What we learned from Dolphins’ dress rehearsal in Tampa


Bittersweet is probably the word that describes it best. There was plenty to feel good about in the Dolphins’ 13-17 loss at the hands of the Buccaneers on Saturday night.

Well, when I say plenty I’m mostly just referring to Chad Henne’s performance. But he’s a quarterback. A quarterback whose struggles prevented this team from threatening for a playoff spot a year ago. So, when Henne plays well there is a huge reason to be pleased.

But there was plenty of bad too. 76 yards worth of penalties bad. A grand total of 22 rushing yards in the entire game bad. The Tampa Bay running backs combining for 116 yards receiving bad.

Even with all the bad, though, the Dolphins were a Brandon Marshall fumble away from possibly taking a 13-3, maybe even a 17-3 lead into the half on a team that went 10-6 a year ago in the brutal NFC South.

And so the flip-flopping continues.

What should the fan base be feeling this Monday morning? Should they be thrilled that Chad Henne is seemingly coming around, or should the offensive line’s nightmare game have Dolphin fans lining up to hit the panic button? Let’s weigh the positives and negatives from a very indifferent night in Tampa.

POSITIVES

Chad Henne may be a different quarterback: It may be the preseason, but it’s looking more and more safe to assume that Chad Henne has finally turned the corner. I’m not saying he’s going to be an elite quarterback in this league, but he surely looks like a quality one. A quarterback that is suddenly capable of putting this team on his back and actually winning games on his own. That’s crucial because with the current state of the running game, he may have to.

But it’s not just the big-time yardage and gaudy quarterback rating that has me thinking I’m looking at a completely different player. There were two plays that stood out to me against the Bucs in particular.

The first being an all out blitz from Tampa Bay that led to a simple quick out to Anthony Fasano for a 9-yard gain. But it’s what Henne did before the play that excited me. He clearly recognizes the blitz and audibles at the line to a quick hitter to Fasano. That’s the type of play that shows me he’s finally taking command of this offense. Simple, yes, but still something we haven’t seen from Chad in the past.

The other play was about a 6-yard completion to Clyde Gates on third and three. Henne’s eyes are fixated to the right of the field from his drop back. Instead of forcing the pass into his first read, though, Henne looks left to find just enough room to fit a tight pass into Gates. Staring down receivers has been my major grip against Henne from day one. The sky is the limit if he’s going to begin to go through his progressions.

And all of that isn’t even mentioning the beautiful 60-yard touchdown strike to Brandon Marshall and another well-placed deep ball on a pass Clyde Gates should have probably reeled in. Henne has always had the arm strength; he’s just never had the deep ball accuracy or the touch to utilize it consistently.

In the past two games Henne has completed 25 of 37 passes and has thrown for 369 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. I don’t want to make Henne’s maturation official until he has similar success when it counts, but being optimistic isn’t jumping the gun after what we’ve seen in back-to-back weeks.

Run defense dominates: I may be grasping at straws here because outside of Henne there wasn’t much to be happy about. But we did see signs of what should be a top five, maybe even top three, run defense this season.

The Bucs were a top ten rushing offense a year ago and Miami held LeGarrette Blount to 10 yards on five carries and Earnest Graham to five yards on three carries. I think it’s safe to assume the Dolphins’ struggles containing the Falcons’ running game in Week 1 were a mirage.

Few teams will be able to run the football on this defense in 2011. Considering the Dolphins likely won’t be able to muster up much success on the ground either, games will likely be decided in the passing game.

Dolphins outplayed legitimate wild card contender: It was only a half in a meaningless preseason exhibition, but the Dolphins looked, I’ll emphasize looked, like the better team on Saturday. If Brandon Marshall doesn’t put that ball on the turf, the Dolphins go into the half up by at least seven, but quite possibly 10 or 14, on a team that won 10 games a year ago.

There is a lot of negativity surrounding this football team in South Beach. The media doesn’t believe in them either, which is evident by 3-13 and 4-12 predictions. But even if the offensive line shot themselves in the foot repeatedly and Brian Daboll might as well adopt the run and shoot offense and pass every play as the running game currently has no pulse, the Dolphins didn’t look like a bottom feeder team.

Assuming the Bucs haven’t taken a huge step back, the Dolphins belong on the same field with them. Now, it’s concerning that the Dolphins can outplay a team for the duration of the half and still go into the locker room with a tied score. Frankly, that has been the story of Tony Sparano’s tenure thus far.

NEGATIVES

Offensive line is a mess: The penalties, the zero holes or push for Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas, the protection issues; where exactly do I start? Last week’s success on the ground against the Panthers was clearly a fluke as the Dolphins put on one of the most inept rushing performances I have seen in some time. 22 yards! 22 rushing yards in the entire game! That’s blisteringly inept.

Reggie Bush carried the ball five times for -1 yards. Daniel Thomas managed 16 yards, but with only a shade over two yards-per-carry. Actually, I think both Bush and Thomas ran hard. They just had nothing to work with.

Many fans want to throw Daniel Thomas under the bus in particular. Has he been impressive? No, but neither would Ricky Williams or Ronnie Brown with the current state of this offensive line. And I’m by no means a Daniel Thomas lover. Didn’t like the pick at the time and certainly don’t like it now. I thought it was a reach and there were several other backs I would have preferred. But what’s done is done and I’m not going to jump to the conclusion that the kid is a bust when he’s trying to run through a brick wall every play.

Even though he underwhelmed on Saturday, Mike Pouncey is likely going to be a very good center for years to come. But the guard play on both sides of him is concerning to say the least. Richie Incognito has his ups and downs but Vernon Carey just doesn’t look like an NFL guard, a starting NFL guard at that.

The tackle play was also horrendous. Marc Colombo is probably the worst starting right tackle in football as far as I’m concerned, and if the Dolphins don’t replace him soon, Henne may not last the entire season. Lydon Murtha was a little better, and truth be told, I would rather see him start on the right side when Jake Long returns to the lineup. But Chad Henne would still be a far cry from safe and secure in the pocket with Murtha protecting his front side.

We’ll have to see what the Dolphins decide to do. There are some names out there on the market and some names that could become available soon that may be able to step in and help out. But part of me can’t even believe we are having this conversation. The Dolphins had one of the best lines in football in 2009. I still don’t know why they blew it up. And with Tony Sparano being an offensive line guru and all, it’s inexcusable to see the units struggles these past two years.

First-team defense looks somewhat slow in space: This isn’t a major grip, as the first-team defense was on its way to holding Tampa’s starters to only three points before Marshall’s fumble gave them great field position to work with right before the half.

But on all of the yardage Tampa Bay running backs accumulated as receivers, and throw in Josh Freeman getting outside the pocket, the Dolphins’ starting defense looked a little slow in space. The Kevin Burnett addition helps some, but you just don’t see Dolphins flying to the football like truly elite defenses do.

That’s why the Dolphins should start Chris Clemons at free safety in my opinion. I know he won’t make as many plays as Reshad Jones and playmaking ability is a major concern too, but he’s faster. I think Clemons is going to prevent some of those big plays, like the 52-yard Blount reception. And until Reshad Jones actually starts making plays, I think his playmaking ability is getting overrated to some degree. He had one fine game against the Titans last year. That doesn’t mean he’s a ball hawk by any stretch of the imagination. 

Quantcast