The Miami Dolphins have undergone serious turnover this offseason. They hired a new head coach, Adam Gase, let running back Lamar Miller walk and made a notable addition to the offensive line by taking Laremy Tunsil with the 13th overall pick in the NFL draft.
One thing that remains the same is the starting quarterback. Ryan Tannehill is back for his fifth season and enters the 2016 campaign with one prevailing question: Will he reach his lofty potential?
The hope in South Beach is Gase will be the man to get the Dolphins offense working in a way former coach Joe Philbin couldn’t. Gase put himself on the map in 2013 when he became the architect of the league’s most explosive offense in Denver. The Broncos averaged more than 30 points per game during the 2013-14 seasons under Gase’s watch, but many believed Denver’s high-powered offense actually was coached by the sheriff, Peyton Manning, rather than Gase.
Gase’s talent was even more evident when he took over last season as offensive coordinator in Chicago, where he got the most out of a struggling Bears offense led by quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler’s 11 interceptions were the fewest in his career for a full season. Cutler also achieved his second-highest completion percentage in a season despite a dearth of talent around him, and managed to throw for 3,659 yards.
Despite the fact the Bears offense averaged only 20.9 points per game, Gase entered the offseason as the top coaching candidate on the market and was quickly tabbed by the Dolphins.
Now, it’s time for Gase to work his magic with Tannehill. Here are five things the first-year head coach must do to help his quarterback succeed right away.
1. Establish the run
One thing Tannehill has seldom had during his four-year career is a strong running game behind him. The Dolphins have finished in the top half of the league in rushing yards per game only once in Tannehill’s tenure.
The problem is, Miami doesn’t have a bonafide option at tailback entering the preseason. The Dolphins said goodbye to Miller after four frustrating seasons, and it’s uncertain whether the inconsistencies stemmed from bad play calling or Miller’s talent.
Second-year back Jay Ajayi was expected to take the lead and get the first crack at the starting job. That all changed earlier in the summer when the Dolphins signed former Houston Texans star running back Arian Foster, who is coming off of a torn Achilles tendon, sustained last October. The 29-year-old Foster hasn’t played a full season since 2012, which makes Ajayi’s development all the more crucial.
Behind those two are pass-catching specialist Damien Williams and third-round pick Kenyan Drake. Both should make the 53-man roster, but Drake could get more touches than Williams due to his pass-catching abilities.
No matter who takes the handoffs, giving Tannehill a reputable ground game would provide much-needed balance.
2. Create havoc with Jarvis Landry
The Dolphins don’t have many weapons at wide receiver, similar to the Bears’ depleted wide receiver corps last season. Gase will have to make due with what he’s got, and he’s sure to feature the dynamic Jarvis Landry.
Landry was a monster last season with 110 receptions for 1,157 yards and four touchdowns. He operates best on short and intermediate throws, which fits well with Gase’s style of offense.
One of Gase’s primary strengths as a coordinator was devising wrinkles out of the screen game. This film breakdown explains that in more detail. In short, Gase was able to pinpoint mismatches and create different variations out of tunnel and bubble screens. Defenses will have to respect Landry’s agility in the open field, which means he could draw more than one defender. That will free up another option further downfield. Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen is sure to rely heavily on the screen game this season.
Schematic diversity will only help Tannehill, as he can identify mismatches and exploit alignment flaws at the line of scrimmage.
3. Find a vertical threat
The Dolphins have underneath routes covered between Landry and slot receiver Kenny Stills. The problem will be moving the offense vertically. Nobody really stepped up in that regard last season.
Rishard Matthews performed the best in this category, averaging 15.4 yards per reception, but he has since departed for the Tennessee Titans. The expectation is former first-round pick DeVante Parker can take a step forward in his second season.
Parker’s rookie performance wasn’t exactly inspiring, but he was explosive. He caught 26 passes for 494 yards, an average of nearly 20 yards per reception. Parker can provide that vertical dimension. He just has to show it on a more consistent basis.
4. Protect the prize
Keeping Tannehill upright more often would certainly help the offense. The Dolphins offensive line was porous last season, allowing 45 sacks.
Miami got a gift from the draft gods when Tunsil fell into their laps at No. 13. A standout tackle at the University of Mississippi, Tunsil will play left guard as a rookie alongside left tackle Branden Albert. Miami’s left side should be solid if Albert can stay healthy and Tunsil can adapt to a new position.
The right side of the line remains questionable. Right guard Billy Turner was rated as the 69th offensive guard in the league last season by Pro Football Focus. Right tackle Ja’Wuan James was a respectable pass protector, but received a 35.8 run grade from Pro Football Focus.
Miami’s offensive line should be better, which means a protected quarterback is typically a more effective quarterback.
5. Continue to give Tannehill more responsibility
This is something Gase has already implemented. Tannehill can audible! That might sound sarcastic, but Tannehill wasn’t given that power with the past regime. Philbin and former offensive coordinator Bill Lazor treated Tannehill like a teenager who had his driver’s license for months, but could never take the family car anywhere. Just give him the keys and let him go.
Part of this has to do with what was mentioned in point No. 2. Much of Gase’s offensive scheme involves identifying mismatches. That includes getting out of a play when a mismatch is presented against the offense.
Tannehill is an established starter, and probably should have been trusted more by the previous regime. It doesn’t look good for anyone involved when a play gets blown up. It looks even worse when the quarterback could have made an adjustment, but wasn’t allowed to do so. Tannehill will have more autonomy of the offense, which will only make things better if the correct reads and adjustments are made.