THE HIRING of Joe Philbin as coach in January didn't move the needle much in South Florida, which has been notably blasé about its NFL franchise for the past few years. Fans had Jeff Fisher as their first choice, and when he chose St. Louis over the Dolphins, the locals thought, So this is how low we've sunk?
In a police lineup the tall, balding, quiet Philbin would pass more easily for a dentist than a football coach, and inspirational words don't flow from him.
In this division of veteran coaches, the newbie inherits what is clearly a fourth-place team, particularly after his decision to start rookie Ryan Tannehill at quarterback.
But Philbin has been honest—sometimes blunt—and has done things his own way, as one might expect from a guy who's been sitting in the assistant's chair for 28 years, counting college and pro football, jotting down ideas for how he'd do things when he finally got to run a program. He hired a staff filled with NFL neophytes, a couple with ties tracing back to his prep school days in Worcester, Mass., because he knows that he can trust them. And he agreed to allow the Dolphins to be featured on the HBO reality show Hard Knocks, against the advice of some peers, because he wanted his anonymous players to know that they're in the big leagues—and because he hoped that it would shine a white-hot light on some of them.
In training camp Philbin did something that veterans hadn't seen before: To shorten time spent under the searing Florida sun, he ran two separate 11-on-11 practices simultaneously, allowing 44 players to work consistently instead of the normal 22, with 68 others standing around watching. Then he picked Tannehill over the experienced Matt Moore, openly admitting that he wasn't sure whether playing a rookie this early was the right call.
Philbin's honesty may be ruffling some feathers in the locker room, but he's been straight shooting since he got the job. He rebuked Chad Johnson for a profanity-laced press conference early on in camp. Later, when the team cut Johnson following a domestic-violence incident, Philbin knew that the confrontation had to appear on HBO. He didn't beat around the bush. He fired Johnson directly but with a little compassion.
Philbin wasn't happy with the conditioning or play of right guard John Jerry. Typically, coaches tiptoe through these criticisms instead of poking holes in players publicly. But Philbin, talking about Jerry, asked, "What can the staff rely on him for? We need to know what we're going to get on a weekly basis, and right now I'm not sure we're exactly sure."
The problem with taking on a new team, Philbin is finding out, is that you inherit problems you didn't create. And on a 6--10 team, there are plenty of those. Foremost is the empty quarterback cupboard. Having mentored Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, where he was the Packers' offensive coordinator, Philbin knows that Miami is going nowhere without strong play at the position. Early in camp he admitted that he didn't have the magic answer about when Tannehill should play. "No coach has the perfect timetable for quarterback development," he said. "It's not a science. Aaron Rodgers was 21 when he came into the NFL. Ryan just turned 24. The bottom line is, we've got to watch practice, see how he learns and just trust our eyes."
Miami is also plagued with one of the worst groups of wide receivers in the league—especially after Johnson's departure. And the line allowed 52 sacks last year, third worst in the NFL. Only the right side has changed: enter rookie tackle Jonathan Martin and former Browns guard Artis Hicks. Reggie Bush, settling into a full-time role, was one of the few bright spots in 2011: His 5.0 yards per carry was the best in the NFL for any player with 200 or more attempts. But this offense will sink or swim with a rookie quarterback.
Meanwhile, the defense, changing from a 3--4 to 4--3, will ask sack man Cameron Wake, who was an All-Pro in 2010, to play end, where he'll have fewer unimpeded runs at the quarterback.
It's a year of uncertainty, and fans are tired of hearing that Miami is rebuilding—again. Accomplished the right way, six or seven wins with a young quarterback would be a good year in Miami for Philbin, the right guy with, so far, the right approach.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 22
," he says, "is to go against the best." That's not new, but it's more important now because, as an end, particularly on running downs, Wake will have to fight off blocks on the snap.
Following an 8½-sack season last year, Wake is hoping that closer proximity to the passer in the 4--3 will get him more quarterback drops. Last year, according to the website Pro Football Focus, he got to the passer plenty—81 combined pressures (sacks, hits or hurries) in 519 pass rushes. This year, he wants to challenge for the sack title.
Percentage of pass plays over the last three years on which left tackle Jake Long has allowed QB pressure, second lowest among players with a minimum 1,500 snaps.
Average yards allowed in coverage by Kevin Burnett, second worst among inside linebackers, behind only Green Bay's Desmond Bishop (1.38).
Percentage of defensive pressures on last year's starting quarterback, Matt Moore, that resulted in sacks, a league high. Moore was sacked 36 times.
STEVE MITCHELL/US PRESSWIRE (BUSH)
Bush thrived in 2011, rushing for a career-high 1,086 yards, which makes him a rare helpful holdover.
RICHARD C. LEWIS/ICON SMI (WAKE)