Having the formula for a complicated math equation doesn’t guarantee you’ll produce the right answer, but at least it’s a strong starting point.
That’s exactly what the Miami Dolphins’ decisions-makers believe they provided the team this offseason when it was decided to run it back one more time with last year’s defense, minus Brian Flores, the defensive-minded head coach who was fired at season’s end.
By re-signing all but two defensive players — defensive backs Jason McCourty and Justin Coleman — the Dolphins hope that the unit new head coach Mike McDaniel doesn’t specialize in will remain the strength of the team.
Same coordinator, same players, similar philosophy, paired with more experience should equate to a reliable, if not stingy defense, right?
At least that’s what the Dolphins offense faced during organized team activities and the minicamp.
When asked where the offense was with the final week of the offseason program concluding, McDaniel tap danced a little to explain why the offense has been pushed around for most of the practices the media has attended.
“There are compounding variables that you try to weigh. How good is the existing defense? Is everyone starting from the same starting point? Are they taking calculus courses while we’re learning Algebra?” McDaniel said, reflecting on his 15 seasons as an NFL offensive assistant.
“This is an extreme case relative to the other stops in my career because the defense was very, very productive and returning a lot of talented players,” McDaniel said, referring to Miami’s unit, which finished 15th in yards allowed per game (337.5), 16th in points allowed per game (21.9), and tied for eighth in turnovers forced (26) last season.
“We also had an inordinate amount of additions [offensively], so it was a bunch of people learning to play together.”
Unlike the defense, which has spent the offseason fine-tuning schemes, concepts and personnel since it benefits from the re-signing of defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, cornerback Nik Needham, and Elandon Roberts, Brennan Scarlett and Duke Riley, who all started games last year.
And it was important that Miami retained Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard by signing him to a lucrative extension, got cornerback Byron Jones to restructure his deal, and didn’t shakedown safety Eric Rowe by forcing him to take a pay cut or be released.
“We got all the keys back,” said Ogbah, whose four-year, $65 million deal was the linchpin transaction that allowed the defensive continuity. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. … We know what each other struggles with and what everyone is capable of.”
And the goal is to build off that, tightening the screws on the zero-blitz defense scheme, and the hybrid packages that allows Miami to provide opposing offenses multiple looks.
While I don’t agree with all of the decisions made, and felt upgrades at linebacker were needed (rookie Channing Tindall and veteran pass rusher Melvin Ingram were added), I understand the reasoning for Miami’s continuity push.
The hope is that the carryover from last season, and the season before that, when the Dolphins possessed the sixth-best defense in the NFL, will take the unit to the next level in 2022.
“I always had different coaches, different linebacker coaches, different coordinators, going back all of the way to college,” said linebacker Jerome Baker, who has led Miami in tackles for three straight seasons. “For me, [continuity is] a good thing. It’s a chance to — you know what you expect.”
It doesn’t hurt that youngsters like Christian Wilkins, Jaelan Phillips, Andrew Van Ginkel, Jevon Holland and Brandon Jones should all improve as players if they stay healthy, and take that next step as professionals.
Wilkins and Phillips were consistently in the Dolphins backfield and two of the offseason program’s top performers.
How much of that is their individual progression and development versus the fact that the offensive line, which hasn’t benefited from the presence of left tackle Terron Armstead, remains an unknown.
We won’t know that until pads come on, and the physicality of practice ratchets up. But so far the Dolphins defense has been consistently good — if not dominant — and that’s without Ogbah, Howard and Byron Jones, three of the unit’s top players, participating in practice.
“We know the goals,” said nose tackle Raekwon Davis, who wore the orange jersey on Tuesday, which indicates that he was practice’s top performer on Monday. “We know what we’ve got to do.”
And that’s carry the Dolphins franchise like the defense has done for the past two decades.