Five weeks into the 2016 season, it looked like the change to Adam Gase at head coach wouldn’t do anything to change the franchise’s fortunes.
They were 1-4 and a competent kicking performance from the Browns in Week Three would have had the Dolphins looking up at the rest of the league with an 0-5 record. The offense was floundering, the defense wasn’t stout enough and there was little joy in South Florida.
The next 11 weeks went a lot better. Jay Ajayi, who was left at home in Week One in a coach’s decision, ran for 204 yards and the defense stifled the Steelers in a 30-15 win that touched off a 9-1 run that lifted the Dolphins into the postseason for the first time since 2008. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s knee injury helped ensure the Dolphins’ stay in the playoffs was a short one, but the final result of the year was unquestionably positive.
Tannehill is healthy again, the other key offensive pieces remain in place and there’s reason to believe the defense will be better, all of which adds up to optimism about the direction the Dolphins are headed.
Biggest positive change: The Dolphins were outscored by 17 points overall last season, which didn’t stop coordinator Vance Joseph from landing a head coaching job but made it little surprise that defense was a primary focus this offseason.
They used five of their seven picks on defenders and picked up linebacker Lawrence Timmons, defensive end William Hayes, safety Nate Allen and safety T.J. McDonald as veteran additions. They also get safety Reshad Jones back after last year’s season-ending rotator cuff injury, so there’s reason to hope the results will be better under new coordinator Matt Burke.
Biggest negative change: There’s no one transaction or development to point to as the Dolphins held onto Jones and wide receiver Kenny Stills while left tackle Branden Albert was traded to make room for Laremy Tunsil. That leaves us with the biggest potential negative change and it could be the turn of the calendar.
The Dolphins went 8-2 in one-score games last season and the wins that followed the Week Six win over the Steelers came against many of the weaker teams that the league had to offer in 2016. Teams like the Raiders, Falcons and Chiefs are on this year’s schedule after the Rams and 49ers appeared on last year’s slate, which may set the stage for a regression even if the execution isn’t markedly different.
Coaching thermometer: As cool as a seat can get in the Miami summer. Not only did Gase take the team from 6-10 to 10-6 and into the playoffs, he also saw several moves pay off in a major way. Benching Ajayi at the start of the season looked smart while he was running for 1,272 yards in the next 15 games and his strong show of faith in Tannehill was rewarded with the quarterback’s best season.
Even missteps like shuffling Cameron Wake to a situational role wound up with a positive as Gase was able to admit he was wrong and change directions. That flexibility is important and one of many signs that the Dolphins found the right guy in Gase.
We’d like to crack a beer with … Jarvis Landry. Landry made the boldest statement of the Dolphins offseason when he said they’ll beat the Patriots twice in 2017. We’d like to follow up on that and hear about his desire for a new contract after catching 288 passes in his first three seasons.
How they can prove us wrong: Landry is probably going to have to be right about the results of those games with the Patriots for this ranking to be ridiculously low come the end of the year.
It could look too high if Center Mike Pouncey’s ongoing hip issues lead to more missed time and more shuffling on an offensive line that hasn’t been good enough, Ajayi can’t find the heights of his three games of more than 200 rushing yards and the defensive changes don’t lead to better results with cornerback looming as a potential trouble spot again this year.