As any Miami Dolphins follower knows all too well, the offensive line is the toughest unit to shore up, or even to keep in basic working condition.
Very few teams are good at it for long. Injuries happen. High draft picks fail to develop. A desire to develop quality depth is quickly replaced by an urgent search for warm bodies on the waiver wire.
The Denver Broncos, for instance, are starting a guard named Evan Mathis in the upcoming Super Bowl. It’s a name you may remember, not only because the veteran is a two-time Pro Bowler but because Miami was one of several teams trying to figure out how to sign the guy last summer.
Turns out Mathis cost too much, especially for a Dolphins team in a severe salary cap pinch, so he signed a one-year deal with Denver worth up to $4 million with incentives. He wanted to go to a contender anyway, so it’s unclear whether Miami could have offered enough to bring him here or whether Mathis will be pursued again this offseason.
What is clear is this. The Dolphins already had Mathis on their roster, way back in 2008, and they let him go, either because the 304-pounder wasn’t carrying his weight or because Miami’s coaching staff couldn’t see a way to build him into a valuable piece of the ever-shifting offensive line puzzle.
Now, to be fair, a lot of things went right for the Dolphins that season, Tony Sparano’s first as head coach. Miami won the AFC East with an 11-5 record and actually made the playoffs, two things that haven’t happened since. It was a sensational one-season turnaround from the bomb crater of Cam Cameron’s brief reign. Also, the franchise made great progress in addressing its offensive line needs at the most vital position when left tackle Jake Long, a Pro Bowl instantly and often, was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.
For whatever reason, however, there was a disconnect with Mathis, and it wasn’t the first time. Carolina, the team Mathis is facing in the Feb. 7 Super Bowl, drafted him in the third round but eventually gave up on him after three seasons. When the Dolphins picked Mathis up as a training-camp cut in 2008, he never got a start and was gone after seven games.
The easiest conclusion is that Mathis is one of those later bloomers, that he really didn’t figure out the pro game until an extended run of starts at Philadelphia from 2011-14. He was in his 30’s then, having accumulated all kinds of experience and instruction, the kind he finally managed to put into full motion.
Looking back, though, at that whiff in Miami makes you realize how difficult it is to train linemen, and how tricky it is, in the first place, to identify the ones who are worth the trouble. Think of Billy Turner, drafted in the third round by the Dolphins in 2014 but inactive for his first 14 pro games.
It was more of the same last season until Dan Campbell became the interim head coach and decided to switch some things up in search of a more physical offensive attack. That’s when Turner became the starting right guard, and that’s where he stayed for the final 12 games of the season.
All I know about Mathis in 2008 is that the Dolphins never considered him worthy of a start and made what ultimately was a bad decision by cutting him at midseason. Here’s how it went. Miami signed the former All-SEC player from Alabama in a frantic September rush when Donald Thomas was lost for the season with a foot injury. Then, in November, the Dolphins let Mathis go, promoting guard Matt McChesney from the practice squad to take his place on the roster.
McChesney? He played in one game for the Dolphins, was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury and was cut in the offseason. He started four games in his NFL career and retired in 2010 after badly injuring an ankle. It seems he was stepping out of a golf cart when another cart raced by, clipping him in the process.
Found an old quote from Mathis that gives his view on why things didn’t work out for him in Carolina or Miami or Cincinnati before he finally made it work with the Eagles. It speaks to the extreme patience that is required in developing offensive linemen, and how that collides with the immediate need to keep quarterbacks healthy and running backs moving forward.
“When I was drafted,” Mathis told Pro Football Focus in 2009, “Carolina moved me to the only position I had never played, right guard. After not playing my rookie year, I started my second year at right guard, only to be moved to tackle the next year and not play a snap. They bounced me to third team center the next year only to cut me at the end of camp.
“I got picked up by Miami and practiced every spot with them and was splitting reps at right guard on Sundays. They cut me after week 12 and that’s how I ended up in Cincinnati. The Bengals had me practicing at every spot on the line every week for the rest of the season. After the season, I called Marvin Lewis and told him I wanted to play defensive end. He ultimately laughed at me and told me he thought I could compete for one of the inside spots.
“I conceded and vowed to do what it takes to get the job done. They had me working the inside three spots in mini-camp and OTA’s. When camp came around, I worked mostly left guard and was able to settle in and get comfortable. Personally, I believe that staying in one spot is much better for players than having to bounce around.”
Not much more to say about this, except that Mike Maser, the offensive line coach who worked with Mathis in 2008, was fired by the Dolphins after that season and didn’t work in the NFL again. Silly to put it all on one person, though. Sparano was an offensive line specialist throughout his early coaching career and Bill Parcells, the Dolphins’ chief executive at the time, kept a close eye on everything.