Branden Albert, Miami Dolphins' new offensive line start strong

By his standards, this wasn't good enough. His new team was trailing the New England Patriots. His new offense was making too many mistakes. And most importantly, in his mind, the offensive line wasn't doing its job of keeping Ryan Tannehill clean.

So Miami Dolphins left tackle Branden Albert sought out the quarterback during the second quarter of Sunday's contest to deliver the most unnecessary apology Tannehill has likely ever heard.

"I'm sorry, man," Albert told him. "We need to keep you cleaner. We need to do a better job."

After the game, as Tannehill changed out of a uniform that could forgo the typical bleaching, the signal-caller could only shake his head and smile.

"Are you kidding?" Tannehill said, recalling the apology. "That was like a day off."

Nobody needs to draw any broad conclusions about the fate of the 2014 season based on one game. Not about the Dolphins, who also started 2013 with a 13-point win. And not about the Patriots, who went on to win the Super Bowl the last time they dropped their first game of the season, all the way back in 2003.

That doesn't mean Miami can't still extract some real optimism from Sunday, either.

Of everything that happened in Week 1 across the NFL, some might consider the fashion of Miami's 33-20 victory over the Pats to be the biggest surprise. And while New England fans might have a tough time grasping the fact that it's not always about them, this triumph wasn't important simply because it came against the team that has been the AFC East's most dominant for a decade and beyond.

It was important because of Miami's offensive line.

To truly digest the significance of the unit's performance, consider this brief recap of a 2013 season that included perhaps more adversity than any offensive line has ever endured in a year:

By last season's midway point, the Dolphins had given up more sacks (32) than any team in the NFL; their star center had been served with a subpoena in relation to the Aaron Hernandez case; their assistant offensive line coach, Chris Mosley, was dealing with personal issues that would cause him to leave the team; and their tackles had struggled so badly that they traded for a new one (Bryant McKinnie).

And that all happened before the most polarizing, widely covered locker-room harassment scandal in sports history rocked Miami's already-sideways campaign.

So, Mr. Albert, given what those in Miami's locker room who were here last year experienced, perhaps you'll understand why your apology drew smiles and shakes of the head. Because even if the offensive line's standard now deserves to be raised to a much more reasonable level, it also deserves to be unapologetically appreciated for the massive and unexpected leap it just made.

In 2013, Miami set a franchise record with 58 sacks allowed. Yet Sunday, with center Mike Pouncey sidelined while he recovers from hip surgery and five new starters (only one of whom -- Albert -- has any major NFL accolades to his name) on the field, the unit did not give up a single sack until the fourth quarter.

The group -- which includes free-agent signees Albert, Daryn Colledge, Samson Satele and Shelley Smith, plus first-round draft pick Ja'Wuan James -- wasn't merely impressive because of the previous season's sorrows. It was just ... impressive. There's no need to qualify or compare what it accomplished.

Not only did Tannehill stand mostly upright (he really didn't see legitimate pressure until the fourth play of the fourth series -- when he still managed to make three reads), but the Dolphins' running backs were motoring through respectable holes. The blocking helped Knowshon Moreno (who, of course, deserves credit of his own) gain 134 yards on 24 carries in his own Miami debut, an average of 5.6 yards per attempt. Lamar Miller, meanwhile, nearly matched Moreno's pace, chipping in 59 yards on 11 tries, or 5.4 yards per attempt.

"I think that we all just worked together today," Albert said. "All the running backs, they ran the ball hard. But I still feel like we got Ryan (Tannehill) hit a little bit too much."

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There's no doubt the offense has its share of work to do, evidenced most notably by continued issues with the connection between Tannehill and receiver Mike Wallace in a first half that the quarterback himself called "terrible." And there's no doubt the offensive line is facing a challenge against the Buffalo Bills in Week 2 that might surpass any other this year: stopping one of the most daunting defensive fronts in the NFL.

"This is a long season," coach Joe Philbin said Wednesday. "This was one week. I thought their first time out, they did a good job."

All that said, Sunday's win should help the Dolphins' locker room in a number of ways. It should provide a boost in momentum, given the commanding way with which they defeated the division's top target. It should help the group realize how passion and energy, displayed during a late-game surge, can sometimes be as important as execution and fundamentals.

And for the players who were around Miami's team in 2013, Albert's apology to Tannehill should make something incredibly clear moving forward: For this one week, for this one win, it is reasonable to use last year as a measuring stick. It is worth complimenting a group that was doubted. It is worth celebrating a turnaround that was unexpected. But being better than last year is far from sufficient.

Albert clearly knows it. And now, his teammates do, too.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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