No Offense, But...
The Miami Dolphins entered the 2006 season with very high hopes for a great year. However, only four games into the regular season, most of those hopes have been dashed by a team performance that has been, to put it mildly, very poor.
The expectations for 2006 were based mostly on an expected improvement by the team's offense. The addition of Daunte Culpepper, the supposed upgrading of the offensive line and the maturity of Ronnie Brown were supposed to combine to help move the Dolphins to the next level as a team.
Unfortunately, exactly the opposite has happened - the 2006 Dolphins are worse than the 2005 Dolphins and most of the regression has occurred because the offense is not playing as well as it did last year.
Well, the answer is complicated. It is too easy (not to mention wrong) to blame the problems on any one thing. Daunte Culpepper is part of the problem, but only part. The offensive line gets their share of the blame, but again, they are not the only culprits. It is a combination of factors and each is contributing to the demise of the offense.
First, but not necessarily foremost, is the disappointing play of Daunte Culpepper. Culpepper was expected to upgrade the quarterback play for Miami, but he has not done so. Gus Frerotte played better last year than Culpepper has played so far this year and while the potential for improvement exists, I don't think that Culpepper will improve enough this season to get Miami to the playoffs.
Culpepper's problems lie in several areas, some of which are fixable and some of which we may just have to live with. In the fixable area, he is clearly not completely recovered from his knee injury. He is not as mobile as he used to be and is not pushing off as hard when he throws as he did before his injury. The lack of mobility has contributed to some of his sacks and the lack of push on his throws has probably effected his ability to get the ball deep.
The good news about that is that his knee will probably improve throughout the year and he will probably return to full strength - eventually.
For things we may have to live with, Culpepper seems to be relatively slow in going through his receiver "reads" when passing. In other words, he seems to take a long time deciding where to throw the ball. This does not effect him as much during the hurry-up or 2 minute offense, because he has fewer reads to make - in some cases, on quick throws, he has no reads to make at all - he just delivers to the primary receiver.
But when he has a lot of options, it takes him a while to make up his mind - all things being relative, of course. This contributes to him being more vulnerable to sacks, especially with his limited mobility.
Another thing about Culpepper that I've noticed is that he seems to lack a strong sense of what's going on around him in the pocket. In several instances this year, he seemed to actually step into the sack rather than avoiding it. Last year, I was frequently surprised by Gus Frerotte's ability to sense when he was about to be sacked and to either avoid it or get rid of the ball just before he was knocked down. I don't see that in Culpepper.
Having said all that, Culpepper clearly has a strong arm and his slow reads don't effect his accuracy. He is also improving in the area of decision making, throwing fewer passes that are in danger of being picked off. His size is also an asset as he avoided at least one sack against the Texans by just not going down when a defensive lineman was falling on him.
I think the bottom line on Culpepper is that we won't know for sure if he's a keeper until he's completely healthy. Since he probably won't be completely healed until next year, it's unlikely we'll know by the end of this season if the Dolphins made a smart move getting him or not.
But for him to be successful, the rest of the Dolphins' offense must support him more than it has up until now. And that means better blocking and better play-calling.
The offensive line has taken more than its share of the blame for the blocking problems that have lead to the Dolphins allowing 21 sacks this year. While they have not played well, I don't think that they are playing all that differently than last year. Yes, there have been some personnel changes, but I don't think that, on an individual level, LJ Shelton is playing worse now than Damion MacIntosh played at the beginning of last year. And I don't believe that moving Rex Hadnot to center has destroyed the entire cohesion of the offensive line or ruined his ability to block.
The right guard merry-go-round has been a problem, but one position that is weaker than last year does not fully explain the drop-off in production. Especially when you consider that the right tackle position is now stronger than it has been since Todd Wade left.
I think the blocking problems are a combination of mistakes by both the offensive linemen and the other blocking members of the offense - the backs and tight ends. Randy McMichael was run over for two sacks against Buffalo that I saw and we've all seen Ronnie Brown miss at least one block that turned into a sack.
I'm wondering if (and hoping that) the return of Sammy Morris will help shore up the ability of the offensive backs to pick up the blitzes. I think his absence on passing downs may have hurt the team's ability to stop the blitz.
Also, as mentioned above, I think that we've seen several sacks that are the result of Daunte Culpepper holding the ball too long. At least one sack by the Texans occurred after Culpepper held the ball for 6 seconds, which is too much time for a quarterback to make a decision.
Last year, I think some of the problems with the offensive line, especially in the beginning of the season, were masked by Gus Frerotte's ability to get the ball off fairly quickly.
This year, I think that the blocking problems will decrease as the season goes on, but that as long as Daunte Culpepper continues to hold on to the ball for a long time, we're going to have to live with more sacks than we'd like to see.
Unfortunately, in addition to blocking and quarterback problems, the play calling has been suspect this year. Against a team that ranks 29th in the league in run defense, with a running back like Ronnie Brown and problems protecting the quarterback on pass plays, the Dolphins ran the ball 14 times in the Texans' game but threw it 39 times.
Even in the first half, when Miami was either tied or leading the Texans, the Dolphins ran the ball only 7 times, but threw it 18 times. It may make sense to try and spoil an opposing teams' gameplan by doing something unexpected if the opposing team has a strong defense. But when attacking the worst defense in the league, it makes no sense to throw away the conservative approach until it's been proven that it doesn't work.
Now, I don't know enough about Mike Mularkey to know if the criticisms against him are valid. But based on what we've seen so far, he does seem to be enamored with trying to trick opposing defenses rather than just finding out what works and using that.
Some of the problem is almost certainly that Mike Mularkey is not running a system that he's completely familiar with. And just as certainly, he'll need time to learn what his players can do and what they can't, so I would expect that the play-calling will improve as the season goes on.
Unfortunately, all these problems - at quarterback, with the blocking and with the play-calling - will take time to fix. And with only 12 games to go in the regular season, there is probably not enough time to fix three major problem areas and get the offense in good enough shape to compete at a playoff level.
So I hope I'm wrong - I've been wrong before - but I'm afraid that we'll have to wait at least one more year to see our team in the playoffs. There are just too many problem areas on offense for Nick Saban to fix in the next 12 weeks. Even if he does do it..