Running game should be better for Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins were historically bad when it came to running the football during the 2019 NFL season. The Dolphins were last in the NFL in rushing with just 1,156 yards gained on the ground.

Six NFL players – Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans, Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns, Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers, Ezekiel Elliot of the Dallas Cowboys, Chris Carson of the Seattle Seahawks and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens – gained more yards running the football last season than the entire Dolphins team.

Here’s a great trivia question to stump NFL fans – name the two quarterbacks to lead their team in rushing during the 2019 campaign. Jackson, who set a new NFL single-season rushing mark for QBs, was one of them. But if you got Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick as the other answer, you win a cookie.

In his 15th NFL season, Fitzpatrick, 37, rambled for 243 yards.

That total was enough to lead the Dolphins, and that stat is truly embarrassing. Miami needs to run the football significantly better this season in order for people in Florida to bet on the Dolphins as a legitimate AFC East playoff threat.

Beefing Up the Backfield

The Dolphins signed RB Jordan Howard as a free agent. Photo by: screenshot.

During the offseason, the Dolphins set out to address their needs in the backfield. Matt Breida was acquired in a trade with the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. Jordan Howard, who’s had stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears, was signed as a free agent.

Among NFL running backs from 2016-18, only Elliott and Todd Gurley churned up more yards on the ground than Howard, 25, who gained 3,370 yards over that span. A shoulder injury limited him to 525 yards last season. Howard has also suited up for playoff teams each of the past two seasons.

Breida averaged 5.1 yards per carry for the NFC West champion 49ers last season. He rambled for 623 yards on 123 carries and scored one touchdown. Equipped with explosive speed, he broke 18 runs of 10 yards or more. On average, that means he made a big play 14.6 percent of the times when he ran the football.

A Net Gain

Historically, when the Dolphins run the football well, things tend to go well for them. Miami’s most recent playoff appearance came in 2016. That season, Jay Ajayi rambled for 1,222 yards on the ground. Miami was ninth in the NFL in rushing that season with 1,824 yards gained.

A half-dozen of Miami’s 23 postseason squads have featured a 1,000-yard rusher. The legendary unbeaten Super Bowl champion 1972 Dolphins featured a pair of grand runners. Larry Csonka ran for 1,117 yards, while Mercury Morris contributed an even 1,000.

There were 17 Dolphins playoff clubs that included a running back with 800 or more yards on the ground. Of those that didn’t, several teams – especially the Miami clubs of the early-to-mid-1980s – were prominently led in the ground game by a backfield by committee formula.

Miami’s 1984 Super Bowl team that lost to the 49ers included Woody Bennett (606 yards), Tony Nathan (558) and Joe Carter (495) in the backfield behind rookie quarterback Dan Marino. The following season, four runners went over 250 yards on the ground, led by Nathan’s 667 yards.

Running Still Matters

The NFL might no longer be the run-dominated league that it was in the early 1970s when Miami ruled as kings of the hill. Sharing the workload between Csonka, Morris and Jim Kiick, those Dolphins teams could continually punish and simply wear out a defense.

Certainly, today’s NFL is first and foremost a passing league but to suggest running the football has become an afterthought would be pure folly. Five of the top six NFL teams in rushing yardage during the 2019 season were all postseason participants. Two of the top three – San Francisco and Tennessee – played in their respective conference championship games. Baltimore, which led the NFL with 3,296 yards on the ground, also posted an NFL-best 14-2 regular-season record.

The Dolphins will need to run the ball to succeed this season, whether it’s with the veteran Fitzpatrick or 2020 first-round draft pick Tua Tagovailoa at the helm of the offense. Sending the rookie Tagovailoa on the field to figure out and adjust to NFL defenses without a capable running game at his disposal would be suicide for the kid.

Finishing 2-2 to close out a 5-11 campaign last season, Miami actually averaged 100.75 yards per game on the ground. It was a big increase over the Dolphins’ season average of 72.25 yards per game.

That’s where Breida and Howard could really make a difference in Miami. Last season, Breida was a dangerous weapon in San Francisco’s three-back system that saw him, Raheem Mostert (722 yards) and Tevin Coleman (544) all run for over 500 yards. They were the first team to suit up three 500-yard rushers in the same season since the 1978 New England Patriots.

Working in combination with two-time 1,000-yard rusher Howard, they could provide a dynamic duo in the backfield for Miami.


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