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  Offense Not Passable
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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Twenty offensive points in total over the course of two games is not what anyone expected out of an offense loaded with skill position talent and buttressed by a strong offensive line.

As always, the quarterback is an easy target. Chad Henne understands this all too well. And while the stats strongly suggest that the offense is indeed playing down to his level, the issue is not that clear cut.

Where it comes to the passing game, it doesn’t matter that the Dolphins have a very good offensive line.

It doesn’t matter that they have two Pro Bowl caliber runners.

It doesn’t matter that they have one of the best receivers in football, a Pro Bowler coming off of three consecutive 100 catch seasons.

It doesn’t matter that they have a seasoned offensive coordinator.

It only matters if all of those pieces are working well together. Through the preseason and halfway into September, they haven’t been.

Case in point: Against the Buffalo Bills, a bottom third defense, Henne was allowed to throw 34 passes. The good news is that the Bills didn’t catch any. The bad news is that the Dolphins didn’t, either…not for touchdowns anyway. Thirteen offensive points is all the offense could muster, thus keeping the Bills in the game throughout.

In the big win at Mall of America Field, coach Tony Sparano inexplicably junked his balanced attack philosophy to force the run against one of the toughest run defenses in the league; this he demanded at a two-to-one ratio versus the pass, citing “run-first philosophy” and other such bravado.

The plan was a failure, akin to beating one’s head against a wall. Aside from Ronnie Brown’s one long run of 51 yards, which ended up going to waste scoring-wise, the Dolphins gained just 69 yards on 28 carries (2.5 yard average). Meanwhile, Henne set a new low for pass attempts in a half (5) with two first quarter plays representing 45% of his overall yardage. In summary, it was mostly dink and dunk, ground and pound to the tune of seven lousy points.

The effort was unwatchable.

I know; this all sounds like I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth. They won the games, didn’t they? Who cares how they did it?

Objectively, it would be foolish to credit the wins to anything other than good fortune and a lights out defense that could end up ranking among the best in team history. That’s a nice combination, but it won’t get the Dolphins to the postseason.

To my untrained eye, there are two primary reasons why the offense is struggling.

The first is Henne. He still isn’t comfortable reading defenses and making quick decisions. For those of you who don’t have an appreciation for this process, let me say that it is one thing to do it in practice, with a non-contact jersey on, and quite another to do it at game speed with over a thousand pounds of malice trying to tear your head off. Think about that, because in the course of gaining that comfort Henne has to also worry about not doing anything to hurt the team (i.e. interceptions).

Unfortunately, Henne’s average yards per pass completion (6.0) and the percentage of passes that are being caught for first downs (28.6) are among the worst in the league right now. Not surprisingly, the number of punts ranks among the most.

The encouraging news is that a) the receivers are getting open, especially Brandon Marshall who has yet to be single covered, b) the offensive line is giving Henne ample time to throw, and c) Henne isn’t throwing interceptions.

The second reason is that playing safe with a lead, any lead, seems to be the philosophy of this coaching staff. Essentially, Sparano wants the other team to prove to him that he needs to take chances. Objectively, it makes sense; rely on the strengths of your offense which are the running backs and the offensive line. The Dolphins are also the least penalized team in the NFL and possess a Top 5 defense. On the road, in a hostile environment facing QBs with issues, the odds are on Sparano’s side.

But this conservative approach won’t stand up for the duration. Sooner or later, the offense will have to start producing more than six yard check-down passes on third and long to keep the chains moving. That means a mid to deep passing game, which Henne has the arm to promote. Until this happens, however, points will continue to be scarce and losses will start to mount.

A worried Sparano knows it, too.

“I’m concerned, yeah”, confessed Sparano. “Hey, I want to score more points than that, no question about it, and I think we have to. I have great confidence that this group will continue to get better. I just don’t have a crystal ball in front of me here, and they have to understand the urgency right now in that we are really close in a lot of situations, really close. We’ve got to get over the hump in some of those situations, and I think we will.”

That’s good, positive talk from a man who must convey that face to the public. Behind the closed doors in Davie, the answers must be fleeting or it wouldn’t be taking this long.

Clearly, Sparano and Henning can open up the playbook IF the offense proves they are ready for it. This brings us back to Henne. Is HE ready for it, especially against an aggressive blitzing scheme like the Jets use?

Ideally, enough wins keep coming so that the Dolphins can afford to be patient with Henne’s growth process. That patience has a limit, as it does with any player. While Sparano is clearly worried about Henne’s slower than hoped pace, he understands that it is essential for team’s long term success that they stay the course with him until they find out if he has the goods.

In the meantime, Sparano would be less than human if he weren’t thinking how much easier things would be with Chad Pennington running the show.

I know I am.

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