Offensive line room, the source of Dolphins’ strength during Shula years, needs fumigating

The Miami Dolphins’ offensive line meeting room used to be where you went to find the grownups.

Pro Football Hall of Famers like Larry Little and Jim Langer and Dwight Stephenson. Sturdy veterans like Norm Evans and Bob Kuechenberg and Jon Giesler.

And running the operation was the late John Sandusky, who spent 26 years coaching for Don Shula in Baltimore and Miami.

Former Dolphins assistant John Sandusky. (Palm Beach Post file photo)

Since Sandusky left the Dolphins in 1994, the team has had nine coaches in charge of the offensive line. One of them was cut loose in the Bullygate scandal of 2013 and another resigned in disgrace this week.

The whole lot of them have come and gone in Miami just like the head coaches, two of which, Tony Sparano and Joe Philbin, first built their reputations in the league as offensive line coaches and are coaching that position now.

The new guy, Dave DeGuglielmo, is really an old guy. He was Miami’s offensive line coach from 2009-11, losing seasons all.

It makes a difference who has that job.

For all the flash that Dan Marino showed, it was his blocking that made it possible. For nine straight years in the 1980’s, while Sandusky was coaching Miami’s offensive line, the Dolphins led the league in fewest sacks allowed.

For all the changes that came to the league during Shula’s time, spanning Miami’s Super Bowl years to the wide-open passing attacks of the later years, the offensive line was the foundation of every game plan.

Today, it seems that Adam Gase ought to bring in an exorcist to cleanse the offensive line room of whatever has gone wrong. Even with three first-round draft picks as starters, the unit can’t function. Leadership is a constant problem, too. Chris Foerster, the man caught in what I’ll call the Coachcaine scandal, is only the latest and most troublesome example.

Until this gets fixed, the Dolphins have no core strength. The offense will remain out of balance. The head coach will continue to fight for first downs when he’d rather be fighting for a division title.

Sandusky wasn’t fully appreciated around here. He was stable. He was reliable. Most of the time, he wasn’t noticed at all.

Everything the Miami offensive line needs to be, in other words, but for a long time now it has seemed like too much to ask.

[Even UM’s national title teams proved how tough it is to run the table]

[Mood swing for Adam Gase, who was part of NFL-record scoring at Denver]

[Is it possible that Derek Jeter has rarely even seen the Marlins play a game?]

 

Not expecting a major step back for Adam Gase, no matter what Las Vegas says

 

Not quite sure where I’m going with my Dolphins prediction right now. Training camp opens Thursday and it makes no sense to guess that there will be no injuries between now and September.

It does seem harsh, though, to predict a major step back in Adam Gase’s second year as coach. That’s what USA Today is doing with a 7-9 pick for Miami in 2017.

Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase smiles as he speaks during a news conference after an NFL organized team activities football practice, Thursday, May 25, 2017, at the Dolphins training facility in Davie, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Back in May, the Southpoint Casino in Las Vegas went the same way, naming 7.5 as the over-under for the Dolphins.

Of course, it could happen that way. Gase, among all people, can be counted upon to stress to his players that a 10-6 playoff season in 2016 is wiped clean. The Dolphins of 2017 are a different animal, with some new players but all the old challenges.

Looking back, though, I can only find seven times in franchise history where the Dolphins had a dropoff of three or more wins from one year to the next. That’s seven times in 51 seasons. (Can’t count 1982, the strike-shortened season when Miami dropped from 11 wins to seven but reached the Super Bowl anyway.)

Don Shula had three of those precipitous drop-offs, proving that not even the winningest coach in NFL history can win them all.

The others were 2004, the year Dave Wannstedt resigned. He was 10-6 the previous season but stumbled to a 1-8 start and bailed on what turned out to be a 4-12 finish.

Nick Saban had a three-game dropoff in 2006, the year he already had one foot out the door for Alabama.

Cam Cameron broke all Dolphin standards by going 1-15 in 2007, a dropoff of five wins from Saban’s low point.

Finally, Tony Sparano went from that magical 11-win debut season in 2008 to 7-9 the following year.

In the last four cases, Miami didn’t have a great quarterback, or, at times, even a serviceable one.

Gase, on the other hand, seems to have something going now with Ryan Tannehill, providing all the good signs on that rehab from last December’s ACL injury continue to be good.

Working against Miami is a schedule that ranks sixth-toughest in the NFL. The Dolphins’ 2017 opponents had a winning percentage of .547 last year.

It’s possible, however, to read too much into that.

Prior to the 2016 season, and using the same methods, Buffalo was judged to have the 10th-toughest schedule in the league. Miami was No. 11 and Carolina No. 12.

Two of those teams wound up with losing records. Miami, going against the grain, had its best season in eight years.

[’72 Dolphins put up entirely different numbers during a different time]

[Here are trap games that should worry Seminoles, UM and Gators]

[A travel itinerary to attend all the best college football games in our state]

So my inclination right now is to say 9-7 for Miami this year. Sure, it’s a small step back, but I can find just one example of a Dolphins coach improving the team’s win total by four games from one season to the next and then immediately stepping it up again.

That was Shula, who went from six wins to 10 to 11 between 1976-78.

It’s a tough ask.

 

As training camps open, do you know where your former Dolphins’ head coaches are?

 

From the where-are-they-now department, here’s a reminder of where all those recent Miami Dolphins head coaches will be for the opening of training camp.

Joe Philbin is the assistant head coach and offensive line coach for the Indianapolis Colts.

Dan Campbell is the assistant head coach and tight ends coach for the New Orleans Saints.

Head coach Todd Bowles before the game with the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park on December 18,2011.
Former Miami interim head coach Todd Bowles before the game with the Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park on December 18,2011.

Todd Bowles, of course, is head coach of the New York Jets, still trying to figure out what to do with Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Tony Sparano is the offensive line coach of the Minnesota Vikings.

The question is will any of these guys be in the playoffs this season while new Dolphins coach Adam Gase remain on the outside?

I’m guessing Sparano has the best chance, followed by Bowles, Philbin and Campbell.

They’re all good, hard-working pros but Stephen Ross correctly moved on in each case.

Don’t see Philbin as a future head coach, though. If the Colts greatly improve, it will be because of Andrew Luck and everyone will know it. Philbin already got too much credit for Green Bay’s offensive success with Aaron Rodgers.

Bowles has got a great temperament as a head coach and would have good for the Dolphins if they had chosen him instead of Philbin.

Sparano will probably pop up again one day as head coach of, say, the Titans or the Texans. These guys seem to cycle around, no matter their success level. Campbell wouldn’t surprise if he was head coach of the Cowboys some day.

Amazing that the list of former Dolphins coaches has grown this long, and we’re not even talking about Nick Saban and Cam Cameron, both of them back on campus.

For a quarter century Don Shula had an iron grip on this job, and it seemed he would never let go.

 

Adam Gase faces most brutal schedule as first-time NFL head coach

Of the four first-time NFL head coaches entering the league in 2016, I figure Miami’s Adam Gase has the most work ahead of him in order to establish his credentials and possibly compete for an immediate playoff spot.

Admittedly, this contradicts the official strength of schedule numbers, which are based on the 2015 records of opponents.

Dolphins new head coach Adam Gase is introduced at Dolphins training camp facility in Davie, FL on Jan. 9, 2016. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
Dolphins new head coach Adam Gase is introduced at Dolphins training camp facility in Davie, FL on Jan. 9, 2016. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Tampa Bay’s Dirk Koetter, for instance, must face a slate of opponents that combined to go 139-117 a year ago. That .543 winning percentage is tied for the fifth-toughest in the league for 2016.

Gase and the Dolphins are scheduled against a group that went .516 last season. That ranks as the 11th-toughest schedule.

Koetter has two advantages over Gase, however.

First, he doesn’t open the season with trips to Seattle and New England. The Bucs open at Atlanta and Arizona instead, a difficult draw but not as brutal as Miami’s, and that opinion isn’t changed by the strong possibility that Tom Brady won’t be available early to the Patriots.

Second, Koetter previously has been a head coach, three years at Boise State and six more at Arizona State. There are things about delegation and organization you can’t know until you’ve actually done the job, things that Gase will be picking up on the fly.

Two other first-time NFL head coaches got a break in scheduling, as if any NFL schedule can be considered a light load.

Doug Pederson of Philadelphia draws the 26th-toughest schedule in 2016. The Giants’ Ben McAdoo goes against a group that ties for 30th.

Gase, 38, is the youngest head coach in the league and has never run an entire program at any level but he doesn’t lack for confidence. In the end, he will probably fall into the middle of the pack when it comes to first-time NFL head coaches who made their debuts with the Dolphins.

Tony Sparano won the AFC East in 2008, leading Miami to an 11-5 record and a wild-card playoff spot. Tony had previous college head coaching experience at New Haven.

[Coming off 10-win season, Gators’ Jim McElwain still has some heavy lifting to do]

[If Dolphins’ stadium debut doesn’t go smoothly, it won’t be the first time]

[Buddy Ryan always loved a good feud, even if it was against Don Shula]

Nick Saban went 9-7 with the Dolphins in 2005 without a playoff appearance. His college head coaching experience was extensive and impressive both before and after that NFL experiment.

Joe Philbin and Cam Cameron had no head coaching experience when they took the Dolphins’ job. Joe went 7-9 in his first season and Cam went 1-15.

Each coach has a different set of circumstances and strength-of-schedule is only one of them.

It might help to know, though, that the three teams in Miami’s division face a slightly tougher list of opponents than the Dolphins do. The New York Jets’ task is tied for seventh-toughest, New England comes in at No. 9 and Buffalo is No. 10.

 

Rate the Adam Gase offseason buzz against other Dolphins coaching debuts

It’s pretty exciting having a new coach with the Miami Dolphins. Fresh ideas. Great expectations. And then there’s that undefeated 0-0 record.

Where, though, do you rate the buzz level on Adam Gase compared to other coaches who have come this way since the departure of Don Shula?

Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, right foreground, watches the players perform drills during practice at the team's NFL football training facility, Monday, June 6, 2016, in Davie, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
DAVIE – Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, right foreground, watches the players perform drills during practice at the team’s training facility on Monday. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

I’m talking about how many people you meet who are talking about the Dolphins with less than 100 days before the season opener, and how many times you have checked in to see what Gase is saying or doing at OTA’s, just in case he’s right about a lot of stuff and Miami is about to make some noise.

Here’s my list in order, from (A)South Florida is crazy-go-nuts over the Dolphins’ new direction to (Z) South Florida is stuck somewhere between ambivalent over what’s coming up and fast asleep in the midst of the offseason lull.

 

  1. Jimmy Johnson – 1996 – He had Super Bowl-winning credentials plus a high Miami profile as former coach of the national champion Hurricanes. Also there was the mystery of what the Dolphins would feel and look like without Shula leading them onto the field for the first time in 26 years.
  2. Nick Saban – 2005 – He was a championship coach at LSU, not to mention previous NFL experience as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. A proven winner who had been given full control of the Dolphins operation and was ready to make the move up from college ball.
  3. Adam Gase – 2016 – Hey, an aggressive head coach who calls his own plays rather than standing around with one hand on the red challenge flag and hoping his staff is on point with the game plan. If Ryan Tannehill ever is going to take off, this should be the year.
  4. Dave Wannstedt – 2000 – Raw deal being the one who had to tell Dan Marino his time was up, but on the other hand he was Jimmy’s hand-picked successor and a trusted partner during great years with the Hurricanes and the Cowboys. Handed a playoff team in Miami, he figured to do fine.
  5. Cam Cameron – 2007 – Sure, this seems completely out of whack now, but that summer Cameron was viewed as the offensive wizard behind San Diego’s high-scoring teams and one of the top coordinators available around the league. If you’re drawing comparisons to Gase, just stop.
  6. Tony Sparano – 2008 – Nobody knew a thing about this guy but Bill Parcells was newly in charge of the Dolphins and he wanted Sparano after working together in Dallas so that was good enough. Most of all, whoever served as head coach immediately after Cameron was going to shine.
  7. Joe Philbin – 2012 – This one was puzzling from the start, and Philbin certainly wasn’t helped by everybody knowing the Dolphins really wanted Jeff Fisher. Joe was helped by coming from Green Bay but hurt by the fact he was a coordinator who didn’t call plays. No outward intensity either.

[One last quick look at all those great Doral moments]

[There’s really no such thing as a simple summer for Dwyane Wade]

[A modest proposal for spicing up Dolphins OTA workouts]

Mix and match these names as you wish. The big thing is it’s good to get a fresh look at the Dolphins. Sooner or later, if only by accident, this franchise needs to start winning again.

Great stinkbombs in the home-opener history of Miami sports

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins (14) makes a reception on a long pass play defended by Miami Dolphins cornerback Brice McCain (24) at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida on September 27, 2015.  (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins (14) makes a reception on a long pass play defended by Miami Dolphins cornerback Brice McCain (24) at Sun Life Stadium on September 27, 2015. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Everyone was calling that lifeless 41-14 loss to Buffalo the worst home opener in Miami Dolphins history and it was easy enough to play along, since at the moment it felt like just about the worst anything anywhere.

Took a later look, though, to confirm. Not only is it true, but there’s nothing even close to this 27-point deficit.

Second on the lopsided list comes a 37-20 loss to Dallas in 2007, Cam Cameron’s one and only season as Miami coach. A big difference is that the Cowboys didn’t put that game away until the fourth quarter. Sunday’s slide, of course, was immediate, with the Bills up 27-0 at halftime.

Hey, wait a minute, tied for third-lousiest home opener is a 14-point loss to New England in 2011, Tony Sparano’s last season running the Dolphins. Just coincidence, right, when it comes to Joe Philbin?

There’s nothing more damaging than treating hopeful fans this way. It’s like inviting everybody over for a housewarming party and sending them all home with food poisoning. Makes you never want to come back again. Makes you feel like a boob for buying a season ticket for a season that’s already shot in September.

[Hey, somebody’s got to be No. 25 so the Gators will take it]

[The comeback of Chris Bosh is as much mental as physical]

[Home-run balls aren’t exactly landing in Mike Wallace’s mitts with Vikings either]

One game doesn’t have to mean everything, of course. In 1995 the Dolphins mauled the Jets 52-14 in the home opener, giving birth to Super Bowl dreams, but by year’s end Don Shula was out. Can’t get any more drastic than that when it comes to turnarounds.

Just saying.

Here are a few more stinkers in South Florida pro sports history. Sorry that so many of you were there to experience them in person.

The Miami Heat won their first NBA title in 2006 and planned a spectacular ring-presentation ceremony to open the following season. Trouble is, the Chicago Bulls were not in the mood to participate in the fun. Miami lost 108-66, got outrebounded by 20 and had just one player, Dwyane Wade, who scored in double figures.

If it had been an exhibition, both teams would have agreed to stop after three quarters, to avoid both injuries and further humiliation.

Naturally, a fan can shake something like that off in the wake of a championship run. What happened at the inaugural opening night at Marlins Park, on the other hand, was merely the first unforgivable sin in a 2012 season that featured manager Ozzie Guillen getting in trouble for saying he admired Fidel Castro and ended with 93 losses.

Here are the lowlights of the first regular-season game at Marlins Park, attended by a sellout crowd of 36,601. St. Louis went up 3-0 in a heartbeat. The Marlins didn’t have a baserunner until the fourth inning, when a hit batsman got erased in a double play. They didn’t have a hit until the seventh and they didn’t have a run until the eighth. Final, St. Louis 4-1, but it felt like 400-1.

Maybe the worst is over for the Dolphins, at least in terms of blowouts. To be fair, the Bills would only have won this game by 26 points if only Andrew Franks hadn’t missed an extra point.

Because of the quirk of the London trip, however, it’s going to be a while before Miami gets another chance to make it up to the home crowd directly. The next game at Sun Life Stadium is a month away, Oct. 25, against the Houston Texans.

Strange to think that this stuff used to be so automatic. The Dolphins won 13 home openers in a row between 1976 and 1988.

Back then the team was pretty shiny and the stadium drab, not the other way around.