In the summer, Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman returns to his native New England and fishes in a secret spot of Nantucket Sound tucked between Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod and Nantucket.
While fishing, he also dreams up football plays and, as importantly, one-word names to call them. The Dolphins’ offense has 20 plays called by one word. This is the new wave of up-tempo football that’s risen from high schools to colleges and now hit the pros.
“No. 1, you say at McDonald’s instead of ordering, “A Big Mac, medium french fries and a medium soft drink.”
That’s the idea here. One word tells a complete play. It keeps the offense moving quickly. It allows more plays, keeps the same defensive players on the field, tires them out and offers soft spots to attack. That’s if it’s running well.
“We’re not close to the speed I want it,” Sherman said.
The telling point is, Sherman said, that a month ago, back when the Dolphins’ offense worked on a functional level, he was able to mask some inherited problems. He’s not any longer. This offense has one touchdown in the past 10 quarters. It ranks 26th in scoring.
That’s swung the spotlight on Ryan Tannehill, as if everything can be explained by a rookie quarterback following the two steps forward earlier in the year by one step back of late.
Tannehill has to play better. No doubt. There’s a rookie’s confidence level to monitor, too, as the Dolphins are on a three-game losing streak with three tough games upcoming. But putting too much of the blame on him is Football For Dummies, as we’ll see.
Let’s start here: The statistical problem is obvious. Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin points to third down. The Dolphins convert 35.8 percent of their third-down plays into first downs this year. That’s 20th in the league.
But in the past five games they’re converting just 28.8 percent. For an offense that wants to move fast, that’s been drastic. The all-important number of plays dropped from 67.6 through the first five games to 55.4 the last five.
“Our play count is nowhere where it needs to be,” Philbin said. The Dolphins want a mid-70s minimum for plays. This current number “just doesn’t add up to the kind of tempo and fast pace that you want,” he said.
So what’s the big problem? An AFC scout, who has watched the Dolphins for years, says flatly: “They don’t have the players to run the offense they want. And that’s not a surprise considering they’ve gone from a ball-control offense the previous years to this one where they’d like to play up-tempo.”
On Thanksgiving Day, Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline watched New England run at a fast offensive pace and it struck him that’s what the Dolphins want to do. And aren’t doing of late.
“That first first down is crucial,” Hartline said. “That’s what allows the offense to get its rhythm going and ensures you’re not going to put the defense right back out there. We haven’t been getting that enough.”
Talent is crucial here. But talent designed for your system is, too. New England, the AFC scout says, doesn’t need to substitute offensive players. Why? Coach Bill Belichick hand-picked the players over several years for this offense.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, have to substitute in three personnel groups depending on what plays they want to run. That allows the defense time to change players and slow down the game.
They have a base package that involves two receivers, a tight end, a running back and fullback Jorvorskie Lane; a two tight-end package with Anthony Fasano and Charles Clay; and a three-receiver package.
“They either need to get some of these players to show they can be more versatile in doing what they want or, what’s more likely is, they go get some new players,” the scout said.
Nothing shows the convergence of problems than recent weeks. As the rushing game waned, defenses quit crowding the running lanes. The secondary began crowding passing lanes because they realized no Dolphins receiver has the speed to get deep regularly.
As ESPN’s Ron Jaworski said this week, the receivers aren’t separating from defenders and, “the windows are always tight that Ryan is throwing into.” That won’t change. Not this year. Nor will the larger issues with this offense.