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State of the Dolphins Address

My mostly subjective take on our Dolphins at the mid-season bye week.

NFL: AUG 19 Preseason - Dolphins at Texans
Tua and the Fins are poised to take the next step into being considered a true threat in the playoffs.
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I can’t lie, I was massively depressed at halftime of the Frankfurt game against the Chiefs. Down 21-0, and with all signs pointing to a spectacularly humiliating loss, I had spiraled into full-on “Same ol’ Dolphins” mode. While the second half didn’t completely pull me out of such apocalyptic thinking, I was heartened by the overall defensive performance and the fact that the offense found some sort of footing in the latter 30 minutes. Alas, the specter of a team that can’t beat good opponents will linger for at least several more weeks.

We now sit with the bye week ahead, which is a good time to take a step or two back and take stock of how our team is looking right now. These will be my subjective feelings about different aspects of the team, with some stats to back up a few of the broader points. For each main unit, I’ll give my opinion about both the current state of the group and the outlook for the remainder of the season.

Offense

QB: It looked for a while like Tua was on his way to shaking off the remaining critics out there, as early in the season he was guiding a high-powered offense to putting up historically wild passing numbers. Sure, all the great performances were against defenses that were bereft of high-end talent or coaching, but that’s what great QBs do. Unfortunately, that passing excellence was not on exhibit against good defenses like the Bills, Eagles, or Chiefs. Tua didn’t perform poorly against those teams, but he was pedestrian, which doesn’t cut it when a QB is trying to prove that he’s a legitimate top-5 signal-caller in the NFL. There is also the nagging habit of his throwing one or two really bad passes in every game, with at least one of them getting picked off. Current Feeling: He’s still a top-10 QB in my mind but hasn’t yet made that final jump into the upper-echelon, based on a lack of a true signature win over another top team. Outlook: I’m skeptical of Tua being “elite” until we see him have a really good game against an excellent defense. He’ll have ample opportunity in the final 8 games, with games against the Jets (twice), Cowboys, Ravens, and Bills. If he falters in all of those games, then the comparisons to a Kirk Cousins start to ring very true.

Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills
Previously much-maligned “draft bust” Austin Jackson has been protecting Tua’s blindside extremely well this season.
Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

Offensive Line: This unit has been snake-bitten by so many injuries that it’s a wonder that they haven’t folded. All-Pro Terron Armstead was out for five and a half games. Top-flight blocker and center Connor Williams out for several games. Starting LG Isaiah Wynn out for three games and counting. Starting RG Rob Hunt out for a game and counting. Even a couple of backups have missed time due to injury. With all that, the line has held up pretty well, which has been a huge testament to new O line coach Butch Barry, who had an unceremonious dismissal from the Broncos coaching staff last year. While there have still been some struggles with snaps and Liam Eichenberg struggling more often than not, the line has done well enough to ensure that the offense runs well most of the time and brilliantly against weaker defenses. Shout out to Austin Jackson, who has quietly and consistently played a very solid right tackle. Current Feeling: They’re a solid unit, even with all the subs. Outlook: As the line gets healthier (Armstead and Williams now back, with Wynn and Hunt likely to return in a couple of weeks), I expect the run game to look more like it did earlier in the season, which should only help the pass game also return to form.

Running Backs: Raheem Mostert has steadily put up his best season as a pro, showing a little more strength that only makes his blazing speed that much more lethal. De’Von Achane was proving a revelation before his injury landed him on IR. Salvon Ahmed is…a running back. Jeff Wilson’s return in the last couple of weeks has hinted at an extra dynamic, as well. Current Feeling: No real complaints on this front so far. Like the passing game, the run game can be devastating when the O line is mostly healthy and the coaches keep them involved (more on this later). Outlook: Quite positive, especially once Achane is back in the fold. Also, see my thoughts on coaching later in this article.

Miami Dolphins v Kansas City Chiefs
A couple of less-than-supernova performances aside, Hill has been an absolute dynamo in 2023.
Photo by Ralf Ibing - firo sportphoto/Getty Images

Wide Receivers: As expected, it’s been a rather top-heavy unit. Tyreek Hill has put up MVP-caliber numbers and is the centerpiece for the offense. Jalen Waddle has battled through some injuries to continue being a #2 to be reckoned with by defenses. Other receivers like Braxton Barrios and Cedric Wilson Jr. have had their moments too, though in smaller ways. The injury to River Craycraft has been a low-key loss due to his ability to work well within the McDaniel system, and replacements Robbie Chosen and Chase Claypool have yet to noticeably take up that slack. The lack of a big-bodied WR is obvious at times, which has resulted in some drives getting killed in key moments. Current Feeling: No massive worries here, though Tyreek having a less-than-superstar game in the high-stakes game against KC was disappointing. When this happens, the offense is merely “good” instead of a unit that can carry an otherwise flawed team deep into the playoffs. Outlook: Fairly positive. If Claypool or Craycraft can get more involved and the running game to relieve some pressure, I expect to see more of the 300+-yard passing games in the latter half of the season that we saw in the first half.

Tight Ends: They’ve been exactly what I expected, and maybe slightly better. We all knew coming in that there was no transcendent player at this position. Durham Smythe is exactly what he’s been the last few years: a decent blocker who can make a few solid possession catches every game. Julian Hill has emerged as a good blocker, but one who will make a few rookie mistakes here and there while not being any kind of factor as a pass catcher. Current Feeling: They’re fine. Outlook: They’ll continue to be fine.

Defense

Interior Defensive Line: Christian Wilkins and Zach Sieler continue to be strong in the middle, especially Sieler. Raekwon Davis has had a few moments, but doesn’t seem to have taken any major steps since last year. This group still applies steady pressure, prevents teams from running between the tackles, and regularly forces QBS out of the pocket. The depth is an issue, as expected, so when the two primary guys don’t break through, things get a little dicey. Current Feeling: Good. It’s an well above-average unit, if not an “elite” unit. Outlook: There’s no calvary coming here in the form of depth, but the improving health of the LBs and DBs will likely make this unit’s job a bit easier in the coming weeks.

New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins
Bradley Chubb, making sure Mac Jones stays right where he belongs.
Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

Defensive Ends: Bradley Chubb has looked way more like the Pro Bowl player we saw in Denver than the one who struggled a bit after the trade in the middle of last season. Jaelen Phillips is back from injury, and his pairing with Chubb has been yielding more and more pressures and sacks in recent weeks. Andrew Van Ginkel has also added his flare into the mix, making this unit effective and fun. The depth here is still questionable, as Emmanuel Ogbah is all but invisible and Cameron Goode getting very few snaps. Current Feeling: Very good. Outlook: Very sunny, as long as the three main guys stay healthy.

Interior Linebackers: The weakest unit on the defense. The group has proven decent against the run but is questionable in coverage. David Long Jr. looks like he’s finding his form a bit in this area, but he and Jerome Baker have clear limitations when it comes to tracking down speedier offensive players and getting to the quarterback. The entire unit has only 2.5 sacks on the season. Current Feeling: Tepid. Baker is what he is. Maybe Long can make a few more strides. Duke Riley is a decent rotational player, but Channing Tindall can’t yet get on the field. Outlook: Meh. I think this unit will be exactly what it’s been – not tragic by any means but one that good, dynamic offenses can exploit a bit.

Cornerbacks: What started as a real struggle due mostly to their having to learn a very new defensive scheme has started to blossom lately. I love Kader Kohou, but he was mercilessly picked on by Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs in Buffalo and given no help by DC Vic Fangio. Xavien Howard is still really good but isn’t quite the ball hawk of his earlier years. The return of Jalen Ramsey from IR two weeks ago seemed to make a tremendous difference in this group’s ability to defend against the pass, as it puts severe limits on what opposing QBs can do. Eli Apple has had his good moments, but they’ve been almost equaled by bad penalties and some gaffes in coverage. It helps that this group, along with the defense as a whole, is starting to “get” Vic Fangio’s system now. Current Feeling: Quite good, which is much better than it was before Ramsey’s return. Outlook: Very good. As this group continues to master Fangio’s system, it’s not hard to envision Ramsey cutting off whole swathes of the field, leading to a few more INTs by Howard and Kohou. Will we ever see Cam Smith this year, though?

New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins
While Jevon Holland’s greatness is known, off-season pickup Deshon Elliot has been a low-key nice signing at the strong safety spot.
Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

Safeties: Jevon Holland is a beast. No, he doesn’t have a bunch of gaudy interception or sack stats, but he’s one of those guys whose name you don’t hear because QBs don’t throw his direction. He’s quick to the ball and always seems to make the right reads. And hats off to DeShon Elliot, who I think has played really well at strong safety, filling in for Robert Jones who has missed nearly the entire season due to injury. Elliot is another player who isn’t picking off passes but seems to nearly always be in good position to break up a pass or be in on a tackle. Current Feeling: Good. Outlook: This unit could round out a great secondary if Jones can return to his solid form at strong safety, with Elliot as a backup/rotational guy.

Coaching

Head Coach Mike McDaniel: It’s hard not to be charmed by the man’s wit and genuine enthusiasm for playing the “cool, quirky TA” role in an NFL locker room. He has certainly been a darling of NFL media for much of this season, thanks in no small part to the team’s early season success and record-breaking offensive displays. Still, it is through McDaniel that I have to constantly shift my perspective to keep a balance between satisfaction and concern. My satisfaction comes from a few areas: (1) He’s still only halfway through his second year as a head coach, which is not a massive sample size. (2) He’s put together a really fun, usually highly effective offensive scheme. (3) After understandably giving the Flores Era defensive coaches a chance in 2022, he jettisoned them for veteran DC Vic Fangio rather than a bunch of juco yes-men. (4) He’s markedly improved in two areas that were bugaboos in 2022: clock management and pre-snap penalties. My reasons for concern: (1) In keeping with my notion that McDaniel is a young Andy Reid, he still tends to get too cute and precious about passing being the answer to any and every down and distance under the sun. To take a recent example, late in the Chiefs game, you finally had Raheem Mostert running with great success, only to abandon him and the running game to kill what could have been a game-tying drive. (2) We are yet to see his Dolphins teams win a big game against another legit playoff team. You might respond with “What about the Ravens and Bills wins early last year?” I respond with yes, those were nice wins but they were both in September when no truly “big game” can ever exist, and one of those was a really flukey win over Buffalo when the Miami heat and humidity played as much a role as anything McDaniel did. Since then, his Fins have lost each and every mid- or late-season game against winning teams. Some of them very badly. Current Feeling: I’m currently feeling OK but not fantastic about our head coach. Outlook: Tough to tell, but I’ll give McDaniel the benefit of the doubt right now and trust him to improve the one or two areas that he needs to in order to defeat a playoff team in November and/or December.

Offensive Coordinator Frank Smith: Let’s be honest, Smith is really just the steward for McDaniel’s offensive vision. He’s done a good job, and I don’t blame him for the things I find irksome about the play-calling, which is entirely the head coach’s domain. My current feelings and outlook are both the same as McDaniel.

New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins
Vic Fangio, looking more like General Patton these days as DC than Patton Oswalt as DC (I love Patton Oswalt, btw).
Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio: Had you asked me before the Eagles game in week 7, I would have had serious questions about what we’d been seeing of Fangio’s vaunted defensive system. Now though, three weeks later? I’m sold. Yes, the team has gone 1-2 since then, but those two losses were very much NOT on the defense. And that was playing stretches of those games without key players like Jevon Holland, Xavien Howard, and Jalen Ramsey. Even against highly potent offenses like Philadelphia and Kansas City, the defense held its own, and it’s only been getting better. Current Feeling: Solid. Outlook: Very bright.

Other Odds and Ends

Special Teams: Meh. I wasn’t jazzed about this unit coming in, since Jason Sanders had been a shadow of his 2020 self the previous two seasons. Yes, he’s hit nearly all of his field goals, but most of them have been under 50 yards, and he’s rarely drilling them right down center like he was in his All Pro season. Overall, there’s nothing particularly good about any part of this group. The coverage has gotten better since September, and I have the utmost confidence in Braxton Barrios to make good decisions on his catches and returns and to hang onto the ball. The punt game is shaky and has surrendered some chunk returns in the first half of the season. Current Feeling: This unit has met my mediocre expectations. Outlook: Unless Jason Sanders and punter Jake Bailey show improvement over the final eight games, the team will probably be looking to upgrade in the off-season. Until then, I worry that they’ll cost the team a close game.

Tua’s Health: Don’t look now, but Tua has started and played all of the meaningful offensive snaps in all nine games in 2023, with nary an injury to be seen. This nine-game streak is the longest of his pro career, and all signs point to his off-season focus on this area paying dividends.

Prepare to Get Knocked. Hard. There’s a small part of me that will be curious to watch the Dolphins on this season’s iteration of HBO’s Hard Knocks in-season feature. Really though, most of me just wishes they weren’t doing it. It’s such an unnecessary distraction for a team that has work to do to take that next, very steep, very difficult step into the upper echelon of NFL teams. It’s great that all the players and coaches have been publicly preaching the message of “we have a lot to prove...we’re not buying into our own hype,” etc. But that becomes harder and harder as more cameras are on you. In this sense, it may be a good thing that in the wake of going 1-2 in recent games and losing to legit contenders that the narrative around the current Miami Dolphins team has shifted from “Greatest Show on Surf” to “Can They Actually Beat a Good Team?” Hopefully, that buzz will offset any narcissism that being on HBO might trigger.

Final Thoughts on the Present and the Future

When thinking back over the first nine games of the season, the most fascinating aspect has been the see-saw nature of the the offense/defense balance. Over the first six games, the offense was by far the superior unit. So superior, in fact, that it was seen as that rare offensive unit that might be able to make a deep playoff run despite the team having a below-average defense. Now, though, I’m of a different mind. Thus far, the Dolphins have played three genuinely good teams: the Bills in week 4, the Eagles in week 7, and the Chiefs in week 9. All losses. Both offense and defense were disappointments against Buffalo. But against the Eagles, the defense was at least as good as the offense and looked markedly better in the second half than the first. Two weeks later, against a still-potent Chiefs offense with the best QB and TE in the game, the defense was clearly the better unit. Meanwhile, the biggest question about this entire team right now has been getting screamed for several weeks now: can the offense play well in a marquee game against a good team/defense? Thus far, they haven’t done it. That said...

Miami Dolphins v Kansas City Chiefs
With so many of the players operating at very high levels, it’s now up to McDaniel to tweak his strategies enough to defeat top-10 defenses - something which has thus far eluded the Fins.
Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images

I’m still cautiously optimistic going forward. Emphasis on “cautiously.” The crux of the big question about the offense is all on Mike McDaniel. If I assume that Tua getting very close to his ultimate ceiling (totally reasonable for a QB with 43 starts under his belt), then the honus is on McDaniel to make the proper strategic adjustments to balance things out. These adjustments need to force good opposing defenses to stay honest against the run. To cite two more recent examples: in both the Eagles game and the Chiefs game, the score was close in the second half. In each game, Raheem Mostert ripped off a couple of excellent runs in short succession, only to have McDaniel NOT call another running play for him the next few snaps, killing a drive. It all just smacked of a smart coach overthinking things rather than sticking with what’s working, even if it is “basic.” It’s such a little, obvious thing but more than a few really good coaches have gotten stuck in the pitfall of “they’ll never see this coming” kind of thinking. I’m giving McDaniel the benefit of the doubt since he’s shown that he is self-aware and will correct past errors. It’s just going to have to come in the next six weeks if this team has true playoff aspirations.

I’m excited for the second half of the season, as I’m sure all of you are. What are your thoughts on the state of things? Any particular player, unit, or side of the ball that has you especially psyched or worried? Drop a comment or two down low.

Fins Up!!