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Questionable coaching decisions in Dolphins' loss to Packers

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The Miami Dolphins lost to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. There were plenty of questionable coaching decisions in the game.

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Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins held a seven point lead in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers during Sunday's Week 6 showdown. They had a four point lead with less than five minutes to play, and they had the ball. They had that same four point lead with six seconds to play. With three seconds to go, the Packers had a three point lead and Miami did not have a chance.

Miami's defense, which had dominated all day, wilted at the end of the game, a game in which they were asked to be on the field for more than 37 minutes in 90-degree weather. They did everything they could to keep Miami in the game, and in the lead, but it failed to be enough at the end of the day.

The offense, meanwhile, did not show up in the first half. Miami may as well have only brought the defense and the special teams to Sun Life Stadium for the 1pm ET kickoff, because the offense did not actually make an appearance until the second half. Then, they exploded to ultimately gain that seven point lead and appeared to be in position to beat the NFC North leaders. Instead, they could not sustain a drive with four minutes remaining in the contest, gave the ball back to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense, and watched the 2011 league MVP demonstrate why he is among the best in the league at the position.

Miami could have, should have, and would have won the game if they had been able to make one more play. Broken one more tackle. Made one more stop. Gained one more yard.

But could have, should have, and would have do not result in a win.

In my day job, one of the major tenets of doing anything is to always assess. No matter what you have done, you can assess and learn from it. Whether it's a successful game where you blowout an opponent or a failure where you were blown out, there are always things that worked well and things that did not work so well. It is a matter of sustaining the things that worked and improving the things that did not.

The assessment is not supposed to be a finger pointing game. It's not a matter of placing blame. It's not meant to demonstrate how good someone is or how bad someone is. It's not intended to get someone fired. It's simply a look at what worked and what didn't.

Over the next day or two, the Miami Dolphins will be assessing. Head coach Joe Philbin, coordinators Bill Lazor and Kevin Coyle, and the players will all be looking to see what worked and what didn't. When it comes to the coaching staff, there will be plenty of decisions that will be scrutinized.

No one decision the coaches made was that bad on Sunday. Together, they added up to missed opportunities. Some of those opportunities were missed because of poor execution, some were missed from poor decision making, and some just simply did not work as hoped.

Let's look at some of the decisions:

Daniel Thomas inactive

This is not one many people have questioned, especially fans who do not agree with Thomas still being with the team. It is, however, a questionable decision, especially with the way the game unfolded. Starting running back Lamar Miller is a speed runner, not a power back. Knowshon Moreno is that compliment, able to break through people and pick up large chunks of yardage after contact - but this was his first game since being injured on his first carry against the Buffalo Bills in Week 2.

Having Thomas as an option late in the game, with the weather draining players throughout the game, could have been an asset the Dolphins could have used. Moreno had six carries on the day for 10 yards. Thomas could have come in and added a few carries of his own, potentially picking up those few yards the team desperately needed.

Keeping Thomas active and available for the game may be a choice the coaching staff needs to rethink.

(Sidenote: Thomas was not listed on the injury report this week, but if he was injured or ill this is obviously a moot point. The coaching staff knows the players better than any of us, so there is a possibility there was a reason other than just not thinking he was needed as to why Thomas was inactive.)

4th and Goal from GB 1; 2:01 in first quarter

The Dolphins trailed the Packers 7-3 after the first possession by each team. On their second possession, Green Bay was forced to punt, a kick that was blocked by Jonathan Freeny and recovered by Chris McCain, setting up Miami with the ball at the Packers' 16-yard line. Unfortunately, Miami would only move the ball 15 yards on the drive, failing to convert on 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-and-goal from the Green Bay 1-yard line.

Moreno was stuffed on second down, running for no gain. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw incomplete to wide receiver Brian Hartline on third down. Then, rather than kicking a field goal, the Dolphins chose to go for it on fourth down.

After the game, Philbin was asked about that call, saying. "That's something that we decided early on. We talked about it as a staff and I told Bill [Lazor] if it's fourth-and-one or inside the one we're going to go for it, period. No hesitation. There wasn't any thought process. That was early in the first half. If it was in the second half, we might have done something differently."

Coming into this week's game, the Packers had averaged 37 points in their three wins. Philbin and the Dolphins knew this was not going to be a field goal kicking contest, and they decided to trust their run game - against the team with statistically the league's worst rush defense through five weeks - to punch the ball into the endzone. Instead, Moreno was stuffed again and ended up losing two yards.

Watching the play again, the issue was not Moreno. It was not, necessarily, the play call. The Dolphins offensive line allowed penetration between center Samson Satele and guard Mike Pouncey. Miami could not anticipate Pouncey, a Pro Bowl center making his season debut and his first career game at guard, would miss the block and allow the penetration.

For me, the idea to go for it was the right one. You know you need to score points. You are at the one yard line. You are facing a defense that has allowed teams to run all over them this season. And, you have the fifth best run offense in the league. The Dolphins should absolutely have gone for the touchdown in that scenario that early in the game. The execution just was not there.

The Dolphins could have potentially used Daniel Thomas in this exact situation. Would he have been able to score on fourth down? Probably not based on the penetration, but maybe he could have scored on second down, or been an option on third down, either as a pass option or as an additional blocker.

There is also the question of whether or not Tannehill has the ability to audible in that scenario. Green Bay was clearly stacking the box against Miami. Could he have changed the play into a quick slant or something that would have exploited the defensive front from Green Bay?

Again, I agree with the decision to go for it. The execution simply was not there.

Dolphins punt on 4th-and-3 from GB 43; 0:30 in 2nd quarter

Miami forced a Green Bay punt late in the second quarter and got the ball back with 1:03 remaining on the clock starting at their own 20-yard line. They gained 37 yards in 33 seconds, to reach the Packers 43-yard line after a 14-yard gain on a pass from Tannehill to tight end Charles Clay on a 3rd-and-17 play. Faced with a 4th-and-3 in Packers territory with just 30 seconds on the clock, Miami punted.

"I wanted to get to the locker room and keep it a one possession game," Philbin explained post-game. "It was fourth-and-three at midfield, the wind was blowing that way pretty strong, and we felt that they might be able to kick it strongly."

That is a fair assessment. Green Bay had just used their second time out of the half after the Clay reception, so they were ready to save time. If Miami went for it on 4th-and-3, and failed to convert, Green Bay would get the ball back with the clock stopped on the turnover, at their own 43-yard line. One play to move down the field into range of a long field goal try, with the timeout to stop the clock, was an option there, so Philbin made the decision he thought was right at the time. You can make the argument either way, but putting the ball in Rodgers' hands on a short field with time on the clock is dangerous.

Miami was getting the ball to start the second half, so getting out of the half down just one touchdown allowed them to tie the game on their opening drive of the second half, exactly what happened. It can be debated, but it was not the most questionable call of the day for Miami.

The disappearance of Knowshon Morneo

Late in the game, Moreno was not a part of the Miami game plan. He was gone, and there really was not a reason why. Miller was getting hot, but to limit Moreno to just though six carries all day does lead to some questions.

I will not beat on this point too long, given that it could have been a decision to limit Moreno's play as he comes back from injury, it could be the elbow was bothering him, or it could be a descision to stick with the hot hand in Miller, but it does also open up the discussion of the availability of Thomas again.

The 4-minute offense that wasn't

The Dolphins got the ball back following a Green Bay field goal with 4:09 left on the clock. With Miami leading 24-20, all that was needed was a solid 4-minute offense, sustaining a drive through Green Bay's timeouts and gaining the first downs needed to kill the clock.

Instead, Miami did not seem to know what they wanted to do on the drive. Caught between trying to kill the clock and potentially driving for more points, the team could not make a decision and ended up doing nothing. The drive consisted of an incomplete pass to Mike Wallace, an 11-yard pass to Jarvis Landry, a -1 yard run from Lamar Miller, Green Bay's second timeout of the half, a Tannehill sack that was nullified by a penalty, a 1-yard run from Miller, Green Bay's last timeout, an incomplete pass to Clay, a 1-yard run from Miller, a timeout from Miami after running the clock all the way down, and a punt.

Was the goal to kill the clock? Then why all the passes? Was the goal to move the ball and try to add more points, knowing Green Bay could score again if they got the ball back? Then why the clock eating runs?

Bill Lazor seemed to be caught in no-man's-land on the possession, and could not decide what they wanted to do. Take the last three offensive snaps: if you are trying to run out the clock, you keep the ball on the ground, which the team did on first down with a 1-yard run from Miller. Then on second down, you run again to keep the clock moving. Instead, they tried to throw the ball on an incomplete pass to Clay. Now, you should be committed to trying to throw for the first down on 3rd-and-9, but Miami went back to the run, picking up one more yard on another Miller carry, and solidifying giving Rodgers the ball back with just over two-minutes to play.

The case of the timeouts

Full disclosure, I do not think the timeout on Green Bay's fourth down conversion was a bad call. Was there a reason to question it? Absolutely. Miami had just recorded a sack on third down, the crowd was insane and in the game. I do not think the decision, however, suddenly allowed Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense to suddenly realize something they did not already know. It's not like it was a 4th-and-30 play where the time out gave the Packers time to draw up a crazy play. It was 4th-and-10, and all they were going to call was a normal 10 yard play.

Asked about the timeout after the game, including the use of the third time out six plays later, Philbin explained, "We kind of call that ‘Kodaking'. What we do is we let the offense line up in a specific formation and then we want to call time-out. One time we called it on fourth down where, again, that was something we talked about. We've used it before in the past and I'm most concerned that our team knows what they're going to do and how we're going to execute the call. Again, you have to give Green Bay credit. They made plays. But again, that's something wasn't just - it's something we talk about all the time, we've used, again, we could argue if it was wise to do it, but that was a decision that I knew we were going to do. Wait for them to line up and then call."

The thought process behind it make sense. Let the offense line up, see what they are thinking, then call timeout to make sure you have the right players on the field for the situation. Was it the ideal situation to call that timeout? Probably not, but it was also a situation where a timeout to see what the offense is thinking can be useful.

The second timeout on the drive, the one after the fake spike play gave Green Bay a first and goal from the Miami 4-yard line, will probably get lost in the disagreement of the other timeout, but it was probably more questionable. Yes, the clock was stopped because the fake spike play ended with Davante Adams going out of bounds, but it still allowed the Packers a little more time to consider exactly how they wanted to attack Miami on what potentially could be the last play of the game.

Again, up against the Packers, and specifically a former league MVP quarterback, I don't think the "advantage" was given to the offense by the timeouts. They knew what they wanted to do, and 30 additional seconds did not suddenly make them see something different.

Asked about it in his post-game press conference, Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy responded, "I actually think those were smart timeouts. When you feel like you're on your heels a little bit defensively to call timeout, let them reset, and get ready. The defense calling timeout did not give us an advantage...in my opinion."

A lot of discussion will be had about the timeouts, but, again, I do not think they were the reason Miami lost this game.

Philip Wheeler in coverage on the game winning touchdown

This might be the biggest area of assessment needed by Miami after this game. Why was Wheeler in coverage on Andrew Quarless for the game winning touchdown. That is not to say Wheeler did anything wrong here. He covered the play well and the Packers executed perfectly to score. But was Wheeler the right guy to be there on the play?

Miami had lost of options there, including cornerbacks and safeties, who could have been a better option. You knew the play was going to have to be a quick one, so if it was incomplete the Packers would still have a chance to run one more play. The field was condensed to just 14 yards, from the four-yard line to the back of the endzone. Sliding a safety or a cornerback outside, even though the coverage was on a tight end, could have given the Dolphins a better coverage player.

Wheeler has actually had a good year so far for Miami, but he is probably not the best guy to have one-on-one in that situation. It bit Miami in this instance.

1st Half vs 2nd Half

This may be the biggest question mark about the Dolphins this season, and it's one that there does not seem to be an easy way to answer. There is no doubt that the Dolphins do not come out with the same energy levels and ability to execute in the first half of games as they do after halftime each week. Why the team executes so differently in the two halves has to be looked at by the coaches and they have to figure out how to get the team - and especially the offense - working in the first 30 minute period. The Dolphins are playing from behind way too much this season, and, while they are able to come back, if they could execute in the first half, they may be able to put away teams early in the game and not have to struggle to get back into games in the second half.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning of this article, none of these decisions were enough to lose the game for Miami on their own. And, there were a lot of other things that contributed, but, the sum of these decisions could be at least enough to tip the scales back into Green Bay's favor.

There will be a lot of calls for Joe Philbin to be fired this week, as there are every week in which the Dolphins lose, but none of these decisions were enough for that either. Firing your head coach after five games, especially in a season in which the offense is still trying to master a new scheme with a new coordinator, does nothing but admit your team is a complete and abject failure (see Oakland Raiders). The Dolphins are not that. They lost to a better team. Yes, it was a game they could have, should have, and would have won if some things went their way, but, at the end of the day, it still was one loss to a Super Bowl contending team.

It hurts. It sucks. They should have executed better. They should have called plays better. They should have done a lot of things better. But, it's still just one game.

Assessments are always done to learn and to make an organization better. An assessment of the game, including the decisions above, will be done by the Dolphins with the goal of being better next week as they travel to Illinois to face the Chicago Bears. Hopefully they will be able to implement the changes needed to not make the same mistakes, and not end up with another loss like this one.

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