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Odds are against confident Dolphins repeating
The Miami Dolphins surprised everyone last season by turning a 1-4 start into a six-game winning streak, a 10-6 record, and their first playoff appearance since 2008. Now the question is whether they can build on that momentum.
Las Vegas doesn't think so. It set the over/under for Dolphins victories at 7.5.
The Dolphins strongly disagree with Vegas, largely because of the culture change ushered in by second-year head coach Adam Gase.
As Miami enters training camp there's an almost tangible sense of confidence and optimism in the building and on the field, and that optimistic tone is led by Gase.
For one thing, all indications are that quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who missed the final three regular season games and the wild card game due to two sprained ligaments in his left knee, is full speed ahead for the start of training camp.
Tannehill participated in OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and mini-
camp wearing a brace on his left knee, a practice that will continue for the foreseeable future. But Tannehill came out of offseason workouts strong and is ready to go full speed from Day One of training camp.
But beyond that, players think Gase's main tenet of accountability transformed Miami into a playoff team last season, and they saw what can happen, are excited about the future and how they could become even better in 2017.
"If it's on the field, off the field, sleeping better, eating better, whatever it is to make yourself even better than we were last year," Pro Bowl defensive end Cam Wake said, "Each man has to do that, and if we do that individually and collectively, I think that's how we make it happen."
Miami has gone over its deficiencies to the point of exhaustion - run defense (30th in NFL), total defense (29th), third-down offense (25th), total offense (24th), etc...
The Dolphins return many of the same players who were part of creating those rankings. They return nine starters on offense and eight on defense.
But the Dolphins are banking on Gase's policy of accountability to lead to better performance on the field.
In short, hard work is in, slacking/stepping out of line is out, and accountability, for everyone, is at a premium.
Players saw that when Gase opted to leave running back Jay Ajayi at home for the opener at Seattle after Ajayi reportedly reacted poorly to the news Arian Foster would start. It continued when Gase cut offensive linemen Billy Turner, Dallas Thomas and Jamil Douglas for under-
performing, and then demoted defensive end Mario Williams and cornerback Byron Maxwell for the same reason.
The Dolphins think players respected Gase's culture change and responded by playing better.
"He's a great head coach," Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said, "and I think he's only going to continue to get better because he has that mentality."
Many, Vegas included, might argue the Dolphins caught lightning in a bottle last season, that they can't repeat that unexpected performance by returning many of those same players.
The Dolphins think otherwise. They think Gase's policy of accountability will make them better.
Even Gase isn't above the credo. During the offseason he publicly admitted he made a mistake early last season by putting defensive end Cam Wake, who was recovering from an Achilles injury, on a snap count.
Wake, who ended the season with 11.5 sacks and earned a Pro Bowl berth, was limited to pass rushing situations. His elevation to fulltime starter eventually made the Dolphins a better defense.
"That just makes us evaluate ourselves that much tougher, that much harder," veteran right guard Jermon Bushrod said. "So, when your head coach can take accountability like that, then it's just a trickle-down effect. We're professionals, and that's just how it needs to be so you can fight to win."
TOP THREE TRAINING CAMP GOALS:
Improve run defense. Miami ranked 30th in run defense last season, and 28th in run defense two years ago. This is a serious problem that trickles to the other side of the ball. Part of the reason Miami's offense was last in the NFL at 912 plays is because opponents ran the ball and chewed up the clock. The Dolphins return five starters among their front seven so improvement must come mainly from within. But don't underestimate the additions at linebacker - linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who had five consecutive 100-tackle seasons, and rookie linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the second-round pick known for his head-banging attitude. And defensive end William Hayes has a reputation as a run-
stopper, which should also help.
Become efficient on OL. Minor tinkering and a major injury are the concerns here. Laremy Tunsil shifts to his natural position of left tackle from left guard, where he played as a rookie, and Ted Larsen likely starts at left guard. That's the tinkering. The bigger issue is Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey, whose hip injury limited him to five games last season, no participation on the offseason, and the promise of being limited in training camp. If Pouncey isn't healthy, the level of difficulty increases greatly. Miami was fairly productive last season on its offensive line despite injury issues. The Dolphins allowed just 30 sacks, 10th-best in the NFL, and was ninth in rushing offense. The goal in training camp is becoming efficient with and without Pouncey.
Determine starting LBs. Big changes are in store the unit that has absorbed much of the blame for the poor run defense the last two years. In the most likely configuration Kiko Alonso shifts to weak side linebacker from the middle, Lawrence Timmons plays the strong side and rookie Raekwon McMillan, the second-round pick from Ohio State, mans the middle. There's an outside chance returnee Koa Misi, limited to three games by a neck injury last season, barges his way into the picture, or reserves such as Neville Hewitt, a part-time starter last season, or undersized veteran Mike Hull get a shot. But Miami will want to solidify its starting threesome in camp and work on them progressing as a unit.