The 2007 Miami Dolphins nearly accomplished a feat never before done, although it was accomplished the next year by the Detroit Lions. No team in NFL history had gone 0-16 on a season. The Dolphins eked out one overtime win against the Baltimore Ravens to finish 1-15 on the year. With that miserable record, Miami claimed the first pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.
With that selection, the Dolphins picked University of Michigan tackle Jake Long. At the time, the decision came down to Long or defensive end Chris Long. Now, looking back, many fans argue that the Dolphins should have taken Matt Ryan with that selection, but that's revisionist history, trying to remake the fact that Ryan, selected third overall by the Atlanta Falcons, was not seen as a franchise quarterback and was not thought to be worthy of the first overall pick.
While that argument is not going any where any time soon, however, it's a more pressing one that will be the focus of this offseason. Should the Dolphins re-sign Long?
Long has been selected to the Pro Bowl in all four seasons since joining the NFL. He currently leads the AFC tackles in the fan vote for this season's Pro Bowl. He has been a starter at left tackle for Miami since the day he was drafted. He started ever game for the Dolphins for his first three seasons, and did not miss time until the end of last year when a back injury and a torn biceps sidelined him. Coming into this season, he was considered as one of the top offensive tackles in the league.
And, that's the problem.
Long is not the Long of the past four seasons. He's routinely struggled in pass protection, although he's been strong in run blocking. But, you don't pay a left tackle to run block. He has to be there to protect a quarterback's blind side. And, when you have a rookie "franchise" quarterback, you really need to be able to protect him.
Long has not been able to do that this year. Not to the level expected of "one of the top offensive tackles in the league."
However, Long is expected to want top tier money this offseason. His play this season, and even, to some degree, last season, does not warrant that type of money. Is Long is determined to get money like Cleveland Browns tackle Joe Thomas(8 years, $92 million)?
The Dolphins could be looking to pay Long a fair market price. But, what's the market price for a player with his pedigree, but is currently struggling? The only way to find out may be to let Long test free agency. But, if he does test free agency, some team will be willing to overpay him, assuming he can return to his prior self.
From now until the end of the season, or, even more likely, the start of free agency in March, this discussion will continue. Especially now that Long is injured again.
The left tackle was forced to leave yesterday's game against the New England Patriots with a triceps injury. He went into the training room in the first half, and came back out on the sidelines with an ice wrap on his arm. After half time, Long was in street clothes on the sideline, most of the time sitting on the bench watching the game.
It's unclear at this point how serious an injury this could be. Speculation continues to build that Long could be lost for the year. And, if he is out for the remainder of the 2012 season, that he may have played his last game for Miami.
The Dolphins offensive line obviously missed Long once he was out of the game. Suddenly the Patriots were able to get pressure on Tannehill and were able to disrupt the running game. Rookie right tackle Jonathan Martin, who played left tackle in college at Stanford but had not taken a practice snap this year at left tackle, moved over to replace Long, who had not missed a snap this season, while Nate Garner moved into the lineup to replace Martin. Garner, who is a jack of all trades type of utility player for the Dolphins' offensive line, was clearly a downgrade for the Miami protection schemes in the second half.
Obviously, the Dolphins could use someone of Long's talent - if it's the 2008-2010 Long - on the offensive line. The question becomes, is the 2013 Long going to be more like that player, or more like the 2012 player? And, is either one of them worth the price tag it may take to see Long return?