The Miami Dolphins have tried just about everything to get better production out of their offensive line the past few years. They've signed high priced free agents and expended multiple first round picks, in Jake Long, Mike Pouncey and Ju 'Wuan James. Not surprisingly, the Dolphins fielded the NFL's highest paid offensive line last season.
If only being highly paid could guarantee good performance. Unfortunately, football is much different than baseball, in terms of team chemistry; paying more doesn't always produce better results.
New Dolphins head coach Adam Gase is keenly aware of Miami's ongoing problems with its offensive line, but much to the surprise and chagrin of many Dolphin fans, he hasn't lobbied the team's front office for any of the top free agent linemen this offseason, as far as we know. We believe this is because Gase is convinced that the team's problems are due as much, if not more, to coaching as they are to personnel.
Gase sat down this past week with Barry Jackson, of the Miami Herald, to discuss his plans for the offensive line. What the coach had to say was telling: "[Getting] back to some old school [techniques] , let's lift, let's spend our two hours in the weight room, let's get these guys bigger, stronger and faster. So, that's been our big focus. I want to try to give [the trainer] as much time alotted as he's allowed to get these guys in position, where, when we do start, we can see a difference, we can see a difference physically, in our guys, as far as their strength and being able to come off the ball and move people."
Now, we know it's still early, and while the Dolphins will almost certainly select at least one offensive lineman in the early rounds of this year's draft, you can't help but believe that Miami appears to be placing an emphasis this year on strength and physicality over schematics and X's and O's.
We have long questioned the effectiveness and long term viability of the zone blockng scheme, and after watching former Dolphins offensive line coach John Benton's troops give up the most sacks in the NFL the past two years, while opening far too few holes in the running game, we decided to go back and take a look at Benton's tenure with the Houston Texans, when that team's offense was routinely among the league leaders. In our opinion, the number one Achilles' heel of the stretch-zone blocking scheme is that while it tends to work well when the opposing defense doesn't know whether a run or pass is coming, it also tends not to work very well late in games, when offenses need to implement a ball control game to run out the clock, or in 3rd and short situations.
During the eight year period that Benton was Houston's offensive line coach, from 2006-13, the three other teams in the AFC South, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee, all were ranked in the top half of the NFL, in total defense, only three times: in 2009, 2010 and 2012. The other five years, that division was mostly bad defensively; in '06, while Jacksonville was second overall in team defense, Indianapolis was 21st and Tennessee was dead last, at number 32. In 2007, Jacksonville was 21st, Tennessee 28th and Indianapolis 30th. In '08, Jacksonville was 16th, Indy 22nd and Tennessee 26th. In 2011, Indianapolis vaulted up to eighth overall in total defense, while Tennessee was 14th and Jacksonville 27th. In 2013, Benton's final year with the Texans, their three divisional opponents finished 9th, 16th and 28th.
By contrast, when John Benton arrived in South Florida for the 2014 season with Miami, he faced a much tougher division, defensively, in the AFC East; Buffalo was 4th overall in total defense that year, while New England was 8th. Other than the Dolphins, the New York Jets were the only AFC East team that had a subpar defense in 2014, finishing 24th. Last season, all three of Miami's divisional foes finished in the top half of the NFL in total defense; the Jets were 9th, the Patriots 10th and the Bills 15th.
While this is a relatively small sample size, what we've seen over the past couple of years would seem to suggest that the stretch-zone blocking scheme fares far better against mediocre defenses than against the NFL's better defensive fronts. Of course, we could make the exact same argument for any offensive scheme -- New England's record setting 2007 offense was held to fourteen points by a nasty New York Giants defense in the Super Bowl. Still, Gase's recent comments are reassuring to those of us who simply aren't impressed with the premise of the zone blocking scheme. Since Gase has run a similar scheme with other teams he's coached, the prospects for the Dolphins completely abandoning this scheme would appear to be slim. However, since new OL coach John Foerster has employed elements of both the ZBS and more straightforward drive blocking, in the past, we can hope for a better approach to the team's offensive line for 2016.
This week, the league also banned the chop block, long regarded as a staple of the zone blocking system, further reinforcing our team's need for a return to a more basic 'line up and blow 'em off the line of scrimmage' philosophy this season. While the argument has been made that Miami doesn't need to change its overall philosophy, they just need to execute better, we disagree; while the execution definitely must improve, for the line to be markedly better this year than it's been for the past two seasons, both the play, as well as the play calling, have to get better. Hopefully, this year, they will. It's an exciting time to be a Dolphin fan.