Ryan Tannehill, Joe Philbin got Miami Dolphins over the edge

In his robust Inside The NFL Notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):

To New Yorkers, what occurred off Exit 16W in New Jersey last Sunday resembled a 12-car pileup.

You can excuse those in Miami, who would view it as something else altogether.

The Miami Dolphins have seen their share of that kind of wreckage over the past few years, with a rookie owner (Stephen Ross) stumbling to find his way, a to-himself general manager (Jeff Ireland) struggling to find the right mix on the roster, and the head coach's office in upheaval. But after the 30-9 drubbing of the Jets in Week 8, the Dolphins were the team emerging from the mess in triumph.

As one high-ranking Dolphins official put it, "I just think these guys got tired of hearing that we don't have any talent here. They play hard. It's one of the best locker rooms I've seen, with the character and commitment to what we're doing. It's a great group of guys."

Here's how far Miami, which was depicted over the summer by HBO's "Hard Knocks" series as a team in need of direction, has come: When the Dolphins host the New England Patriots in early December, first place in the AFC East could very well be on the line.

Yes, that might be looking a little far ahead for a team with plenty left to prove. And no, the Dolphins aren't on the Patriots' level yet, or even close to it.

But between now and Dec. 2, the Dolphins visit the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills and face the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks at home. So entering that Patriots game with an 8-3 record is hardly out of the question for the Dolphins.

So how in the world did we get here? The Jets, warts and all, came into 2012 as the toughest in-division out for New England by default. The Bills, meanwhile, had made a splash on the free-agent market. What did we miss?

Here are the three primary things:

» The Dolphins showed signs of being a quarterback away last year. Miami finished 6-3 after starting 0-7; one big difference over that stretch was that, with Matt Moore at the helm, the Dolphins were finally getting competent quarterback play. Stabilizing the spot under center greatly enhanced the impact made by foundational pieces like running back Reggie Bush and offensive linemen Jake Long and Mike Pouncey.

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And while that was going on, Ireland was making it a point to spend last fall personally evaluating every single potential franchise quarterback in the college ranks. By the spring, when other people were just starting to view Ryan Tannehill as a riser, Miami already had a fully formed opinion on him. Though some saw the part-time receiver's lack of experience at quarterback as a minus, the Dolphins saw Tannehill as a unique guy who could quickly adjust to a complex offense that demanded a lot of its leader at the line.

That's why the Dolphins thought Tannehill was game-ready when so many others tagged him as a raw prospect. The final result is that now Miami has both a bright young starter and, as we saw Sunday when Moore stepped in for an injured Tannehill, depth at the position.

» Joe Philbin hasn't wavered. According to a couple of players, there was a genuine feeling in the Dolphins locker room over the summer that the new head coach could wind up being tuned out. Some weren't happy with how he'd handled the situation with Chad Johnson, the troubled, high-profile receiver who ended up being released. The fact that the drama surrounding Johnson had been aired publicly was a byproduct of the Dolphins' choice to get into bed with HBO; the spotlight sometimes made Philbin look a little mealy-mouthed.

Funny thing happened afterward. Philbin stuck to his guns, as he had through his time as an assistant for the Green Bay Packers. And that might be the No. 1 thing you hear about the first-year head coach: Even if he isn't the most authoritative speaker, he's a fantastic communicator. Players eventually came to realize that Philbin was always being straight with them, and, according to another senior Dolphins official, "always is very clear with them on what to expect."

Maybe the biggest difference between 2011 and 2012, outside of the stability at quarterback, is that the organization is now moving in lockstep. Though Philbin never called plays during his time in Green Bay, he was the architect of that Packers offense. Philbin's ability as a builder has quickly earned him the respect of those on his staff and those in the Miami front office who hadn't worked with him previously. Once the players understood that structure, they jumped on board, too.

» The young players fit together and have grown up. Two years ago, the Dolphins let linebacker Jason Taylor walk away and join a divisional rival because they viewed him as a "progress stopper." He could still play, but the club worried he was taking snaps away from Canadian Football League import Cameron Wake. There are other examples, too, of Miami willingly taking lumps to advance their plan. That was the first part of the transition.

The second was finding the right guys to build the kind of locker room that could draw the type of praise offered by the aforementioned Dolphins official. The Dolphins dealt receiver Brandon Marshall because they wanted to give Philbin a clean slate. They traded cornerback Vontae Davis because, while he was very good when playing at his best, they couldn't depend on him week-to-week. In doing so, they sent a clear message about what Philbin wants: Players who are team-oriented, dependable and consistent.

Miami isn't setting the world on fire on either side of the ball, ranking 22nd in total defense and 23rd in total offense. But the Dolphins are squeezing the most out of what they have, thanks to the model built by Philbin and Ireland.

Don't misread this as a proclamation that the Dolphins have arrived. Their schedule hasn't exactly been a murderer's row so far. They play the San Francisco 49ers and the Patriots twice in December, so their reckoning sure could be coming.

But consider: Had it not been for a play here or a play there against the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets in September, the Dolphins could be 6-1. Even those tough losses helped; the group learned from them, rebounding with back-to-back one-possession wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and St. Louis Rams. And their victory on Sunday would seem to represent another step forward.

At the very least, in a weakened AFC, Miami looks very much like a threat to play into January. Which is a lot more than most of us "experts" expected.

Four things I'll be watching for in Week 9

1) The pulse of the Philadelphia Eagles. The potential for catastrophe is there for Philly on Monday night against the New Orleans Saints. The Eagles will be in the national spotlight, venturing into the tough environment of the Superdome to face a wounded opponent that can still sniff blood in the water. We'll learn something about the composition of the Eagles roster, though not with regard to talent, which the club has enough of. In 2011, there was a feeling internally that the Eagles' free-agency splash affected a locker room that had already included a number of young homegrown players looking to cash in. So this offseason, the team took care of a bunch of those guys. And now, we have a player telling my buddy Jason Cole over at Yahoo! Sports that the team lacks passion, which some in Philly weren't very surprised to hear. So, to recap: The Eagles seemed to have problems with chemistry in 2011 because guys weren't paid, but now that their guys have been paid, the Eagles are dealing with a lack of drive. That certainly makes one wonder whether the Eagles have the character necessary for navigating the kinds of rough patches they're now dealing with. We should know more around midnight ET on Monday.

2) The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' chance to stack up a few wins. The Buccaneers' Greg Schiano has ruffled plenty of feathers already in his 10 months as an NFL head coach. But he certainly seems to have turned the light on for a Tampa team that was badly in need of accountability. General manager Mark Dominik has told me a couple of times that "structure, organization and detail" are, to him, the most important things Schiano has brought from Rutgers (which, Schiano has emphasized, was a much bigger mess than Tampa when he first arrived there). The best evidence that Schiano's approach has worked is that the Bucs, though still far from perfect, have been in all seven of their games, even though they've won just three. That's notable, given that the Bucs lost nine straight to end last season, with seven of those losses, including all of the final five, coming by multiple possessions. The next step forward? Putting together consecutive wins, something the 2012 Bucs have yet to do -- but they certainly have a good shot with a trip to visit the Oakland Raiders up next.

3) Matt Ryan's moment. Outside of a three-interception first half against Oakland in Week 6, Matt Ryan has been a model of consistency throughout the Atlanta Falcons' 7-0 start, completing more than 62 percent of his passes every week and posting a quarterback rating of 100 or better five times. A few weeks back, Falcons coach Mike Smith confidently told me that Ryan is elite, and that "he's playing the best football of his career -- by far." When the Falcons face the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, we could get a clearer view of what Smith is seeing. At this point, six of Atlanta's seven victims are under .500. The exception is the Denver Broncos, but the Falcons saw the Week 2 version of that team. Yes, the 3-4 Cowboys are also under .500. But coordinator Rob Ryan's fourth-ranked defense is legit on the back end and can confuse a quarterback up front. Plus, this game will be played on the big stage offered by Sunday Night Football. Seems like a perfect chance for Ryan in particular, and Atlanta in general, to start erasing any lingering doubts about this team.

4) The New York Giants' pass defense. If one remembers only what happened in January, one would have expected the Giants to return an attacking, menacing defense in 2012. Anyone who also looked at the four months previous to Big Blue's playoff run, though, might've had concerns about this season. And those concerns, it turns out, would've been valid. Through seven games, New York is 24th in total defense and 26th in pass defense. While the Giants snuck out of Texas with a win over the Cowboys on Sunday, Dez Bryant was able to haul in that ill-fated would-be touchdown despite a pair of New York defenders being near him. The Giants snagged four interceptions, but that didn't give them license to yield 437 yards through the air to Tony Romo. Eventually, this group will get Kenny Phillips back from his MCL injury; Will Hill's return from a suspension won't hurt, either. But the biggest problem revolves around a lack of depth at corner, something the Washington Redskins exploited in Week 7. It should be interesting to see the Pittsburgh Steelers test that depth with Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, et al., on Sunday.

Three conclusions

1) The New England Patriots feel like they turned a corner earlier than you might think they did. Last season, the Patriots started 5-3, then ran off 10 straight on their way to the Super Bowl. They're 5-3 again this season, and, judging by what we saw here in London on Sunday (yes, I'm still in London as of this writing... thanks, Sandy), the prospect of another such run doesn't seem all that far-fetched. If the Patriots do start reeling off wins, many will point to the 45-7 drubbing of the St. Louis Rams in Week 8 as the turning point. But it actually might have come a week earlier against the Jets. At least, that's the way Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork sees it. "When you go back and look at those last couple series, we played those series great, and it was a great team -- it wasn't just one individual or side of the football. It was a great team in those situations. That's what we're going to need going forward, we need to play the situations great; it's not gonna be easy all the time, and you have win the close ones. Every good football team finds a way to win those." Indeed, the offense might have finally recaptured its spread-out, heat-on-the-defense identity. The defense, meanwhile, showed big-play ability against the Jets, holding them to a field goal after Devin McCourty's big kickoff-return fumble, then getting the game-closing sack-fumble from Jermaine Cunningham and Rob Ninkovich. On Sunday, the unit brought 60 minutes of that against the Rams. At least on paper, the idea that Wilfork's first step led to the second makes sense.

2) The new deadline might help encourage a trade, but the sport just isn't made for in-season deals. Part of the explanation for this is very simple: In football, it's more difficult for teams to integrate new players on the fly than it is for baseball or basketball squads. Part of it, however, is more complex. Take St. Louis. Outside of fielding a few calls about running back Steven Jackson, the Rams have been largely dormant. Even though they could use the picks. Even though they know that they're not Super Bowl contenders. Why? Most every marketable player on the team is either young and still on an affordable rookie deal or a 20-something vet who gets paid big. So if someone were to call about defensive lineman Robert Quinn, for example, chances are it'd be a pretty quick conversation. Ditto for Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Michael Brockers, Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, etc. Fact is, most teams are either contenders or in a situation like the Rams'. Even an established, contract-year vet like Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe will likely be tough to move. As I've consistently been told, the Chiefs aren't giving him away, meaning a trading partner would have to give up draft pick(s) to acquire him and more money to keep him. The sum of these parts is that, for now, moving the trade deadline from Tuesday to Thursday won't have a huge impact.

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3) The AFC's other 4-3 surprise isn't bad either. Given what we know, it seems OK to say that the top two picks in April's draft will go down as huge hits. One thing that Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano loved about Andrew Luck (aside from everything) when they were evaluating him was how he made everyone around him at Stanford play better. On Sunday, on the road against the Tennessee Titans, Luck showed he can pull off that trick as a pro, too. Of Luck's 38 throws, 16 went to a quintet of fellow rookies (T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, Vick Ballard and LaVon Brazill), 13 of which were caught, accounting for half of Luck's completions. Veteran Reggie Wayne still got a team-high 11 targets, which he turned into seven catches and 91 yards. But Luck brilliantly worked the field, keeping everyone involved and making those around him feel his impact. Kinda like what his predecessor did; only the new guy already has more wins in blue than Peyton Manning did through all of his first season with the Colts. Not a bad start at all, even if he hasn't sparked quite the buzz that Robert Griffin III has with the Washington Redskins.

Two college players to watch on Saturday

1) Alabama RB Eddie Lacy at LSU, 8 p.m. ET, CBS. The 6-foot, 220-pound bowling ball might be seen publicly as simply a bridge between Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson and freshman phenom T.J. Yeldon. But Lacy is seen as more than that by the folks who really count. "There aren't a lot of backs in this year's draft, so you watch -- he'll be a hot item," said one NFC personnel executive. "He's big, he's got good feet, he can make guys miss and run with power. You watch the tape, and you'll see. He'll come out of nowhere. And he's up near 230 now, a big back. He'll be a riser." During Lacy's first two years, he averaged more than 7 yards per carry. As the workhorse, he's at a 5.5-yard average with 596 yards total on the ground. And even better -- with all the other studs in the 'Bama backfield, he brings fresh legs. LSU brings a challenge, but a few weeks back, Florida's Mike Gillislee showed that the Tigers can be run on.

2) LSU safety Eric Reid vs. Alabama, 8 p.m. ET, CBS. This matchup is big enough that both of our "guys to watch" are playing in it. Reid, a solid prospect with something to show, is worth keeping a close eye on. "He's built like a Greek god," said one college scout. "He hasn't played quite as well as I thought he would this year, but he's still really good." A college scouting director added that he's a "Big, physical guy with ball skills. He'll be tested. ... He has first-round ability, but he needs to have a good game (against 'Bama)." Fact is, athletes like Reid who check in at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds at 20 years old aren't all that easy to find. They're especially important in today's game, with the proliferation of the "basketball player" tight end. So plenty of NFL people are eagerly waiting for Reid to return to his 2011 form.

One prediction

The New York Jets won't go to Tim Tebow for a while -- if they do at all. It's been said before in this space, but if the Jets were to make the quarterback switch that so many are now calling for, it'd be a franchise-shaking move. Remember, when the Denver Broncos promoted Tebow last year, incumbent Kyle Orton was the journeyman and Tebow was a recent first-round pick. In New York, Mark Sanchez is the Golden Boy and Tebow is the traveling salesman.

The Jets realize that benching Sanchez would have deeper implications than a normal roster change. And that's an important part of any quarterback decision they might make. Just as important are the team's feelings about Tebow at the position. Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano has shown an affinity for the option. But remember, Sparano had the ex-Heisman winner at his disposal during the 2010 Senior Bowl. While he liked the kid personally, he wasn't wild about his style of play as a quarterback back then.

Remember, too, that in 2009, the Sparano-led Dolphins drafted Pat White in the second round with the intention of using him in a similar role. Twenty-one runs, one sack, five throws, zero completions and 19 months later, White was cut.

That doesn't mean Tebow shouldn't have gotten more garbage-time use last week. That kind of work should go to any backup quarterback. But as for real snaps? I have my doubts that these Jets coaches will ever be ready to give them to Tebow.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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