not materialize with Wallace.
"I think a way they can help them is not just Ryan, but it's the offensive structure," Conway added in response to Darlington's question. "They don't do a lot of dumping the ball to their running backs. I go back to Philip Rivers, where, in 2012, he was sacked 49 times; that was second in the National Football League. You go back to this year, in 2013, and Danny Woodhead is the second leading receiver on this team with 76 catches. Guess what? Now they're at 30 [sacks].
"When you have that pressure because your line is letting guys through, dump it to your back, don't try to hold the ball, don't try to get it down the field. I think in this era, a lot of young quarterbacks, they're trying to throw it down the field. If you look at Drew Brees and what they're doing in New Orleans, you go Jimmy Graham, and then all of a sudden, the next guy is Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas. Pierre Thomas has 70 catches, over 70 catches, and Darren Sproles.
"I think, when you have an offensive line that is not as strong as you want it to be, your running back is your best friend. Get it to him, and, at least if he gets two or three yards, that's a positive play versus taking a sack and putting yourself in negative plays.
Conway's point about young quarterbacks looking down field longer than they should is correct when it comes to Tannehill. There were multiple times last season where either dumping off the ball or throwing it away would have prevented the sack, but instead he continued to try to find a receiver and ended up being pulled down. The offensive scheme did not seem to help Tannehill, as there was little use of running backs, who were often asked to stay in and block rather than giving Tannehill the short pass option, which also needs to be correct this season if the Dolphins are to have success.
Miami hired Bill Lazor as the team's new offensive coordinator for this year, and his system should result in better options for Tannehill, including sending running backs into the flat as a receiving option. With the Philadelphia Eagles last year, Lazor, who served as the team's quarterbacks coach, saw receiver DeSean Jackson catch 82 passes, while running back LeSean McCoy was second on the team with 52 receptions. Using Lamar Miller and Knowshon Moreno in the passing game should help the offense, and help Tannehill, take the next step, as well as ease some of the issues the offensive line will likely have as the five new starters all get used to playing next to each other.