The Miami Dolphins are officially lower than they’ve ever been during the Brian Flores era. In 2019, it was excusable because the entire point of that season was to strip the roster down and start over from scratch. Miami went 5-11, and somehow should have been worse than that. However, the young players on the team overachieved behind Flores’s coaching, and there was hope for the future.
In 2020, the Dolphins signed a lot of expensive free agents, including veteran linebacker Kyle Van Noy, guard Ereck Flowers, and cornerback Byron Jones. Miami’s defense was a force to be reckoned with that season, and they went 10-6 with nowhere to go but up.
Or so everyone thought.
Now here they are in 2021. The expectations were through the roof. The Dolphins were supposed to compete for the playoffs this season. Right now, they are essentially the worst team in the NFL, losing to the formerly winless Jacksonville Jaguars in London.
True, the Detroit Lions are still winless as of the time of this story, but based on the overall performance and decision making, there’s no question. Miami is the worst, and no one inside the organization has any answers for why.
“It starts with me.” Coach Flores said after the game. “I’m not doing a good enough job getting these guys ready to play. Not playing consistently enough, we’re not coaching well enough. We’re not playing well enough, we’re just not playing consistently enough. I mean, it’s in spurts. We had a couple – some positive plays, consistent ball in the first half, even a little bit in the second half. But we’re just not putting it together, and that starts with me.”
That’s the sentiment Flores has given for the past few weeks. It starts with him. Execution is bad. They’ll watch the tape and evaluate. And yet, every week, they promise to do better and they don’t. One has to wonder why that is. Why are the Miami Dolphins incapable of putting it all together when it counts? What has changed from last season to this one?
One easy answer? Veteran leadership.
Examining the Dolphins roster reveals a very telling reality. Miami only has three players in their 30s. Those players are 34-year old DB Jason McCourty – a free agent signing from New England, 32-year old DT John Jenkins – who is in his second stint with the Dolphins, and 30-year old OL Jesse Davis.
If you count DE Jabaal Sheard on the practice squad, then you can make the count to four.
Veteran leadership, that’s what Miami is missing. Aside from McCourty, it’s hard to pinpoint players on this team that can be considered true mentor types. Which means that the Dolphins are relying entirely on the coaching staff to get these young and inexperienced players ready week in and week out. That is not a wise move. In fact, one could argue it speaks to a certain arrogance and hubris that the coaches believe they don’t need veteran players to be successful. They traded mental acuity and experience for raw talent and athleticism.
That strategy only works if the coaching staff is elite at developing players. So far, there’s no indication of that being the case. The amount of turnover among the assistant coaches also doesn’t help matters. That’s where having a veteran presence on the active roster helps drastically. Having players who have been around the block more than once and know what to expect on Sunday is a factor that is regularly overlooked.
These past two seasons, the de facto veteran of the team was quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. No one dared question his intelligence, and the team often followed his lead. He wasn’t a superstar by any stretch, but everyone wanted him to tutor Tua Tagovailoa, share his knowledge and experience with the Alabama standout. But why? If Fitzpatrick isn’t an elite player, why would anyone care if he taught Tagovailoa or not?
Because experience does matter. Fitzpatrick is good, not great. But the fact he’s lasted this long and is still in the conversation to be a starting quarterback is proof positive that experience is valuable. Either as a player, or a coach.
Miami’s philosophy demands execution above all else. All 11 players need to perform for plays to turn out the way they should. If not, then things tend to fall apart. But that level of execution comes with NFL experience. With the likes of Van Noy, Flowers and others gone, the Dolphins are relying on talented – but young – players to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, they just aren’t there yet. They’re making mental mistakes, like Brandon Jones rushing in to down the wide receiver, letting Jacksonville call timeout with one second left to kick the game-winning field goal. Veteran players would know to leave him alone until the clock ticks down to force overtime.
Jones, and many others, are very talented players. But Miami can’t afford to wait for them to stop making those small, mental errors.
Around the League
Looking at other teams around the league, many of the top teams feature vast amounts of experience either in the coaching staff, the roster, or both. The most obvious example is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are currently 5-1. Head coach Bruce Arians is now the oldest coach in NFL history to win a Super Bowl at age 68. His resume is impressive, and his ability as a coach is unquestioned.
As for the roster itself? The Buccaneers have 20 players (including practice squad and injured reserve) over the age of 30. QB Tom Brady (44 years old) is the headliner, but other notable veterans include DT Ndamukong Suh (34), CB Richard Sherman (33), WR Antonio Brown (33), OLB Jason Pierre-Paul (32), ILB Lavonte David (31), OL Ryan Jensen (30), and more. Essentially, a bunch of old guys got together and decided to show the young players of the NFL how it’s done. And they did.
The 5-1 Baltimore Ravens have had John Harbaugh coaching them since 2008, and he always seems to hire experienced assistants to handle both the offense and the defense. Also, Baltimore features 16 players over 30 on their active roster. Notable ones include DE Calais Campbell (35), OT Alejandro Villanueva (33), and RB Latavius Murray (31).
— NFL (@NFL) October 17, 2021
The Dallas Cowboys are on a roll this season under Mike McCarthy, who is in his 15th year as a head coach in the NFL. He brought in Dan Quinn, who is well known for his intelligence as a defensive coach and has some head coaching experience of his own, to be the defensive coordinator. The roster features eight players over 30, including offensive linemen Tyron Smith (30) and Zack Martin (30).
The currently undefeated Arizona Cardinals have 18 players over the age of 30. LB Chandler Jones is 31 years old, OT Kelvin Beachum is 32, DE J.J. Watt is 32, WR A.J. Green is 33, and so on.
The Buffalo Bills have nine players over 30. How about the Los Angeles Chargers who have 10? The Green Bay Packers have eight.
While many of these players aren’t as good as they used to be in their prime (Watt and Green stand out), they do have valuable experience they can impart to the young up and comers. Experience like that can’t come from a coach. It’s different coming from a teammate. Most good NFL franchises know how important having that veteran presence is for young players. There’s a reason Bill Belichick keeps bringing back his old players even when they don’t play well in their new homes. That experience in the system is invaluable, which Kyle Van Noy proves.
Brian Flores and the Miami Dolphins have chosen to disregard this.
The Dolphins Solution
The question now is simply this: If Miami had more older players, would they be better off? Maybe yes, and maybe no. Again, having older players doesn’t guarantee success. However, having experienced, proven players does. Ask the LA Rams how they view first round draft picks. They’re just ammunition to trade for players like CB Jalen Ramsey.
If the Dolphins had prioritized keeping veteran players along the offensive line instead of trusting in the young, inexperienced talent, the Dolphins may not have lost Tua Tagovailoa for three weeks. Miami basically paid OL Ereck Flowers to leave, and now he’s a solid guard for the Washington Football Team. Almost immediately after the Dolphins released Kyle Van Noy, he was re-signed back in New England and is back doing what he did to get paid in the first place. LB Benardrick McKinney was acquired and released in the same offseason, in spite of how well he played as a run-stopping linebacker. Miami now has one of the worst run defenses in the NFL.
Strangely enough, there’s still hope for the Dolphins. The Detroit Lions have Taylor Decker, a solid left tackle. And the Lions need wide receiver help. Miami could send DeVante Parker and a pick to Detroit and instantly shore up that side of the line if Decker stays healthy. Veteran right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is still available and is a stabilizing presence on the other side of the offensive line. He too is an injury risk, but is very good when healthy.
Having those veterans helps the likes of Liam Eichenberg and Austin Jackson immensely. Let them learn the game, instead of forcing them to start before they’re ready. Next season, there are some veteran offensive linemen who will be free agents. The Dolphins should prioritize signing a few to protect Tagovailoa, regardless of who the coach is. Find assistant coaches who know what they’re doing, and veteran players who are proven producers. It isn’t as hard as it looks.
Maybe Brian Flores, if he stays, can convince Dante Scarnecchia to come out of retirement again. That would be a huge boon for the offensive line. Maybe he can bring back Jim Caldwell to be the offensive coordinator if he’s healthy again, or someone like Mike Mularkey or Mike Shula. All of these coaches have experience and a proven track record. That’s what Flores needs more than anything.
If Flores gets fired, then whoever the next choice is, they will hopefully understand the importance of veteran leadership. Youth is fine, but only when tempered by experience.
Luis Sung has covered the Miami Dolphins for numerous outlets such as Dolphins Wire for seven years. Follow him on Twitter: @LuisDSung
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