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Talking 3rd & Long: Who's to blame?

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Third down.  It's the most critical down in football.  Games are won and lost on 3rd down.  And that's why the Dolphins' offensive struggles on 3rd down this season were enough to really anger even the most laid-back Dolphin fan.

The Dolphins ranked 23rd in the NFL in 3rd down conversions, with a 37% rate of conversion.  The only playoff team worse than the Dolphins, ironically, were the Titans - the AFC's #1 seed.  But I'm not talking about 3rd downs today in the general sense.  Instead, let's look at how inefficient the Dolphins were on 3rd & long.

More specifically, we're going to look at two situations.  The first is 3rd & 6+ yards to go.  The Dolphins faced this situation 90 times this past season - which is actually a very low figure (lower than that of the other 5 AFC playoff teams, in fact).  But of those 90 times, the Dolphins converted just 17 of them - only 19%.  Think about that for a second.  The Dolphins converted fewer than 1 in 5 3rd & 6+'s in 2008 and still found a way to win 11 games and the division.

Just how bad is 19%?  Below are the rates on 3rd & 6+ for the other 5 playoff teams, as well as the NFL's 2 worst offenses in 2008 - the Bengals and the Browns.

Team 3rd & 6+ Pct.
Colts 38/100 38%
Steelers 42/129 33%
Chargers 31/94 33%
Ravens 42/136 31%
Titans 33/117 28%
Bengals 33/127 26%
Browns 27/127 21%
Dolphins 17/90 19%

Again, it's impressive how infrequent it was for the Dolphins to face such situations.  But converting at a rate below even the Browns and Bengals - statistically the two worst offenses in the NFL in 2008 - is unacceptable.

The second specific situation I wanted to talk about was 3rd down and between 6 and 10 yards to go and a pass play was called.  It's not necessarily too far to go for a first down and, in fact, is converted by a good offense around 40% of the time.  Again, listed below are the AFC's 6 playoff teams as well as the NFL's 2 worst offenses:

Team 3rd & 6-10 Pct.
Colts 32/66 48%
Chargers 25/55 45%
Steelers 35/84 42%
Titans 23/63 37%
Ravens 29/80 36%
Bengals 28/77 36%
Dolphins 14/43 33%
Browns 23/86 27%

Again, the Dolphins fall on the short end of the stick - ranking below all the other AFC playoff teams and the putrid Cincinnati Bengals.

Now I know there's been a lot of talk of the Dolphins not being able to convert on 3rd & long and people wanting to blame Chad Pennington's lack of arm strength.  But 6-10 yards is a distance where Chad's arm strength (or lack thereof) doesn't really come into play.  Instead, I think the three teams listed above who are converting over 40% of these situations have 2 things in common.  They have solid offensive lines who can pass protect well (or, at least, 2 of the 3 do - Pittsburgh struggled along the line in '08). 

But most importantly, each of those teams have reliable wide receivers and tight ends who know how to get open and catch the football.  In fact, each of those 3 teams also each have a clear-cut, go-to player who can step up in these kinds of critical situations.  The Colts have Reggie Wayne, the Steelers have Hines Ward, and the Chargers have Antonio Gates.  The Dolphins?  Not so much.

So the question I pose to you is whose fault is it really that the Dolphins struggle so mightily converting on 3rd down and long?  Is it the weak-armed QB, who many feel is to blame?  Or is it the fact that the Dolphins lack a true #1 pass target and are instead filled with young, inexperienced receivers and tight ends?

Personally, I'm not too sure, either.