December 28, 2021

How The Miami Dolphins' Young Core Has Saved Their Season

The Miami Dolphins made history as they defeated the decimated New Orleans Saints 20-3 on Monday Night Football. They became the first team to rip off a seven-game winning streak in the same season they had a seven-game losing streak. 

While skeptics will look at the list of teams within that streak and question Miami's true talent level, what they've accomplished en route to a potential playoff berth is incredibly impressive.

Miami is a virtual lock to win a wild card spot if they can beat the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots in the final two weeks of the season. Those games will be tough, especially as former quarterback Ryan Tannehill is looking for a revenge game against Miami and the fact Bill Belichick may be fighting for the AFC East crown in Week 18. But the Dolphins continue to trend upwards for the right reasons.

A Whole New Team

The 8-7 Dolphins have recovered from an injury-affected start that caused panic throughout the organization. Ownership was more than flirting with the idea of upending the franchise's assets to acquire Deshaun Watson, and the prospect of cleaning out the front office and head coach were absolutely on the table, according to my sources. The reality of a 1-7 season was shocking after their breakthrough 2020 campaign.

So much has changed since then due to the Dolphins' young core hitting their stride. Despite playing behind an awful offensive line that has limited the Dolphins' offense to overly rely on RPO short-throws and an ineffective rushing game incapable of assisting, sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is proving to be quite the talent himself. He amassed the league's best completion rate at 70%, 2,339 yards, 15 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. 

Of course, the context to all numbers is necessary. He's throwing short passes the majority of the time due to the offense's limitations, and he has just one passing touchdown beyond 11 yards. Some of his interceptions have been downright ugly overthrows or direct passes to defenders as well.

The Tua Experience

But Tagovailoa is also capable of some of the prettiest passes in the league and is routinely hitting tight windows in order to move the ball. He's able to overcome a mediocre arm often with great timing and placement through and around defenders. It's rare to see such precision from any passer.

He's also become excellent at planting firmly at the top of his drop and bouncing forward in the pocket in order to avoid rushers. This is key, as he initially sets the arc for edge-rushers who are routinely beating his under-talented tackles, and then moves up incredibly well for a young passer. Most quarterbacks would be dead to rights every week in this pocket.

A Talented Bunch

It's not all just Tagovailoa, of course. The 2021 rookie class is looking great so far for Miami, with receiver Jaylen Waddle on pace to smash Anquan Bolden's rookie receptions record. The selection of Waddle was justly criticized early as the Dolphins continued to lose and Ja'Marr Chase racked up touchdowns. It's not that Waddle wasn't good, but rather Miami moved a potential 2022 top-five pick for the second-best receiver in the class. 

Those concerns are less now that Waddle and Tagovailoa have become a deadly tandem. With 941 yards and five scores with 96 receptions, he'll be just fine as the next great Dolphins' receiver. Especially as Miami can incorporate more downfield opportunities for him in the future if the line is fixed.

The defense has rebounded in a big way after a slow start as well. Defensive captain Jerome Baker has been excellent in the middle of the unit, and he's seen rookie defenders Jevon Holland and Jaelan Phillips emerge as playmakers. Phillips has quietly amassed 8.5 sacks and proven to be the forceful edge presence Miami had hoped he'd be as a first-round pick.

Holland has been the versatile defensive back Brian Flores craves, unlocking the rest of the unit to play freely. We've seen both Byron Jones and Xavien Howard play relatively well this season and they're also trending upward with Holland flying around the unit. For as well as Brandon Jones and Eric Rowe have performed in their roles, Holland makes their usage possible.

Holland's 56 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, nine pass deflections, and two interceptions make him a valuable playmaking force. Miami's defense thrives on impact plays over constricting offensive production. His impact can't be understated.

A Young Team On The Right Pace

There are still areas for Miami to improve, and they're not out of the woods yet on their incredible comeback this season. Beating Tennessee and New England will be the most difficult battles of the year with their offensive trench issues. But the staff and front office have to some degree been vindicated already with their recovery from their 1-7 start. 

The future remains bright in Miami at this rate. Rumors of Watson's impending arrival have sailed as Cleveland's own quarterback drama rises. Things change quickly in the NFL, and so can Miami's future again, but there's much less to be concerned about as the Dolphins' young core has arrived.

Photo: Getty Images