DAVIE, Fla. — The changes inside the Dolphins practice facility are subtle, but they paint a clear picture of a team desperate to improve its image and forget about the past.
The football offices have been renovated and updated, the walls covered in a fresh coat of aqua paint and refurbished with new artwork of the team’s past and present.
The front office is different, with Dennis Hickey now sitting in the general manager’s seat following Jeff Ireland’s departure this summer.
Bill Lazor is the new offensive coordinator, implementing the principles and philosophies he learned under Joe Gibbs, Mike Holmgren, and Chip Kelly. Jim Benton, who worked with Arian Foster and the Texans for eight years, takes over for Jim Turner as offensive line coach.
And, most appropriately, the offensive line is totally new. With center Mike Pouncey out for several weeks of the regular season following offseason hip surgery, the Dolphins will have five new starters on the line when they host the Patriots in Week 1. According to research by the Palm Beach Post, the Dolphins will be the first team since the 2004 Browns and Chargers to have five new starters on the offensive line.
“It was definitely tough,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said of last season. “You don’t want to have that kind of inconsistency, I guess, with all the things we dealt with — struggling up front to controversy to changing new guys in. When you’re not consistent, it definitely hurts a football team.”
Last year is certainly one to forget for the Dolphins. Their season off the field was a nightmare for any team. The Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito bullying scandal was a daily story on CNN and “Good Morning America,’’ and for millions of casual NFL fans, the Dolphins became the poster children for everything wrong about a football culture run amok.
Now, one message is plastered on the walls throughout the facility — “Respect earned, not given. Communicate” — and the team’s social media hashtag is #StrongerTogether. It’s not hard to connect the dots to last year’s ordeal.
On the field, life wasn’t much better for the Dolphins. They started 3-0 with an impressive win at Indianapolis, then dropped four straight. They won three in a row in December, capped by a stirring 24-20 win over the Patriots, then scored 7 measly points over their final two games to lose to the Bills and Jets, finish 8-8, and miss the playoffs for the 11th time in 12 seasons.
The Martin-Incognito mess also possibly hindered Tannehill’s development. The Dolphins were forced to shuffle their offensive line seemingly every week once Martin and Incognito were gone, and Tannehill got pummeled — 58 sacks for 399 yards, both by far the most in the NFL.
“To make our offense efficient, the quarterback has to be upright,” Hickey said. “He has to be given time to work through progressions, and Ryan’s done a great job with that. Our expectation was for him to take the next step, and that’s what he’s doing.”
The offensive line looks like the Dolphins’ X factor this season, because otherwise there is a lot to like about them on paper. Tannehill, entering his third season, saw his numbers improve across the board last year and showed impressive athleticism and guts in the last-minute win over the Patriots.
He has two legitimate playmakers in receiver Mike Wallace and tight end Charles Clay, a solid three-down running back in Knowshon Moreno, and a feisty defense that is stout up front with Cameron Wake, Randy Starks, and Olivier Vernon, and athletic in the back with Brent Grimes, Cortland Finnegan, and rising star Reshad Jones.
But it could all fall apart pretty quickly for Tannehill and the Dolphins if the offensive line doesn’t jell.
There is talent on the line, but it is still very much a work in progress less than three weeks away from their date with the Patriots. Only two positions are set in stone: Free agent signee Branden Albert, who spent his first six seasons with the Chiefs, will start at left tackle, while first-round pick Ja’Wuan James will start at right tackle.
The three interior positions, however, are a mess. Pouncey’s hip surgery in the summer threw the Dolphins for a loop, while Dallas Thomas, last year’s third-round pick, and newcomer Shelley Smith have been underwhelming so far. The Dolphins signed a couple of veterans off the street — former Packers guard Daryn Colledge and former Colts center Samson Satele — and both might be in the starting lineup in Week 1.
“That’s what the preseason is for, to find the best five out there,” Hickey said. “It’s not like some other positions where it’s more individual. They have to work in concert, and that’s where we’re at right now. We’re still trying to find the best five out there.”
Schematically, the Dolphins will still run the West Coast offense with a zone blocking scheme, but hope to get much better production under Lazor after finishing 26th in the NFL in points last year under Mike Sherman. Head coach Joe Philbin wants Lazor’s offense to be up-tempo and fast-paced like Kelly’s in Philadelphia, but only if the Dolphins can gain more first downs. They were 29th in the league last year.
“I think it’s hard to be a fast-playing football team when you’re not getting a ton of first downs,” Philbin said. “By and large we weren’t able to establish that kind of tempo on a consistent basis.”
But it’s a new season, with renewed expectations. The 2004 Chargers improved from 4-12 to 12-4 with an entirely new offensive line, so who says the Dolphins can’t make the leap as well?
“I don’t know the last time a team has started a year with five brand new guys,” said Philbin. “It doesn’t happen a lot. But that’s why we’re coaches.
“We’ve got some good guys, they’re working hard at it, and the proof will be in the pudding when we go line up and play.”