DAVIE—What made the Dolphins’ surge to the playoffs so impressive last year wasn’t just that they pulled it off after a 1-4 start, but more so that they did it while losing crucial players along the way.
By the time Miami lined up for its postseason game against the Steelers, it did so without Ryan Tannehill, Reshad Jones and Mike Pouncey. The Dolphins were also missing Byron Maxwell and Isa Abdul-Quddus, plus Xavien Howard had recently come back after sitting nine games with a knee injury.
It was bad, and they’re off to an equally rough start this year.
When the Dolphins hit the field for this morning’s practice, they were down six guys who were initially projected to start the Sept. 10 season opener. Tannehill and middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan have already been ruled out for the year because of ACL injuries, and Ted Larsen will be out months with a torn biceps.
At some point, when so many absences pile up, the team’s “next man up” mantra gets difficult to believe.
“Well, it’s tough,” veteran offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod acknowledged. “But we’ve gotta be battle-tested. That’s just the way it has to be if we want to be successful.
“You have to remind yourself of it on a daily basis, and our coaching staff does a great job of making sure they’re being repetitive about it because it’s the truth. When bad things happen, you’ve gotta be better than that. You have to fight to not let it be an excuse. Your quarterback went down? Sucks. But, OK, whoever else we have back there has to step in and do the job. We can’t waver.”
There’s been little interruption to Miami’s preparations aside from Tannehill’s knee injury bringing practice to total silence last week. For the most part, the players have been upbeat and coach Adam Gase has been steadfast. He said the Dolphins’ practice the day after Tannehill went down had been their most energetic to date.
Jay Ajayi remained out with a concussion and has not fully practiced since July 31. The Dolphins have also been missing safety Nate Allen for a week. T.J. McDonald, another starting safety candidate, is practicing but will miss the first eight weeks because of an NFL suspension.
The ideal starting offensive line has yet to work together, and that unit absorbed another blow this week with Ja’Wuan James nursing a shoulder injury.
Key reserve defensive backs Tony Lippett and Walt Aikens were out with minor issues this morning, and backup linebacker Neville Hewitt remains out.
That’s a daunting list of problems, but there haven’t been any players-only meetings or epic locker room speeches. The team hasn’t needed that. They get drilled with the next man up line all the time, and the players who were here last year know there’s validity to it.
So there’s been no trepidation about Jay Cutler stepping in for Tannehill, and many players have said he’s fitting in nicely so far. And there was total faith in Mike Hull, an undersized linebacker who went undrafted in 2015, as he stepped into McMillan’s spot this morning.
“We know we have depth at those positions, even if it doesn’t look like it to the outside world,” receiver Kenny Stills said. “We know it. We compete with each other every day. We know somebody can step up and do it.”
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