Week 10 of the 2022 NFL season is now complete, and the Miami Dolphins are heading into the bye week. This is a great time to run a full diagnostic on the Dolphins. To start our State of the Dolphins address, we take a look at the forest, and then get into enjoying the smell and shade of the trees.
By the Numbers
Record: 7-3 overall; 5-2 against the AFC; 2-1 against the AFC East Division
Standing: 1st place in the AFC East; currently the 2nd overall seed in the AFC
Here is where the Dolphins rank in key team statistics in the NFL after 10 weeks, with every team having played 9 or 10 games:
Team Stat Rankings Through Week 10
|Passing Yards||293.8 (3rd)|
|Rushing Yards||97.7 (29th)|
|Points Scored||25.2 (7th)|
|Pass Yards Allowed||239.8 (22nd)|
|Run Yards Allowed||116.9 (15th)|
|Points Allowed||24.1 (tie 23rd)|
|Net Turnovers||-2 (tie 21st)|
|Against Penalty Yards||49.7 (19th)|
So just past the mid pole of this season, the Fins stack up very well in a couple of areas, decently in a few, and look to be noticeably below average in several areas. On its surface, it seems to be the statistical makeup of a mediocre team - something that we Fins fans are nauseatingly familiar with over the last two decades. But I think we all know that this Fins team is not a mediocre squad. Mediocre squads rarely sit at 7-3, at the top of a very competitive division, and in the 2nd seed in the conference.
A more telling comparison is when we look at where the Dolphins sat heading into the week 7 matchup against the Steelers, and where they sit now, after the week 10 victory over Cleveland:
Dolphins Team Stat Rankings After Week 6 vs. After Week 10
|Team Stats||After Week 6||After Week 10|
|Team Stats||After Week 6||After Week 10|
|Passing Yards||285 (2nd)||293.8 (3rd)|
|Rushing Yards||81.2 (30th)||97.7 (29th)|
|Points Scored||21.8 (17th)||25.2 (7th)|
|Pass Yards Allowed||256.7 (25th)||239.8 (22nd)|
|Run Yards Allowed||104.7 (11th)||116.9 (15th)|
|Points Allowed||25.8 (27th)||24.1 (tie 23rd)|
|Net Turnovers||-5 (tie 28th)||-2 (tie 21st)|
|Against Penalty Yards||55.2 (25th)||49.7 (19th)|
Most of the shifts in ranking here might seem negligable, but I think they are significant. Once you get six or seven games into a season, it takes more and more lopsided numbers to really shift the overall averages. If your team’s running game looked like a herd of blind sloths through the first six or seven games, it takes many weeks of incredible running performances to drag that ranking out of the gutter. The reverse is also true: season averages can mask a really nasty dropoff in an area if one unit of your team maintained a hot start into mid-October before hitting a wall (or just good opponents).
All that said, the notable ticks up between weeks 7 and 10 to me are (1) rushing yards per game, and (2) point scored per game. I’ll dig into those two a little more in a later section, but I’ll say this: moving up from 30th to 29th in rushing yards might not seem like much, but in the Fins’ case, it most certainly is. Miami’s improvement in points per game is more obviously impressive - from 17th to 7th. That’s not easy to do in the course of four mid-season games, but the team has done it.
The birds’ eye view of this team is one that is on the come up. What does it look like when we zoom into the broad strokes?
Your 2022 Miami Dolphins at Mid-Season: A Play in Three Acts
This season thus far has had three fairly distinct acts:
ACT 1: The Happy Honeymoon. Mike McDaniel was hired back in February, and there were nothing but positive vibes all through the off-season and pre-season. These rolled right into most of September, as he led the Dolphins to a 3-0 record. These included wins over division rivals New England and Buffalo, on top of a dazzling comeback win against their longtime intra-conference bully the Baltimore Ravens. The wins over the Ravens and Bills were hardly orthodox, but they were wins we were all too glad to see. As with all good plays, though, Act 1 included foreshadowing of the troubles to come in Act 2.
ACT 2: The Passion of the Tua. It really started in the week 3 game against Buffalo, when Tua’s head firmly smacked the turf after an illegal shove from linebacker Matt Milano. Tua returned to that game, but the questions about his health lingered. So when he took a crushing sack the following week in Cincinnati and started physically seizing up, Act 2 really began. Tua missed the rest of that game against the Bengals, and would be out for the next two games due to various aspects of the concussion protcols, along with the overall optics for the Dolphins and the NFL as an entity. The over-arching theme of this act, running from week 4 to week 6, was an offense that turned the ball over and struggled to get the ball into the end zone. The real low point was the full-blown meltdown in the 4th quarter against the Jets in week 5. The Dolphins went 0-3 during this rough stretch, despite having chances to win heading into the fourth quarters of all of them. While we all knew that the QB position was at the root of most of the issues, but we really couldn’t be sure of when Tua would be back or exactly how he would look upon his return.
ACT 3: A Vision Board Comes to Life. This act runs from the week 7 game against the Steelers until right now. The game in Miami against Pittsburgh wasn’t pretty, by any means. The Steelers are a pretty bad team, but they have an excellent head coach and they scrapped. Tua was back and managed the offense well enough to outscore a lame Pittsburgh team and get the 16-10 win. It was a welcome return to the win column, but not exactly the most inspiring of victories and hardly any indication of what was coming. In the three weeks since that win, we Dolphins fans have been treated to seeing all of our dreams for this offense come true. I’ll get into the details more later in the article, but this offense is currently a top-3 offense in the NFL. The defense isn’t world-beating, and it has its clear issues, but it is decent enough to keep most opponents in reasonable check. All of these added up to a four-game winning streak heading into the bye, making for the first 7-3 record after 10 games for the Fins since 2001.
That’s the road that got us here. What is the actual state of the Fins as they rest, recuperate, and recreate during their Week 11 bye?
Passing Offense. It’s awesome. No two ways about it. The best we’ve seen since the days of Dan Marino, and that is not hyperbole. The 2022 Dolphins currently rank #3 in the NFL in passing yards per game. The last time they were top 5 in that area was in 1997 when they ended the season #2 in passing yards per game in the NFL. Even before the real 2022 off-season began, we already knew this team had some pass-receiving threats. Waddle and Gesicki had proven this. But Tyreek Hill has exceeded the lofty expectations after Chris Grier traded a king’s ransom for him. Like everyone, I knew Hill was a special player, based on the highlights from his years with the Chiefs. But seeing him in action for full games week after week has been incredible. I knew about the speed, the hands, and the route-running. What I didn’t know was how strong the guy is, or how he fights for contested balls, or his titanic swagger, or what a tireless cheerleader he is. His presence, in every way, has elevated this passing offense to a new level. Any reasonable evaluator of Tua coming out of Alabama said that he would be much more likely to thrive if he had the kinds of speedy, separating wide receivers he had in Tuscaloosa. Lo and behold, he gets two of those guys and an offensive line that can pass block, and the passing game has been unlocked. Mix in a very solid #3 wideout in Trent Sherfield, along with slot receiver disguised as a tight end Mike Gesicki, and we have a monster aerial attack that is hard to imagine any but the most elite defensive backfields stopping.
Running Offense. Through the first six weeks of the season, the run game was as lively as stoner Floyd from True Romance. This was due in equal parts to an offensive line that struggled to run block and free agent acquisition running back Chase Edmonds just never seeming to find any sort of stride. Starting right tackle Austin Jackson was injured in week 1 and has missed all nine games since. Big splash free agent and multi-season All-Pro left tackle Terron Armstead has been nursing a few nagging leg injuries, even leaving early in the week 5 Jets game and missing all of the week 6 game against the Vikings. These all added up to a rushing attack that barely existed. This was all the more disappointing, given the strong, dynamic run game that Mike McDaniel orchestrated as run game coordinator and then at the OC in San Francisco between 2017 and 2021. But in week 7, Armstead returned and the run game showed a few signs of life, putting up 111 ground yards on 27 carries. Next week in Detroit, it was a more modest 82 yards, but on only 19 carries and for two touchdowns. A few days later, the big change came when on the final day before the trade deadline, Chase Edmonds was dealt to the 49ers (along with a draft pick) for Swiss Army running back Jeff Wilson, Jr. In his two games with the Dolphins, Wilson looks like the metaphorical dash of salt that brings to life all of the flavors of the run game. After a handful of nice carries in week 9 in Chicago, Wilson ran wild in the week 10 beatdown of the Browns, going for 119 yards and a TD on 17 carries. His fellow former Niner running mate, Raheem Mostert, also tacked on 64 yards and a TD on 14 carries. It was easily the best day on the ground the Fins have had, and it looks 100% replicable, even against run defenses that aren’t as bad as Cleveland’s.
Pass Defense. The 2022 Miami Dolphins' defensive backs have had all the luck of a crew of red shirts on the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek. Almost nobody gets out alive. Byron Jones. Trill Williams. Brandon Jones. Nik Needham. It’s been brutal. Frankly, it’s a testament to the coaching staff and the unsung players who have stepped up that the team is “only” ranked as low as 22nd in passing yards allowed per game. Many other defensive backfields would have completely collapsed long ago, if not for Xavien Howard holding down the fort and the coaching up of young guys like undrafted rookie free agent Kader Kohou, beleaguered former first-rounder Noah Igbinoghene, elder statesmen Eric Rowe, and other names who are far from household. They’ve been playing hard and doing decent work, but with the caveat that they haven’t had to play against many strong passing offenses. Aside from the Bills and Bengals, they’ve actually faced mostly very poor aerial attacks. Still, they’ve managed to keep nearly every opposing offense below their season averages for passing yards. The open-field tackling is still an obvious issue, and I hope the coaches continue to get this sorted out. Nobody will mistake this group for the Legion of Boom backfield by any means, but they have done enough so far. And while this seems like a pipedream at this point, I do think that if Byron Jones comes over the hill at dawn like Gandalf in Return of the King, it could be magical. More on that later.
Run Defense. This team is really friggin’ good at run defense. At first glance, you might see their rank of 15 out of 32 in rush yards allowed per game and think “Well, that’s not special.” A logical reaction, until you realize that in their ten games this year, they’ve squared off against some of the very best rushing offenses in the NFL, based on average rushing yards per game: #1 (Bears), #2 (Ravens), #5 (Browns), #10 (Bills), and #11 (Lions). Most of their other opponents have had solid if not spectacular run games, too: the Jets, Patriots, and Steelers can put up ground yards if you let them. Facing so many strong running teams and not buckling is a sign of good run defense. And they’ve actually been excellent against traditional running attacks like the Browns and Lions. Their one glaring Achilles Heel has been scrambling, athletic quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields went full video game against them, which is as much a problem with the linebackers’ skillset as anything. The Fins’ LBs have their strengths, but tracking and tackling crazylegs QBs is certainly not one of them.
Special Teams. Not so special anymore. For many years, from the frustrating Tony Sparano Era; through the drab Joe Philbin Era; and the erratic, bipolar Adam Gase Era, special teams were always a consistent positive. Under Darren Rizzi’s watch, you almost never worried about the kick or punt teams, and they were always a top-ten unit and sometimes even a top-five unit in the entire NFL. That all seems like a distant memory at this point. A little bit of it is in the coverage, which doesn’t always seem quite as tight without an ace like Mack Hollins around. A little bit of it is not having that potential home run-hitting return guy like Jakeem Grant around anymore. But the most glaring is that place kicker Jason Sanders - a man who was quite literally the best placekicker in the NFL just two years ago - has inexplicably fallen off a cliff. Missed extra points. Shanked gimme field goals. Kickoffs left short, then returned for big yards. The man is a shell of himself, and the cause is a mystery. Maybe he got his big payday and mentally checked out. Maybe he’s using that money to feed an addiction to hallucinogenics, and he’s seeing eight wavering, rainbow-dappled field goalposts out there. I have no idea why, I just know that he’s now one of the worst place-kickers in the league, and he’s going to cost the Dolphins a game or two before the season is over. I would never have thought it just 12 months ago, but Jason Sanders is my #1 worry on this team right now. Thankfully, free-agent acquisition punter Thomas Morestead has been solid, paying some nice dividends in terms of field position. It doesn’t completely mitigate the issues with Sanders, but it greatly helps.
Overall Status. For my part, I love where this team is right now. No team in the modern NFL - even the clear-cut Superbowl favorites - is great in all key elements of the game. In the 21st-century NFL, it’s all about being elite (i.e. top 5) in one major area (two, if you’re really good) and keeping everything else from dropping much below the league average. Right now, the Miami Dolphins fit that description. The passing game is elite. The run game was bottom-tier through six weeks but has looked far better in recent weeks, and the addition of Jeff Wilson may coax it into a legitimate strength. The defense isn’t great on the whole, but the front seven is quite good, with the talent to improve in the coming weeks. Pass defense and special teams are the weakest elements of this team, but neither one is a tragedy. These Dolphins currently look like a bona fide playoff team that can actually win a game or two in the post-season.
Of course, as rosy as things look right now, the season is far from over. There’s a jumble of good teams atop the AFC standings, with the top 9 teams all sitting on records between 5-4 and 7-2. These final eight weeks of the regular season are going to be a full-on Battle Royale for Wildcard spots and playoff seeding. When we look towards January on the horizon, what lies along the path to the playoffs for Miami?
The Road Ahead
This Dolphins season schedule is shaping up to be a nice, tender grilled chicken breast served between two pieces of hard, stale slices of rye bread. They were doing well against the opening slate against tough opponents, until Tua’s injury. The Fins’ first six games were against teams that all have winning records currently, an overall record of 31-18, and five of which hold a playoff seed at the moment. The wins weren’t always perfect, and Tua’s injury derailed the opening streak, but that was about as tough an opening six-game slate as they come.
Then came the grilled chicken, and the Fins feasted. They got healthy, splashed some sriracha on the Steelers, Lions, Bears, and Browns, and dined to the tune of four straight wins, looking better in each successive victory. Yes, these are four clearly below-average teams, each with its own obvious issues. But none of them is downright terrible. They’re not the Texans. In a way, they were a perfect slate of “don’t sleep on them” opponents against whom the Dolphins could find themselves.
Next? After the bye week, the Dolphins get to host the Texans, hands-down the worst team in the NFL. That’s not a game I’m particularly worried about, given what we’ve seen in recent weeks. After that, a challenging road gauntlet begins. The 49ers in San Fransisco. The Chargers in L.A. The Bills in Buffalo. In truth, this trio of games looked significantly scarier before the season started. Since then, we’ve seen that the Niners can be very hot-and-cold, and that the Chargers are riddled with injuries and coaching issues. Still, West Coast games against teams desperately fighting for a playoff spot always pose challenges. Then there is the game in Buffalo. If you think the Bills don’t still have the red ass after losing in week 3 in Miami, then you haven’t been paying attention. Josh Allen and all of the immensely talented players they have will be ready to flex hard and make a statement about who the Alpha dog in the AFC East is. My feeling right now is that our Dolphins have a very good chance to go 2-1 on this tough swing. They match up well with what the Niners and Chargers do. The game in Buffalo will be the hardest of them all, but the Bills are yet to see the Fins offense that we’ve seen evolve in recent weeks.
The final three games are not quite as scary, but they’re no cakewalk. Host the Packers, road game in New England, and finish the season at home against the Jets. These games are still far enough out that it’s tough to fully assess the matchups. Green Bay has been a mess for much of the season, but it’s still Aaron Rodgers and a talented defense. The Patriots still don’t scare me as much as they did for nearly two decades. They’re obviously still a tough out, especially at home, but they’ve basically gotten nearly all their wins against teams with glaring flaws. They just don’t have the top-flight talent to overcome good opponents with a few elite-level players, which the Dolphins have. The regular season finale against the Jets has the chance to be a good one. This will be as much a revenge game as any we get this season, given the way the Jets yanked the injury-plagued Dolphins’ pants down around their ankles in that 4th quarter back in week 5. It’s two months out, so factors will likely change, but I love that the game is in Miami and that Zach Wilson will likely still be starting at QB for the Jets. The Jets have a good defense. They have good receivers. But Wilson has yet to show that he’s more than a raw, young, mistake-prone QB, despite the occasional flashes of talent. Maybe that will change in the coming weeks, but he doesn’t scare me right now, and it’s hard for a mediocre quarterback to lead his team to victory over a top-tier offense like the Dolphins have. Given the opponents and that two of these final three games are in South Beach, my hazy crystal ball shows me another 2-1 record here.
The Dreaded Long-Term Prediction
More than any major sport, I think NFL football is about the hardest to predict beyond a week or two. Injuries are so frequent that many teams’ fortunes change over the course of an unlucky week or two. This always makes me leery about long-term predictions. This is why I never dive into the pre-season, game-by-game predictions that so many people do and that we see ad nauseum on every sports network (content, right?). Still, I feel the urge to project a bit.
If you do the math I laid out in the preceding paragraphs, you’ll come up with my prediction of a final Dolphins record of 12-5. That will certainly be good enough for a playoff berth, possibly an AFC East Division title, and an outside shot at a #1 seed and the first-round bye that comes with it.
If our Dolphins end up in the playoffs and continue their current trajectory of improved play and health, I think they would be favored to beat nearly any opponent except for the Chiefs and Bills, especially if those games are on the road. And they would still be able to give those teams a run for their money.
I’m writing all of this assuming that Byron Jones will not return this season. Maybe he will, but we’ve thus far had exactly zero indication that it will happen, despite the off-season prognoses. However, if he does show up and looks like his 2020/’21 self, then it could actually put this Miami Dolphins team into legitimate Superbowl contender status. Jones has never had anything close to the interception numbers of a Xavien Howard, but he quietly erases all but the most dominant receivers. If this secondary adds a guy like that, then I think we see X get back to picking off passes more regularly, in turn forcing offenses to find some other way to move the ball. But if you don’t have a Lamar Jackson or a Justin Fields to improvisationally scramble, what are your options? There aren’t many, especially when your opponent has an offense that can march up and down the field and drop 30-plus on you at will. A return of Byron Jones will send my optimism about this team to heights unthinkable.
The state of the Dolphins is strong. It’s still early and some real tests lie ahead, but I am as hyped as I’ve been in many years about this team.
Where are your heads and hearts at, Fins fans? How do you feel about the state of the team? Jacked up like me? More cautious about any optimism you’re feeling? Think this team is a paper tiger? Throw it out there in the comments below, and we’ll roll it all around.