When the NFL holds its version of the Final Four on Sunday with the Jaguars, Patriots, Vikings and Eagles, South Florida will be watching with a tinge of envy.
Each one of these four teams has managed to do something the Dolphins can’t figure out. For New England, the league’s gold standard for more than a decade, it’s far more than just one thing.
Here’s a look at one element that got each team to this point and why the Dolphins covet what they have:
New England’s stability at the top
Imagine the difference in approach to roster building between Bill Belichick, who has been in charge of the Patriots since 2000 and knows he’ll have the job as long as he wants it, and everyone who’s been frantically trying to rebuild the Dolphins before they get fired. Fearlessness and long-term thinking have paid off tremendously for New England.
During Belichick’s run with the Patriots, Miami’s had six head coaches (not counting interim guys) and seven general managers. The new regimes are constantly trying to flush out the previous group’s personnel and hoping they can do it quickly enough to keep their jobs.
Dolphins coach Adam Gase is going into Year 3 of trying to get the roster the way he wants it following Joe Philbin’s failed stint as head coach. Owner Stephen Ross hopes he has the triumvirate of Gase, Mike Tannenbaum and Chris Grier in place for years to come, but there’s no guarantee of that, and it’ll be hard for him to remain patient if the team is bad again in 2018.
Jacksonville’s expensive (and awesome) defensive line
Here’s the right way to drop $40-ish million on a defensive line. The Jaguars were second in the NFL with 55 sacks, or one every 10.3 drop backs.
They paid out $44.1 million for this group, including a four-year, $60 million contract for Calais Campbell last offseason, and it’s been worth every penny. That line has made the entire defense better, and Jacksonville is arguably the toughest defense to pass against this season.
Miami wasn’t far behind in spending at $36.2 million, the fourth-most expensive d-line in the league, but managed just 30 sacks. The ageless Cameron Wake accounted for more than one-third of those. For the Dolphins to salvage this investment, which will likely be even pricier in 2018, they need a bounce-back season from Andre Branch and more sacks from first-round pick Charles Harris.
Philadelphia’s sturdiness at linebacker
Linebacker has been a trouble spot for the Dolphins for a long time. At one point they were convinced Dannell Ellerbe would be a game-changer. Philadelphia uses him as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option.
The Eagles are going to be pretty good regardless of who they stick in the middle when they have Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham on the outside. Kendricks is a 2012 second-round pick they developed, and they got Bradham on the cheap when he didn’t pan out in Buffalo.
Those two combined for 161 tackles and three sacks this year, ranked in the top 17 at their position according to Pro Football Focus and were a big reason the Eagles were so good against the run this year. They gave up the fewest rushing yards in the NFL, and if that’s attributable to them having leads most of the season, they also were No. 6 in fewest yards allowed per attempt at 3.8.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, were middle of the pack in both categories and go into next year still searching for answers at linebacker. They’ve got Kiko Alonso, but they need to figure out if he fits better inside or outside. They’re optimistic about Raekwon McMillan, but he’s never played an NFL game. And there are many more questions beyond those.
Minnesota’s deftness with quarterbacks
The Vikings drafted Teddy Bridgewater in the first round in 2014 and made him their starter, then lost him to injury and scrambled to keep things together by trading for Sam Bradford and signing Case Keenum. Bradford and Keenum have both posted passer ratings of 98 or higher over their time in Minnesota. That’s pretty good crisis management.
Compare that with what the Dolphins have done during the same amount of time. They lost Ryan Tannehill late in 2016 and turned to Matt Moore. They lost him again in training camp this season and pleaded with Jay Cutler to come out of retirement. Cutler and Moore are likely gone, and Miami goes into 2018 banking on Tannehill to snap back strongly from a knee injury. The current contingency is David Fales, a 27-year-old who has appeared in three games since being drafted in the sixth round in 2014.
Minnesota is 13th in yards passing, fourth in passer rating at 103.1 and has a 3.5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the last two seasons. During that same span, the Dolphins are 21st in total yards by air, rank 18th in passer rating at 86.1 and stand at 1.4:1 in touchdowns versus picks.
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