Where do the Miami Dolphins go from here?
Picks! Cap space! This was all a GM's dream. Now, with Tua Tagovailoa sidelined again, yet another mass rebuild feels inevitable in South Florida. This franchise is a cautionary tale.
We all assume that running a pro football team is an extremely complicated enterprise. GMs. Head coaches. Execs. Everyone speaking into that mic clearly knows more than any of us peasants ever will.
Most all are experts at projecting such confidence, too.
Major decisions are followed by an ultra-confident voice at the mic assuring those fans pouring millions of dollars into their product that this is part of a glorious master plan. After all, these are the people grinding through endless hours of film. These are the people sleeping in their office. (Unless, the GM happens to run the Dallas Cowboys.) NFL bosses tell us to believe in a #culture and a #process and if they win? They may even take on cult-like status in their respective cities.
One high-ranking AFC personnel exec is here to assure everyone that — in fact — they’re not deities to never be questioned.
“One, it’s not that complicated,” this exec says. “Two, not that many people are that smart.”
It’s simple in the NFL: Find good players.
Because every so often, you get a team like these Miami Dolphins.
Three weeks into the 2021 season, it’s not hyperbole to suggest the Dolphins are swimming 100 MPH toward another inevitable rebuild. Most hope inside Hard Rock Stadium evaporated in the 90-degree heat against the Buffalo Bills last weekend. Over time, the worst thing Miami can do is pretend like everything is going according to plan. It’ll be tempting. Ego prevents most head coaches and general managers from admitting failure. Odds are, the Dolphins will clutch to their handpicked foundational pieces — and all draft capital — as long as they possibly can, with visions of everything coming together.
I get it. The season is a marathon. We shouldn’t rush to conclusions two weeks in, etc, etc.
But last year’s run to 10-6 is looking more like a mirage. The reality of the situation here is much more damning.
What started as every GM’s dream — a treasure trove of first-round picks, an owner who won’t go full Jerry Jones in forcing his hand, all while living in a state so attractive to high-profile free agents — is quickly deteriorating. There’s a very good chance Miami will have no choice but to clean the deck, again, by 2022.
And what a punch in the gut that is to long-suffering Dolphins fans.
After allll of the wheelin’ and allll of the dealin’ and allll smart observers of this sport dousing general manager Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores with praise for somehow tanking for a QB while still building a substantive culture, what does this franchise have to show for it?
Eventually, you need to hit the bull’s eye on those draft picks you’ve stockpiled.
Or at least package those picks in a trade for proven vets.
“It’s like saying, ‘Give me more shots at being a sniper,’” this AFC exec says. “You still have to be able to shoot. It’s not like anybody can do it. You can roll the dice and, sure, you’ll get lucky a couple times. Somebody who knows what they’re doing will be much better off with those 15 picks.
“It’s tough. I don’t know what they’re going to do.”
The 2020 draft was supposed to ignite the rebuild. Yet, already, that draft is backfiring. Of course, there’s the mistake at quarterback. The gap between Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert gave fans a nervous twitch in 2020 that’ll likely worsen to random fainting episodes in 2021. Tagovailoa has looked small, played small and, now, he’s sidelined again. This time, with cracked ribs. You want to believe. Badly. Tagovailoa seems like an upstanding guy you’d want representing your brand and — as we covered in June — he put in the work. He had one hell of an offseason at PER4ORM. His trainer can make you believe greatness is ahead, especially now that he’s a full year removed from that catastrophic hip injury. Miami actually did a fine job of surrounding him with weapons, too.
Yet all of the weapons in the world do not matter if he’s not the answer…
… and if you cannot protect him. This offensive line has been an atrocity. Tackle Austin Jackson, taken 18th overall in that 2020 draft, has been a major disappointment. He’s not alone. Bills’ end AJ Epenesa wreaked havoc last weekend as Buffalo had 11 QB hits and six sacks in all.
Further, what we all assumed was this team’s greatest strength — the defense — is looking more like a liability. They did a swell enough job vs. Josh Allen but were gashed for 143 rushing yards and three scores. Cornerback Noah Igbinoghene, taken 30th overall, was a gameday inactive in Miami’s 35-0 blowout loss last Sunday.
You read that correctly: A player drafted in the first round one year ago was a healthy scratch.
Now, Jacoby Brissett takes over and Miami could easily lose its next three games against the Raiders, Colts and Buccaneers. Whenever Tagovailoa does return, can the former Alabama quarterback realistically flip a switch and resemble something different than what we’ve seen.
That’s a lot to ask.
Behind this line, it’ll be difficult enough for this injury-prone quarterback to stay healthy. He’s not one to freelance his way out of jams, either. A bad combo.
This AFC exec believes Tagovailoa was one of the most overrated players in recent memory.
“The biggest thing in ‘modern’ football is to extend plays and make plays off-schedule,” he says. “Even guys who aren’t that mobile do it — Brady does it in his way. Big Ben, when he was younger, did it in his own way. So, it’s not like I don’t think Tua is an elite athlete. I just don’t think he has that improv ability. And when the play is run perfectly and the guy is open, he can throw it. He’s a quarterback. He’s not a dude who has no talent. But how many times is the guy wide open in the NFL? It’s just not going to happen. That was my biggest thing watching him at Bama.”
Because at Alabama, Tagovailoa was surrounded by five-star recruits at every position. Receivers almost always left corners 5 to 10 yards in the dust downfield.
This is the comparison former NFL exec Marc Ross made in explaining why he loved Jordan Love that rocky final season at Utah State. Nothing was going right around Love. Every snap was a challenge. And that kind of environment, he said, prepares you for the NFL. Not what Tagovailoa experienced at ‘Bama.
Such is the conundrum with Mac Jones, too. The Patriots are banking on a Brady-like ability to process defenses. So far, so good. The ball’s coming out quickly.
Tagovailoa could hit the deep post to an uncovered DeVonta Smith or dump a screen off to Jaylen Waddle and see both score 80-yard touchdowns.
“But is he really doing anything?” the exec says. “That’s where I was not a huge fan.”
In this person’s draft room, the Igbinoghene pick was met with widespread shock, too.
His team had the Auburn cornerback slotted as a late third-round pick. Igbinoghene was fast. He was physical. He was a converted wide receiver who was extremely raw — worth a flier in the mid-rounds.
“When they took him in the first, we were like, ‘Damn!’ There are times a dude goes high and you’re like, ‘Hmm, did I miss?’ And then there are other times you’re just like, ‘Nah…’ That one, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh. That was a bad pick.’”
At least the Philadelphia 76ers landed Joel Embiid through their tanking. The Dolphins don’t have much to show for all their draft capital yet.
Flores deserves credit for getting his players to fight while the team clearly wasn’t trying to win in the present. All of that losing in 2019 didn’t lead to asbestos in the building. After starting 0-7, Miami finished 5-4 that season. This former Patriots defensive coordinator was doing something right internally.
Even then, this could all prove to be another example of why tanking doesn’t work in football.
The Cleveland Browns went 1-31 under an analytics-driven Sashi Brown. While Brown deserves credit for hiring Paul DePodesta and Andrew Berry, the franchise’s over-emphasis on accumulating picks didn’t accomplish much in 2016 and 2017. Cleveland took 14 players in ’16, trading its way right out of the top of the draft to select Corey Coleman 15th overall. Eventually, talented football players were needed.
Bringing in bright football minds helped turn the Browns around.
It’s hard to tell who’s calling the shots in Miami — Grier or Flores.
Around the NFL, there is plenty of skepticism when it comes to Grier’s talent evaluation. He’s been in the organization for 22 years. This AFC exec notes that Grier is not very creative with player contracts and that it’s not like Miami is drafting a bunch of talent and, simply, doesn’t have a good coach. He says Flores is a good coach, though can be “hard-headed.”
And that’s what has costed Flores so far: stubborness. Everyone should’ve seen a red flag in Miami that first summer in 2019, too, when the head coach essentially drove away one of the best players in the sport: Minkah Fitzpatrick.
I chatted at length with Fitzpatrick about the split for a story in Bleacher Report last year.
As Fitzpatrick detailed, Flores wanted him to serve as the “Patrick Chung” presence in his defense. He wanted him roaming near the line of scrimmage when Fitzpatrick knew he was best served as a playmaker away from the line. At free safety, Fitzpatrick reads and reacts and drives quarterbacks mad. Yet Fitzpatrick said Flores barely gave him a shot to even show coaches what he could do deep in the secondary. He recalled the head coach giving him all of one practice to get coverage reps in. It got so bad that Fitzpatrick admitted he went rogue, and left the hand-to-hand combat drills to cover wide receivers in 1-on-1 drills in a desperate attempt to prove his skillset.
Still, Flores would not budge.
Miami traded Fitzpatrick to the Steelers for a first and change. Fitzpatrick is one of the best defensive players in the sport.
There have been other examples, too. Flores yo-yo’ing between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tagovailoa was beyond bizarre last season. Fitzpatrick has since said he was “floored” by his initial benching. He thought it was a joke. And when Fitzpatrick saved the day in a Week 16 win over Las Vegas, Flores announced right away he’d stick with Tagovailoa in a do-or-die Week 17 finale.
It usually does not matter what else you do as a coach or GM in this league if you cannot figure out the quarterback position.
That’s why there was so much pressure on Josh Allen into 2020. Sean McDermott was doing a lot right — but he needed Allen to take a big step.
The logical follow-up debate in Miami, of course, is whether Grier and Flores should trade for Deshaun Watson.
Granted, since we wrote this in February, the Texans quarterback has been accused of some vile behavior. Here, building a football team is quite complicated. Viewing this strictly as a football decision, it’s a no-brainer, right? If you’re going to whiff so badly on first-round picks, why not package them all up for something that’s proven? Watson, statistically, might’ve been the best quarterback in football last season and he’s only 26 years old. A yearlong suspension would mean little on the field. This era, we can expect most elite QBs to play until they’re at least 40.
Thirteen years from now, tackling the quarterback may even be outlawed.
He’s an unbelievable talent worth any amount of picks.
Of course, there’s far more to wrestle with morally here and it’s understandable if the powers that be in Miami are pushing back on their owner’s desire for Watson.
Priority No. 1 needs to be elevating Tagovailoa once he returns. Sadly, that’s probably not going to happen. He’s not going to improvise like Watson so everything around him must be perfect. The Dolphins are already shuffling the offensive line. Right about now is when an offense like this could try establishing a ground game but while Myles Gaskin is a nice little story, he’s a fringe starter at best. With all that money, the Dolphins easily could’ve blown away the dynamic Aaron Jones with an offer.
They did not. The Packers brought Jones back on what’s essentially a two-year, $20 million deal.
Jones continues to be one of the greatest backs (and bargains) in the entire NFL.
Lynn Bowden Jr. lets us know he’s about to bust onto the scene. He lands on injured reserve.
Jaelan Phillips is drafted 18th overall in 2021 to make a difference on defense. He plays 22 snaps in Week 1, then 18 snaps in Week 2 and says “every day is humbling.”
Jaylen Waddle, the sixth overall pick in 2021, might be a stud but who knows if he even gets his chance to shine with the QB issues here.
Round ‘n round we go. The Dolphins’ plight is more proof that salary-cap space and all the draft picks in the world cannot buy you a contender. They aren’t the first and won’t be the last.
The AFC exec is right. It really is hard to say where these Dolphins should go from here.
When you pull that trigger at QB, you best not miss.
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As a Bills fan, I have had a hard time understanding how Buffalo has dominated Miami so much. If we take the Buffalo games out of the equation, Miami and Flores seem better than average.
What is the Dolphins identity? They seem lost. Tua going out is painful, for sure, but they were not one-player-away even when they had him.