It may not seem fair, but 2014 will be a make or break year for Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin. Since taking over in 2012, his tenure has been marred but poor play on the gridiron and a devastating bullying scandal last season that shook the organization to its core and had an evident effect on the team throughout the year.
On paper, Philbin looks like he’s done an okay job. He’s racked up a 15-17 record with a team that most would agree was not a realistic playoff contender.
But in the NFL, coaches are given little leeway and it’s not unlike a franchise to cut ties with a head coach after three—or even fewer—mediocre seasons.
For Philbin, the odds are already stacked against him. The Dolphins will start the season with five new starting offensive linemen, which was already the team’s biggest weakness at the end of last season—quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked a league-high 58 times.
Center Mike Pouncey will be forced to miss the first few weeks of the regular season due to hip surgery and free-agent acquisition Knowshon Moreno recently underwent knee surgery himself. There is concern there may be some lingering effects on Moreno’s performance when he is able to return and questions have been raised about his long-term potential in the NFL. Those two injuries alone could deliver a pivotal blow to the Dolphins’ offense, and training camp has yet to get underway.
Philbin has his work cut out for him. But if there’s a coach who can overcome the obstacles in front of him, it may be Philbin. After all, it was Philbin who, after fans and media placed football in the background when the news broke about the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito scandal broke, did his best to keep the Dolphins focused on the job at hand. Despite unbearable distractions, Miami finished 8-8 and just one game out of playoff contention.
They return in 2014 with a defense mostly made up of the same group of players that held opposing quarterbacks to a 77.3 passer rating and forced 24 turnovers. There are question marks regarding the team’s second cornerback opposite Brent Grimes, but they have a good bunch of players competing for that spot, including last year’s starter Cortland Finnegan and second-year players Jamar Taylor and Will Davis.
The offense, meanwhile, features a reconstructed line which, while it may lack experience, boasts one veteran at left tackle who should help stabilize the unit and keep Tannehill off his back a bit more often in Branden Albert. They also added Jarvis Landry to an already talented passing attack that includes receivers Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace and tight end Charles Clay.
Playing in new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s spread offense should highlight the Dolphins’ strengths and lessen the impact of any subpar offensive line play. After seeing the magic Lazor was able to work with Nick Foles in Philadelphia last year, it will be interesting to see how he can aid Tannehill’s development in his third NFL season.
All of these things, however, just provide more reason of why Philbin will be expected to succeed this season. The Dolphins have not been to the playoffs since 2008 and have appeared just twice in this century. This year is the year for Philbin to get them back into the postseason and playing like a legitimate contender with promise for the future. Or else.