The Miami Dolphins entered the 2013 season having clinched only one playoff berth in the past 11 seasons, but expectations were high after a noisy offseason.
Though the Dolphins began the year after having reeled off four straight losing seasons, the longest such streak since the franchise's first four years after inception, the 2013 season promised better fortune for the 'Phins. The team revamped both players and personnel during the 2012 season and did not shy away from making moves during the summer of 2013.
Miami brought in a slew of new players including wide receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson, tight end Dustin Keller, right tackle Tyson Clabo, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler, and cornerback Brent Grimes.
The team even ushered in a new logo this season.
The offseason, of course, didn't lack its share of departures either: running back Reggie Bush, wide receiver Davone Bess, linebacker Karlos Dansby, and offensive tackle Jake Long all parted ways with the organization.
Both head coach Joe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill had a season under their proverbial NFL belts, and the team was primed for a playoff push. But, in typical Dolphins fashion, they finished the year a disappointing 8-8 and only third in the AFC East.
The team now finds itself with a newly-filled general manager's seat - and therefore an uncertain off-season - but before we look too far ahead, it's time to look back to the 2013 Miami Dolphins season.
The brightest situation on the offensive side of the ball is Miami's emerging tight end, Charles Clay. Clay hauled in 69 passes on 102 targets this season - both numbers were seventh-highest for all tight ends in the league. His Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) was 66.54, also seventh-best. (For more information on numberFire's NEP and other metrics, click here.)
Although Clay was targeted heavily, he wasn't as efficient as the elite tight ends quite yet. Only 29 tight ends around the league were targeted at least 50 times on the season, and among this group, Clay's Reception NEP per target, 0.65, was not seventh but rather 14th. The theme of underwhelming efficiency is a common one for the Dolphins pass-catchers, but we'll get to that soon.
Even though Clay's per-target statistics were near the middle of the league, his usage approached the level of elite tight end production. This indicates that Clay was not as effective as some tight ends, but that he was used more frequently than most other starting tight ends.
Clay has only one season left on his contract and will be paid a modest $645,000, a salary low enough to give the Dolphins some wiggle room while potentially rostering a stud pass-catching tight end. How new general manager Dennis Hickey handles the building process around Clay will be interesting to see; Clay, though, appears to give the Dolphins a key piece in the new-look NFL: a dynamic tight end threat.
With not much else on the offensive side of the ball as a glaring positive, it's time to look at the Dolphin defense.
Miami's pass defense was stellar due in large part to the team's 18 interceptions and the addition of Pro Bowler Brent Grimes. Also contributing to the pass defense as a whole was Miami's pass rush. Led by Olivier Vernon's team-leading 11.5 sacks and Pro Bowler Cameron Wake's 8.5 sacks, the team was tied for 11th in the NFL with 42.0 sacks.
Additionally, the 'Phins boasted a top-10 defense in terms of Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP, a metric that factors in quality of the opponent's passing ability. Their 9.28 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP was 10th best in the league.
The Dolphins were also effective at stopping their opponents from big special teams plays, primarily because of Pro Bowl punter Brandon Fields. Their Defensive Special Teams NEP of 15.64 ranked second in the league behind only the Kansas City Chiefs. Miami allowed no kick or punt return touchdowns even while forcing only 13 opponent fair catches, tied for 28th in the NFL.
Ryan Tannehill's rookie season in 2012 was pedestrian at best, and his rocky preseason start riled up the talking heads and those who were slapping the "bust" tag on Miami's potential franchise quarterback. Though Tannehill is listed in my "bad" section, there are many caveats involved in that placement.
The former Texas A&M Aggie threw for 24 touchdowns (doubling his mark of 12 last season) and 17 interceptions (four more than last season) while improving his Passing NEP from -22.63 to -2.44 this season. Of the 36 quarterbacks who recorded at least 250 dropbacks this season, Tannehill's Passing NEP was only 23rd best. His Success Rate, 44.82%, was 21st in the league of the same subset of qualifying quarterbacks.
There is noticeable improvement, but it isn't enough yet to place Tannehill in the "good" section given the team's playoff expectations. Eight of the top 10 quarterbacks by Passing NEP this season reached the playoffs, and no playoff team had a starting quarterback rank worse than 17th in Passing NEP (Alex Smith, whose Passing NEP was 28.70). Tannehill's productivity is not yet on par with playoff-level quarterbacks, but he is certainly trending toward top-17 play at least.
Before assuming Tannehill will make the jump next season, though, it must be noted that he was sacked 58 times, the worst mark in the league.
In order for Tannehill's productivity to increase, he will need to become more efficient with his receiving corps.
Wallace came to Miami to be the star but ended up producing numbers comparable to the receiver opposite him, Brian Hartline. The speedy Wallace tallied a Reception NEP of 67.23 and an NEP per target of 0.48. Hartline had a Reception NEP of 81.97 and an NEP per target of 0.61. Hartline was targeted only seven fewer times than was Wallace on the year with 134 targets to Wallace's 141.
Of the 90 wide receivers who were targeted at least 50 times this season, Hartline's NEP ranks 23rd, and Wallace's ranks 37th. However, their per target statistics are even less promising. Compared to the same 90 eligible receivers, Hartline's Reception NEP per target places him 56th, and Wallace's puts him at 76th.
Though the two top receivers had above average efficiency numbers, the tandem was targeted too heavily and relied upon too much to rank where they did, meaning the Dolphins had an inefficient passing season between Tannehill and his two main threats. However, the Wallace-Hartline-Clay trio gave Miami its first season of having three players with at least 65 catches in franchise history.
Lacking an obvious primary option affected not only Miami's wide outs but its backfield as well.
Miami rushed for only eight scores and 1,440 yards. The league saw 13 running backs score at least eight rushing touchdowns, and Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy accounted for more rushing yards than did the entire Dolphins roster.
Second-year speedster Lamar Miller ended the season with an abysmal -17.55 Rushing NEP, 39th out of 47 backs who accounted for at least 100 rushes this season. Surprisingly (and to the chagrin of myriad fantasy football owners), Daniel Thomas outperformed Miller by posting a -2.93 Rushing NEP, 20th best of the same subset.
Only two of the 12 playoff teams lacked a running back who ranked in the top 20 in Rush NEP: the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers. Thomas, right on the fringe of that mark, could possibly be capable of taking a team to the playoffs, but the backfield situation is still muddied with Miller's presence. Miller received double-digit carries in 11 games this season; Thomas only reached that plateau four times.
The Dolphins had even more problems stopping the run as they did running the ball themselves.
The run defense was downright bad this season. The team allowed 1,998 yards on the ground, 24th in the league, and their Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP (Adj. D RNEP) was even worse, 30.88, placing them 29th in the league. Opponents averaged 30.2 rushing attempts against the Dolphins this year, which was the second-highest average in the league. Miami ranked ninth in rushing yards allowed per game (124.9).
Entering the final two weeks of the season at an extraordinarily promising 8-6, the Dolphins were outrushed by 251 yards in their final two games while being outscored 39-7. The inability both to run and to stop the run crippled the Dolphins during the final stretch of the season.
What Should They Do?
Miami, as is the usual case with 8-8 teams, have some very strong players masked by some glaring weaknesses.
The team needs to commit fully to Tannehill for this season and allow him the offseason to work with his trio of receiving threats in order to create a more efficient passing attack and fewer wasted opportunities.
Also on the offensive side of the ball, deciding how Miller and Thomas will split carries is necessary. Few running back situations around the league caused more problems than the indecision lining up in Miami's backfield each week. Although Miami seems intent on making Miller the centerpiece, Thomas was more efficient and provides a more substantial dual-threat than does Miller.
Reducing sacks against is a must. Miami needs to bolster the offensive line around Pro Bowler Mike Pouncey and distance itself from the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin drama which shrouded the team all season. With a solidified offensive line, the running back (whomever it may be) and Tannehill would greatly benefit and be able to make the leap to the next level. Thomas and Tannehill are already on the threshold of producing like playoff-caliber starters, and the team has a capable pass-catching corps, so investing in the offensive line needs to become the focus of the franchise this off-season.
The other line needs some revamping as well: defensive tackles Paul Soliai and Chris Clemons are also free agents. Hickey needs to re-sign both in order for Miami to extend its effective pass defense into next season.
The biggest obstacle in Miami's path, though, might be Hickey. Miami is a team that needs tweaks in some areas and not an overhaul. So long as Hickey keeps the core of the team together and drafts well while avoiding revamping the team to his liking, Miami is a strong contender for a wild card birth in 2014.