The Changing Miami Dolphins Looking Forward

While the Miami Dolphin fan base struggles to believe in a general manager and owner after four consecutive losing seasons, the team has quietly put together the blueprint for a future of rising stars. Predicting the outcome of the 2013 season seems daunting in light of past failures, but there are many reasons for optimism. The distinct difference between Parcells/Sparano and Joe Philbin is apparent when following the progression of player transactions on offense. On defense, Jeff Ireland’s eye for defensive line talent provides a clue to the emergence of quality players across the unit, even with the change of schemes.

The indelible mark Parcells left on the offense was felt from the start of his failed regime. While Matt Ryan directed the Atlanta Falcons into the playoffs, an injury riddled Jake Long limped off to greener pastures in Saint Louis. The Parcells offensive philosophy was built off the ancient premise that in order to be successful in the passing game, a team must first establish the run. Establishing the run begins in the trenches and is the reason Jake Long was selected before Matt Ryan. Parcells believed in the antiquated notion that Quarterbacks were game managers and a steady but unspectacular Chad Henne could guide a power running offense to success in the NFL.

When defenses mercilessly stacked the box it became desperately apparent, a one dimensional running attack was no longer feasible. The Wildcat gimmick helped stave off the inevitable, but with the clear need of a passing game, Ireland traded away two future second round picks for Brandon Marshall. Ireland’s misguided offensive player selections are a direct result of Parcells’ first mistake, taking Long over Ryan. A modern offense cannot be built off a tackle. Bill Parcells’ inability to recognize the changing landscape of the NFL, setup Tony Sparano and the Miami Dolphins for failure.

For the next two seasons, the Dolphin offense floundered without direction. Sparano mistook the Wildcat as a viable base formation and Brandon Marshall demanded diva attention Chad Henne and the offense were incapable of providing. Jeff Ireland took the brunt of the criticism for the revolving door of failed players, but the lack of a consistent strategy is the true culprit. After four seasons, the offensive plan was still a mystery, should the offensive line play a road grader running style with players to fit the mold? Or should they be able to pass block and pull in a zone scheme more fit for a passing attack?

Enter Joe Philbin and the draft strategy took an immediate three-hundred-and-sixty degree turn. By selecting a quarterback with the eighth pick in the draft instead of a tackle, the new direction was confirmed.  A clearly defined philosophy built around a QB was established. The zone blocking scheme was the stated goal from the get-go giving the offensive line much needed direction. One dimensional wide receivers where replaced by players capable of manning multiple positions along a varied front with the priority of speed. Fullbacks were discarded and replaced by tight ends capable of running routes as well as blocking. Finally, the Miami Dolphins and Jeff Ireland had a stable offensive blueprint to build from.

On defense, Parcells believed in building from the inside out, fortunately this strategy has remained constant through the ages. The difference between Parcells and Philbin is the use of a three-man line versus a four-man line. The depth of this unit was already firmly in place and ripe for the switch to Philbin’s four-man line concept. The switch also changed the style of play at the linebacker position, where smaller faster players replace bigger slower bodies. Smaller faster LBs are much easier to find than larger players with enough speed to cover tight ends in the NFL. The team to beat in the AFC East is the New England Patriots, and the 4-3 defense is the proper alignment to do it.

The Patriot offense was developed from years of working against the division’s prominent 3-4 alignment which left larger linebackers on the field to cover multiple TE and WR formations. The Patriots may have finally outsmarted themselves as the new Miami defense goes against the tendencies New England was built to manipulate. Three interchangeable defensive tackles manning two inside positions cause constant disruption from the middle of the line. The quarterback can no longer step up in the pocket, but at the same time, speed demons collapse the line from the outside, leaving the QB with little room to maneuver. Defensive backs formally required to cover for well over three seconds can now look to capitalize on harassed QBs more prone to making errant throws.

The Dolphins may not win the division or make the playoffs, but the change of the guard has come full circle. No longer does the rest of the NFL have the luxury of playing a rudderless team without a clear formula for success. While some of the players needed may still be a work in progress, the direction of these Miami Dolphins is absolutely clear. The person benefiting the most from this systematic approach is Jeff Ireland. Ireland’s tenure with the Dolphins has been plagued by uncertainty on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. The basic ingredient for success in the NFL is the quarterback and Bill Parcells treated them with disregard.

On the field, Ryan Tannehill continues the slow progression of learning under fire. As he grows, the obvious mistakes come less often and positive plays result. Speedy interchangeable wide receivers allow for variable formations within the same player group. This same interchangeability at the TE and RB positions opens up an unpredictable offense with the flexibility to run or pass. All of the pieces are not yet in place, but most importantly, the blueprint is. There is no indecision on the type of players needed both physically and mentally and this provides the personnel department with clear direction.

Mike Wallace is already a star, as the offense takes off perhaps the next in line is Lamar Miller or Dion Simms. Every player on a winning team is noticed regardless of whether the talent is truly greater. Without Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Wallace could have labored in obscurity with Chad Henne as his QB. The point is more systematic, a winning quarterback and a stable system provide the atmosphere for success. The defense was fortunate to have a solid line already in place allowing for a smoother transition.

Mr. Ross knows all of this, he knows how to run a successful business, but he was hamstrung by the huge shadow of Bill Parcells. As a new comer to the NFL, Ross was not foolish enough to dismiss a hall-of-fame icon even if he knew the direction was wrong. The moment Parcells stepped down Ross was on a plane to California in pursuit of Jim Harbaugh. Ireland takes the blame for chasing Harbaugh but it was Ross who was chomping at the bit to see the end of Parcells and Sparano in Miami. Sparano was a puppet and Ross knew it from the start. The first true decision he made as the owner of the Miami Dolphins was to replace Tony Sparano, only his method was questionable.

Have the Dolphins made it back? Not yet, but they are in hot pursuit and making the right systematic decisions to lead them into a brighter future. Luck only has value when a team or a person is properly positioned to take advantage of it. A lucky touchdown at the end of a game while losing by nine points will never be as lucky as one scored while losing by six. Tom Brady falling into Tony Sparano’s lap would never have resulted in the same luck as falling into the Bill Belichick’s. With the system in place, watch as the Miami Dolphins grow into a force to be reckoned with in the NFL.

Perhaps the lucky break in Miami is named Ryan Tannehill.