With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 in a Nutshell: A fish called Nada. That's been the story for what lately has been a QB-doomed franchise, from 2011 all the way back to 2000 -- the halcyon days of Jay Fiedler. The latest rendition of the Miami Dolphins hinged on the play of Matt Moore after the underwhelming Chad Henne went down with an injury.
While Moore was better than decent, the quarterback play still was not good enough to compensate for the remainder of the club, which was mediocre on offense while being up and down on defense (more like down ... then up). All of which led to a disappointing six-win season in South Florida.
What Went Right: How about Reggie Bush (of all people), who had some big games, particularly in Buffalo when he ran like the lovechild of Thurman Thomas and Joe Cribbs to the tune of 203 yards. Bush laid to rest all the hubbub about his inability to run inside with his first 1,000-yard season. Meanwhile, young backfield-mate Daniel Thomas showed some promise when he was healthy, although his 3.5-yards-per-carry average certainly needs work.
The defense got more than it could handle early in the season, often faltering as the Fins stumbled to an 0-7 start. Then everything turned around. While Moore, Bush and the offense got all the credit, the improved play of the secondary was vital to the team winning four of the next five. In fact, in the nine games following that awful start, Miami's pass defense allowed opposing quarterbacks only 10 touchdown passes and a 70.0 passer rating, while picking off 14 passes.
Miami's own quarterback actually had a decent year. Moore threw 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions with a respectable 87.1 passer rating. He even developed a good connection with Brandon Marshall (1,214 receiving yards), and was stellar in wins over the Chiefs and Bills (twice). The issue is that there just aren't enough of those great performances. Just like every other Miami quarterback since Y2K, the majority of Moore's starts are ... average to just-above-average. Clubs these days need a guy who can win that 34-28 shootout more often than not, especially when said football club is mired in a funk. This team's everlasting search for a long-term answer at the position continues this offseason.
What Went Not So Right: Those first seven games. Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez destroyed Sean Smith in Week 1. Ben Tate and the Foster-less Texans ran right through Miami in Week 2. The Chargers rolled up over 400 yards of offense in Week 4. And then, of course, Miami saw the advent of Tebowmania in the fourth quarter of Week 6. Quarterbacks through the first seven games posted great numbers on the Dolphins defense: 14 touchdowns and a 103.1 passer rating, with just two picks.
Maybe the lack of a minicamps and OTAs really hurt Miami, as a secondary's job description entails communication and continuity. In fact, passing numbers were up all across the NFL early in 2011, but the Dolphins paid for it the most.
Chad Henne (who might be done in Miami) tried to keep up with opposing passers, but was knocked out for the season in early October with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. Moore played admirably, but overall the passing game finished 23rd in the NFL, hampering an offense that scored just 20.6 points per game. It's tough to compete in a division where the first place team averaged 32.1.
Of course, mix and matching on defense is just one section of the giant Rubik's Cube that faces new coach Joe Philbin. The starting quarterback will likely be gone or a backup, as both Matt Flynn (who played under Philbin in Green Bay) and Peyton Manning (attractive to an ownership with means and motivation) are strong candidates to erase the memory of Fiedler, Brian Griese, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper, Cleo Lemon and Henne. The whole offensive system should change from the one-yard-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach this team had for much of the Tony Sparano era.
Much of the personnel will change or get benched. Jason Taylor is gone, Paul Soliai is likely gone, the right tackle position will probably see a new body and Koa Misi may be without a position to play in the new defense. And Miami hopes to have an influx of talent somewhere in the passing game. (Jermichael Finley would be nice, but he'll probably get franchised by the Packers.)
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Such is life with a new head coach. Philbin will need time, but with Flynn or Manning under center, as well as the between-the-tackles version of Bush and some new talent in the receiving corps, this could be a completely different team in September.
Team Needs and Draft: So much of April's draft depends on what this team does in free agency. If owner Stephen Ross breaks the bank to acquire Flynn or Manning, then getting an attractive receiver in free agency is not likely. In fact, the Dolphins might have to settle for a guy like Harry Douglas, or use an early-round pick to address the need. Grabbing Stanford tight end Coby Fleener in the second round is a possibility.
I see Miami getting a shiny new right tackle in the first round, then hitting the defensive line sometime after that. Safety might be a target if the Dolphins don't sign a free agent like Reggie Nelson, Tyvon Branch or Dashon Goldson. Again, it depends on how much of their available cap space is spent on a quarterback.