The formula that conspired to turn the Dolphins from a 10-win playoff team to a 6-10 also-ran can be boiled down to two glaring problems: 1) the inability to get the starting backfield on the field and 2) the inability to get (and keep) their hands on the football.
Those are the cold facts that jump off the page in an analysis of coach Adam Gase’s first two Dolphins teams.
Believe it or not, even with Jay Cutler subbing for the injured Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins could have success throwing — just not nearly as efficiently as required in this league.
Believe it or not, the defense did improve under new coordinator Matt Burke — just not enough to offset glaring slippages in certain areas, most notably in takeaways.
Mix those elements with a running attack that took a nosedive without last year’s MVP, Jay Ajayi, and it goes a long way toward explaining why the Dolphins are watching these playoffs on TV.
Breaking it down:
• The passing game: The Dolphins threw the ball about as far under Cutler as they did under Tannehill in 2016 (3,700 yards). So what’s the problem? Touchdown passes and completion percentage were down. Interceptions were up. Put them together and you have an awful passing efficiency rating of 78.7 for the team as opposed to 95.5 last year.
• The running game: Ajayi’s negative runs drove Gase nuts to the point that he shipped Ajayi to the Eagles. Result: A running attack that ranked ninth last year plunged to 29th, which happens when you forfeit 27 yards per game on the ground.
• The defense: Remember what we said about bottom falling out on the team passer rating? The exact opposite happened for opposing quarterbacks. Last year, their rating against Miami was 80.5. This year: 94.8, meaning what they gained was equal to what Miami’s quarterbacks let slip away.
• Turnovers matter — a lot: Some strange things happened with Burke’s defense. It jumped from 29th in total defense to 16th. It gave up 30 fewer rushing yards per game after getting gashed by runners last year. It allowed 17 fewer passing yards per game.
Only problem: points. The Dolphins went from 18th as a scoring defense to 29th. You’d have to try for all these elements to be true, right? Not if your team goes from a plus-two in giveaway-takeaway differential to a minus-14.
The defense recovered just six fumbles. It made just nine interceptions, compared to 21 picks thrown by Miami. That lack of interceptions by the defense — seven fewer than last year — was the greatest factor in opponents’ passer rating skyrocketing in 2017.
Add that up and you have a defense put in bad situations by the offense, and one that was clueless on how to get out of those bad situations.
• Penalties are killing the Dolphins: Since Adam Gase took over, the Dolphins have been penalized 262 times for 2,295 yards. If that sounds like a lot, consider that they committed more penalties in each of Gase’s two seasons than the Dolphins’ championship teams of 1972 and ’73 had combined.
• The red zone: The Dolphins have become predictable once they cross the opponents’ 20. They ran only 27 out of 101 plays in the red zone, compared to 55 rushes year. As a result, rushing TDs dropped from 14 to four.
• Slow starts: It sounds like an age-old problem because it is, but the Dolphins have to figure out a way to not play catch-up. Over the past two seasons, they have outscored opponents by 45 points in the second half and overtime. A lot of good that does when they’ve been outscored by 174 points in the first half.