The Miami Dolphins are five games into a 16-game schedule, and may have more questions than answers at this point. Over the next few weeks, many of these questions have to be answered or else the 2014 season may quickly become much like any of the recent Dolphins campaigns: ending with a record around .500 and sitting at home when the postseason starts.
This afternoon, we identified five of the top questions that Miami will need to answer.
1. Does Joe Philbin have confidence in Ryan Tannehill?
Going by the indications through five games, Philbin does not trust Tannehill, and that's a problem. If the head coach does not trust the starting quarterback, the team will not have much success. Multiple times this year, Philbin has taken the ball out of the hands of the quarterback he drafted, and the Dolphins are a worse team for it. Tannehill has performed well in two-minute offenses in the past, yet when it comes to those situations this year, Philbin would rather go extremely conservative this season rather than take a chance.
Philbin admitted this week that he felt "queasy" (read: got scared) when the Packers blitzed on second down during the team's last offensive drive. He was worried if they tried to throw the ball on third down, Tannehill could have been sacked, fumbled, and the Packers would win - just as the Buffalo Bills did against Miami last year. He told offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to call a run so the team could run down the clock as much as possible, then punt the ball back to Green Bay (who would then drive the field and win the game anyway).
Coaching scared does not work. Coaching when you do not trust your quarterback does not work. This is a make-it-or-break-it year for Philbin, but it is the same for Tannehill. Miami has to know what they have in both men, and until Philbin allows Tannehill to take the ball in a tough situation, there may never be an answer.
2. Can Lamar Miller flourish as the single running back?
Last season, Miller was asked to be part of a duo with Daniel Thomas. Coming into this year, he was asked to be part of a duo with Knowshon Moreno. Now, he is going to be asked to be the primary runner. Can he do it?
Moreno is on injured reserve with an ACL injury, second string running back Damien Williams is an undrafted free agent with 12 carries and 39 yards under his belt. Behind Williams is Thomas, who could be given a more prominent role, but this job appears to be Miller's and he is going to have to perform. He is currently averaging 5.2 yards per carry this year, which is good enough for fourth in the NFL, third among just running backs. That kind of performance is going to have to continue even has his attempts increase - Miller is currently 23rd in the league in carries with 63. (He is also tied for fifth in the league with three rushing touchdowns, just to add that stat.)
If Tannehill and the Miami offense are to find success the rest of this season, the running game has to continue to be a strength. Miller is going to have to flourish as a true feature back.
3. Will the Dolphins learn to tackle?
With all the questions circling about coaching decisions, Ryan Tannehill, and injuries to starters, the biggest question may be about the basic execution on defense: Can someone please tackle? Way too often, Dolphins players are bouncing off opposing ball carriers, whether it is a quarterback, running back, tight end, or wide receiver. It does not matter if it is a defensive lineman, linebacker, or defensive back, it seems too many Miami players are trying to hit the ball carrier to the ground, rather than wrapping him up and tackling him.
You can point to coaching on this, but at the end of the day, these are professional football players who have been playing this game since they were children. At every level from recreational to Pop Warner to high school to college and in the NFL, defenders were required to tackle. This is not something new to any of these players, and it is the basis of being a defender. Someone needs to step up and start executing.
4. Will Charles Clay show up at some point?
Has anyone seen Charles Clay this year? Through five games, he has 17 receptions for 146 yards. Does that not seem like a game total for him from last year? That might be a little hyperbolic, but really, where has Clay been this year? He started the year with a knee issue, and, that absolutely could be part of why he has not been nearly as big a part of the offense as last year. It could also be a scheme thing, with Clay not fitting exactly what offensive coordinator Bill Lazor wants to do with the offense.
Whatever the case, Clay who was so instrumental in many big plays last season, has all but disappeared this year, and the Dolphins need to find away to get him back involved in the offense.
5. How will Dion Jordan fit into the Dolphins defense?
The Dolphins are a week away from the return of 2013 third overall pick Dion Jordan. How exactly will the team incorporate the former Oregon Duck into the defense? Will he play defensive end? Will he be a linebacker? Will he play multiple positions, taking advantage of his athleticism? There are a lot of questions surrounding exactly what the Dolphins will do with Jordan, a player who could be a difference maker on a defense already able to shut down a run game and get after a quarterback.
The Dolphins have used rookie Chris McCain in a hybrid type of role this year, having him drop into coverage, attack quarterbacks, or float along as a spy. Jordan should be able to take over that exact same role without much difficulty. How quickly he is back to game shape and able to contribute will be the other question the team will have to consider. Can Jordan have an immediate impact this season, or is it too late to hope for anything from a player who was limited through much of last year with a shoulder injury?
The Dolphins start answering these questions this Sunday as they head north to face the Chicago Bears at 1pm ET in Soldier Field.