Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Dolphins fans, you have a storied franchise. The first -- and only -- team in NFL history to go undefeated in the regular season and win the Super Bowl. You can lay claim to one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever walk the earth. And your old all-white uniforms were pretty amazing, too. But that's in the past. Now it is time to look to the future ...
Wait, the throwback unis are back!! Only for one game, though: Week 2 vs. New England. Let's make this the standard look! It's too beautiful for one-off usage. But I digress.
How does the franchise, as a whole, look? Let's dig in ...
How the Dolphins got here
Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season.
-- Started the season with a three-game winning streak. Including a roadie at the Jets in Week 2. Oh, now I get why Adam Gase was hired by Gang Green.
-- Miracle in Miami. I don't know what it is about the Patriots playing in Miami. They always struggle down there. I don't know if Tom Brady loves South Beach. Maybe Bill Belichick hates the humidity. I just don't get it. But last season, it looked like New England had finally solved that. With the Patriots leading 33-28 with seven seconds left in the game, the Dolphins needed an absolute miracle. And that's what they got. With the Fins on their own 31, Ryan Tannehill completed a 17-yard pass to Kenny Stills, then a couple of laterals later, Kenyan Drake ran past Rob Gronkowski (seriously) for the winning score.
-- Finished the season with a three-game losing streak. The Dolphins had managed to get above .500 (7-6) after the Miracle in Miami. And that seems like the kind of thing that could push you into the playoffs. Then Miami dropped three straight games to teams that didn't make the playoffs (Minnesota, Jacksonville and Buffalo).
Head coach: Brian Flores. Bold move for the Dolphins, and I'm here for it. I know, you're going to hear the old "Belichick coaching tree" knock. Which is fine. And really, that might hit close to home, thinking back to the Nick Saban era in Miami. But as the league goes more offensive, I like that the Dolphins are zagging.
Flores won three Super Bowls as an assistant coach with the Patriots -- the last as the team's de facto defensive coordinator, with New England holding the high-flying Rams to just three points. That tied the record for fewest points allowed in a Super Bowl, originally set by the Cowboys in their 24-3 SB VI win over the Dolphins. Oops, sorry to bring that up. Oh, who am I kidding? None of you were alive for that game. You're fine.
I really do like this move, and I really do like the hiring of Chad O'Shea as offensive coordinator. Bad -- and disconcerting -- news that Jim Caldwell had to step away from his assistant head coach post because of health concerns. But overall, this is a pretty good staff, and one that flew under the radar during the coach-hiring season. Which is probably where the Dolphins want to be right now.
Quarterback: About that ... Earlier this offseason, the Dolphins traded Ryan Tannehill, signed Ryan Fitzpatrick and then traded for Josh Rosen. When you see a photo of Fitzpatrick and Rosen together, they look like a father-son duo you see playing pickup basketball. And your lazy behind wants to guard the old man, because the son looks way more athletic. But then you realize the old man can still drain it and the boy kind of doesn't want to be there.
Fitzpatrick outperformed Rosen last year in every major category. Fitzpatrick was first among qualified quarterbacks in yards per attempt (9.6), while Rosen was last (5.8). Fitzpatrick also had more touchdowns (17 to 11) and a higher passer rating (100.4 to 66.7). But if we're going to be completely fair, Fitzpatrick played with offensive guru Todd Monken (who is in Cleveland now) and had a bevy of potent weapons at his disposal. Rosen played behind a beleaguered offensive line, with a suspect supporting cast and had to endure a midseason change at offensive coordinator. So I could run down a number of statistics that point out how poorly Rosen's rookie campaign went, but you can't say that it was all his fault.
This QB battle will be interesting for the Dolphins, who have struggled to replace Dan Marino. Who retired after the 1999 season. Miami's had 19 different starting quarterbacks since 2000. The best in class (in terms of total starts and wins) was Tannehill, who went 43-46. Over the entire span, the Dolphins rank 26th in passing yards per game and passer rating, 25th in yards per attempt and 27th in touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Projected 2019 MVP: Xavien Howard, cornerback. He's quickly developed into one of the best shutdown cornerbacks in the league. Truly broke out last year when, despite missing four games, he notched an NFL-high seven picks to go along with 12 passes defensed and earned his first Pro Bowl nod. Howard yielded just a 62.6 passer rating in coverage last year, per NFL Research, the lowest among cornerbacks targeted at least 50 times. And he just signed a five-year, $76.5 million megadeal, making him the highest-paid corner in the league. Solid move to lock up your best defensive player at age 26.
2019 breakout star: Kenyan Drake, running back. As a fantasy football enthusiast, I wanted him to break out for the past couple of seasons, but it didn't happen. I mean, I looked like a boss when I started him against the Patriots and got all of those last-second points on the Miami Miracle and whatnot. But there was a lot of inconsistency. Drake did have a shoulder injury. He also split time with Frank Gore. And maybe he's not destined to ever be a true workhorse back. But I'm pretty confident that given the opportunity, he could be an Alvin Kamara type of running back for the Dolphins. (Not to say he's going to be better or anything. But he could have that type of impact.) According to Pro Football Focus, Drake had the third-highest rate of forced missed tackles in 2018 (28 on 120 carries, or 23.3%), behind only Kareem Hunt and Melvin Gordon. And maybe Gordon is a better comp. So the talent is there.
New face to know: Christian Wilkins, defensive tackle. He made quite the impression on the league during his on-stage greeting with Commissioner Goodell during the draft. But you can watch Wilkins' game tape, too, and there is no doubt you will be impressed. He's athletic, gets up the field quickly and just generally creates havoc. But what really impressed me (and I didn't know this until the draft stuff started) is that he got a degree in two-and-a-half years. While playing college football for an elite program.
Wilkins should immediately help a line that struggled to get after quarterbacks last season. The Dolphins pressured opposing signal-callers from the interior on just 8.9 percent of pass rushes last year -- the second-lowest in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats.
Will the Dolphins be able to ...
Stick with one quarterback? Here's the tricky thing about Fitzpatrick. There is going to be a stretch in the season where he will be the most amazing quarterback in the league. And you'll want to watch every single moment of his games. And then the unpleasantness will happen. Watching Fitzpatrick play is sometimes like watching your toddler carry a bowl of milk across the kitchen. It's exciting and you're super proud at first, but eventually you know that it's going to end up on the floor.
And so, Dolphins fans, you have this first-time head coach who's going to want to win right out of the gate, so you'll start Fitzmagic for a few weeks. And then, when it turns into Fitztragic, you'll give Rosen his shot. It's just the way these things work. ... Actually, though, what if it goes the other way? What if Miami starts Rosen from Day 1, because team brass wants to find out what it has at quarterback before the 2020 NFL Draft. Then the fans will start calling for the popular backup the moment things go sideways.
This isn't an easy situation to be in, and I don't envy Flores at all. Except that he's getting paid a lot of money to work in Miami. But other than that, I don't envy him at all.
Improve on the 31st-ranked offense? Not just the quarterback position -- let's talk about the offense in general. The Dolphins had their fewest YPG (289.9) in a season since 2007. "Breaking Bad" hadn't even started as a series yet. Dolphins quarterbacks combined for just one 300-yard passing game last season. Can you guess it? It was Brock Osweiler going for 380 against the Bears. I could churn out about 2,500 words on that alone, but I won't.
Bottom line: The Dolphins were next-to-last in yards per game, third-down percentage and big plays (and that's including the Miracle in Miami). To make matters worse, the leading rusher (Frank Gore) and receiver (Danny Amendola) from last year are gone. But Dwayne Allen and Ricardo Louis are there! So, yeah.
Improve on the 29th-ranked total defense? Hey, at least the defense wasn't in the 30s, like the offense. So you have that going for you. But still, being in the bottom 10 in most defensive categories -- like points allowed per game (27.1), total yards allowed (391.1) and big plays allowed (125) -- isn't great, either. The good news is, at least you're not one of those teams that's loaded on one side of the ball. That will eliminate any finger pointing in the locker room. Unless that argument is ... Who's letting down Dolphins fans the most: the offense or the defense?
Look at some of the key players we've talked about already. Howard and Wilkins. Both young studs who should anchor the defense for years to come. Minkah Fitzpatrick is also terrific. Cameron Wake and Bobby Quinn are gone, but that doesn't matter. You want that youth movement. Miami hasn't finished in the top 15 in scoring or total defense in any of the last four seasons (the Raiders are the only other team that can match that), but the unit's youth is the bright spot. The spot where I look and go, Oh wow -- this is where they can build the team from.
Three key dates
One storyline people are overlooking:Albert Wilson is a good football player. The Bert Alert, as he was called in our old Fantasy Stronghold, will be back after a hip injury ended his 2018 campaign last October. Wilson averaged 55.9 receiving yards per game last year for the team, 17.7 YPG more than the next-closest Dolphins receiver. And if you look at the numbers, the Dolphins were 4-3 with him on the field. And 3-6 without him. So maybe it's actually Albert Wilson who is the true MVP of this team.
One storyline people are overthinking:This is DeVante Parker's breakout year. It's not, and no need to keep saying this every offseason. It's like when everyone wants John Cena to turn heel. It's never going to happen. No matter how much sense it makes. It feels like Parker should be a huge superstar in this league. But he's just a solid football player. And that's cool.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Dolphins MUST ...
-- Improve defensively. You have so many great pieces. A great defensive coach. And the easy pathway to victory is that defense.
-- Figure out the quarterback situation. By season's end, you need to know what you have in Rosen. That's absolutely critical. And yes, it would be awful for Rosen if he were to play through another rough season, then have the Dolphins end up with the No. 1 pick and fall in love with a QB prospect. To have to go through that again? Oof. But Miami HAS to find out if Rosen's a keeper.
It's never easy to start over. Especially for Dolphins fans, whose team seems to be in this position quite frequently. Miami's had 23 head coaches since 1996. Which is crazy when you consider the Fins had two from 1966 through 1995, a period that resulted in 17 playoff wins and five Super Bowl appearances. The Dolphins have logged just three playoff wins since, with zero in the past 18 seasons. Only the Bengals, Lions, Bills and Browns have longer active droughts. But I do feel good about where this team can go with Flores at the controls.