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  These Dolphins are a Pleasant Surprise
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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The Bible tells us that Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years…which is almost the same amount of time the Dolphins have been collectively lost.


That time may be coming to an end.


The Dolphins have rolled into their bye week a surprising 3-3 and tied for first in the AFC East. Actually, they could easily be 5-1 right now if not for some missed field goals and an early season flood of turnovers.


Think about that…first place from a team not expected to finish better than last in the division.


Will miracles never cease!


Of course being 3-3 is not cause for outright celebration, not around these parts where a storied tradition demands playoffs and postseason glories. But for the first time in a long while, it feels like the franchise is on the right road…and not just for a season or two as was the case in 2008. This time it feels right, trustworthy, solid, long term.


So where is this optimism coming from? Why should we believe now when we’ve been made so many empty promises since Jimmy Johnson’s last season, the one before the Dolphins fell into a black hole of wasted draft picks, clueless coaches, and millions in blown free agent contracts.


As I’ve suggested many times in this space, trust your eyes not your ears. That was the prudent play when the team’s credibility went bankrupt, a near empty stadium reminding us all of that sad truth week after week. It still reminds, even as Joe Philbin and his staff slowly and methodical work to earn your confidence. Six games and a .500 record isn’t enough to placate the “Fire Jeff Ireland” fans. And yet it is enough to see the beginnings of a genuine turnaround, fueled by four key factors.


It starts with the quarterback, as they say, and rookie Ryan Tannehill is exceeding all expectations. This time, they seem to have gotten it right. Every week the guy gets better, as evidenced by his steadily improving pass completion percentage. That’s what you want to see from your rookie QB.


This guy has the goods. We know that now.


Tannehill has the smarts. He commands the offense, knows the system fully, and is getting better at reading defenses every week, even as opponents throw withering blitzes at him, daring him to beat them.


That brings us to poise. Tannehill hasn’t rattled under fire, even when he suffered through that nightmarish opener versus Houston. He inspires confidence in his troops and it shows in how they are performing in adverse situations.


Of course Tannehill has the arm. We saw in training camp that can make all the throws, some of which have been of the filthy, nasty variety that leaves a DB feeling helpless.


See, Tannehill has this Dan Marino-like quality of being able to fit passes into tiny spaces. Consistently. The great ones do this.


We already knew Tannehill was a good athlete, as evidenced by his ability to run and escape pressure to extend plays make throws. But one not so obvious talent Tannehill has is his ability to change the motion of his passing arm when the situation demands…even as he is being sacked. Again, the great ones do this and know how to salvage plays.


“I think it’s just being more comfortable. Not rushing, not worrying about small things that are happening in the pocket, seeing the big picture and knowing exactly what’s going on”, explained Tannehill. “It’s not like I’ve changed my motion or done anything like that. It’s just being more comfortable, being on the same page with receivers coming out of the breaks and things of that sort.”


At long last, it seems like the Miami Dolphins have found heir-Marino.


While Tannehill’s growth has been a joy to watch, the overall transformation of the offense has been an unexpected event. The coaches get most of the overall credit for implementing a new system, fixing the offensive line, and working three rookies into the starting line-up. This is not easy stuff people, but offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and his staff have handled it brilliantly. The result has been something of a revelation.


To me, this offense is clearly the most pleasant surprise of this season. Many didn’t expect the Dolphins to be very proficient or balanced in attack. It says volumes that the front office is willing to continue to work to upgrade weapons, by signing guys like Anthony Armstrong and Jabar Gaffney. While neither guy seems a long term answer, you have to like the effort to improve.


Thirdly, the Dolphins have a stingy defense…one of the toughest in the NFL versus the run and yielding the fewest points by far in the division and third lowest in the conference.


The reason for this starts with a pair of dominant defensive tackles in Paul Soliai and Randy Starks, essential pieces to ANY 4-3 defense. These two come to play every week, causing headaches for opponents who try vainly to counter their active and disruptive games inside. Starks already has a Defensive Player of the Week award to his credit. DE Cameron Wake, being moved around expertly and wisely by defensive boss Kevin Coyle, has been a force. Linebackers Karlos Dansby, Koa Misi, and Kevin Burnett round out what has been one of the best front sevens in football this season.


Everything on defense starts up front, inside out, and the Dolphins are very strong in that department.


Obviously this unit has done very well in executing Coyle’s 4-3 scheme, with the much improved play of CB Sean Smith and FS Reshad Jones in man coverage allowing Coyle to bring heat in a multitude of ways. This has kept the Dolphins competitive in every game thus far.


Finally we have markedly improved special teams, in all aspects except field goal kicking (and you feel that will improve). Punter Brandon Fields flips field position as well as anyone in the NFL. Coverage units have been reliable, positively impacting several games with well-executed fakes and stunts. Returner Marcus Thigpen has been dependable and elusive. So credit to Darren Rizzi, who has really done a fine job of coaching and preparing this crew.


So there we have it. Or, I should say, the “eyes” have it. And don’t think we’re the only ones who “see” what’s happening.


“I’m excited”, Tannehill said. “I think that we’re in a good spot. Obviously I wish we could have won a few more games in the past few weeks, but we’re in a good spot. I think that it’s in our hands now. It’s all on us if we want to go out make a run at this thing or not. It’s all in our hands and up to us to make a play. At the end of the day we have no one else to look at but ourselves and it’s on us to get it done.”



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