In 2008, the upstart Miami Dolphins finished 11-5 and managed an AFC East division title behind rookie head coach Tony Sparano, veteran quarterback Chad Pennington, an opportunistic defense and, perhaps most relevantly, the implementation of the Wildcat offense. Behind the run-oriented offensive attack and the dependable rushing duo of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, Miami finished No. 11 in the league in rushing, averaging 118.6 yards per game on the ground.
Miami, however, struggled just as mightily as other non-playoff teams - our Bills, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Seattle Seahawks included - in rushing efficiency. Like the Bills, Jaguars and Seahawks, the Dolphins averaged just 4.2 yards per rush, good for a middle-of-the-pack finish in league standings. In a division that features solid DT play from Vince Wilfork, Kris Jenkins and Marcus Stroud, Miami's decision-makers (pictured above) decided that its rushing issues were a result of a deficiency on the interior of its offensive line.
Center Samson Satele was shipped to Oakland. The Dolphins began researching big center options that could handle the division's excellent defensive tackles. Yet the only addition of significance was former Raiders center Jake Grove, who signed a five-year, $29.5 million deal with $14.5 million guaranteed. Is that enough change to fortify what is easily Miami's biggest weakness offensively? Matty I of The Phinsider is our go-to guy...
There were times in 2008 when the Dolphins struggled to move the football - and Dolphins brass decided that the interior offensive line was the issue. Satele was traded. Grove (and Joe Berger) were signed. Donald Thomas was returning from injury, but now he's back on the shelf. Have the Dolphins improved enough on the interior to the point where their play will match that of their excellent tackles, Jake Long and Vernon Carey? Or is this still a problem area?
Matty I: Well let me first point out that left guard Justin Smiley deserves some mention here, too. He was having a very good season in his first year as a Dolphin in 2008 before a bad leg injury ended his season prematurely. But he’s back at full strength now and will be the team’s left guard in 2009 – which is an instant boost for the unit as a whole.
I think that the interior of the line improved instantly when Jake Grove was signed. The Dolphins’ front office decided after watching film that Satele was a liability up front in run-blocking – especially against the bigger nose tackles. Grove, meanwhile, has very impressive metrics as a run-blocking center and his physical play is exactly what this regime wants from their offensive line.
But until the Dolphins identify their right guard, the interior line is still an issue. Donald Thomas looked the part last training camp and won the starting job as a rookie right out of the gate. Bill Parcells even referred to Thomas, a sixth-round pick, as a "godsend." But his injury history is concerning. The foot injury last year cost him all but the season opener. And while his latest injury, a torn pectoral muscle, is healing well, you can’t help but be concerned about how his career has began. A young, inexperienced player like Thomas needs all the reps he can get at this stage of his career.
The backups at right guard are a mixture of inexperience and limited talent. Guys like Brandon Frye (a converted tackle), Andy Alleman, and Ike Ndukwe don’t exactly inspire confidence. Therefore, until we see some solid play from our right guard on the field, interior line play remains an area of concern.
Matty's concerns are well-founded. Right guard might be a continued issue for them. He's also right in that Smiley's return to health is a welcome development; Smiley was the first player signed by the Parcells/Ireland duo, and he was playing nicely last season before going down.
But Matty's thoughts on Grove perplex me. Grove is a five-year veteran who spent his entire career with Oakland. He's injury-prone, having missed 19 games over the past four seasons. What's more, the "impressive metrics" that Matty mentions weren't so impressive to him back when the signing occurred:
We know that the Raiders ground game hasn't performed particularly well when rushing up the middle behind Grove. Football Outsiders ranks the Raiders 30th in "Adjusted Line Yards" when running up the middle in 2008 and 28th in the same category in 2006 (Grove played in all 16 games in '06 and in all but 4 in '08).
I still think Matty's original assessment is more accurate. Handing out $6 million per year to an injury-prone player coming from a bad offense is risky business. I still consider center the weak point on Miami's line, even if there is a defined starter there - that's a big gamble the Dolphins are taking. In the spirit of fairness, however, a Bills signing of a former underachieving lineman has worked out well; Langston Walker is now our starting left tackle. Perhaps Miami is onto something as well.