DAVIE, Fla. -- Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross knew he was walking a fine line at the start of training camp. Ross met with the Miami media knowing questions were coming about the future of his head coach Joe Philbin, who enters a crucial third year after posting a 15-17 record his first two seasons.
It's no secret that Philbin enters this season on the hot seat. In addition to his mediocre record, Philbin has the stains of last year's bullying scandal and late-season collapse on his resume. Philbin must prove he is Miami's long-term solution or 2014 could be his final shot.
That led to the Ross carefully choosing his words when talking about his head coach.
"I'm not going to say here he has to [make the playoffs] because I can understand what the headlines are," Ross explained. "I like Joe Philbin very much. I believe the ingredients of being a winning organization is having consistency. I'm expecting Joe Philbin to be here a long time. Every year, you want to see improvement."
Make no mistake: It's playoffs or bust for many within the Dolphins' organization. Improving on last season's 8-8 record by notching nine or 10 wins would most likely lead to a postseason berth.
The Dolphins certainly have talent. There is quality depth at defensive end, defensive tackle, wide receiver, cornerback and quarterback. This is also a team that was just one win away from making the playoffs during the 2013 season.
Much rests on the shoulders of third-year starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is learning a new offense. Many within the Dolphins' organization believe Tannehill is due for a breakout season, and he has big goals.
"We want to play deep into January and February," Tannehill said. "And that's our goal at this point, is to go out, win the division and then play the playoffs from there. There is a big season ahead of us, and I think anything less than that is not up to our standards."
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. The Dolphins are very excited about first-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. The former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback coach is bringing in many of the same principles he learned last season under Chip Kelly. The Dolphins are trying to push the tempo as much as possible and dictate to the defense. They are running a lot of motions, quick snaps and predetermined reads. It also will be Lazor's responsibility to help Tannehill take his game to the next level. Lazor did a tremendous job last year with Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. "It's my job to show them they can go faster," Lazor explained in the first week of camp. "It's my job to take them to places that maybe they didn't think they could go. Anytime you do that with a player, you see their eyes kind of widen."
2. Miami has tremendous depth on the defensive line. This should be one of deepest and most-talented areas of the team. The Dolphins have a strong group at defensive end with Pro Bowler Cameron Wake, 2013 sack leader Olivier Vernon and valuable backup Derrick Shelby. They also have a good rotation at defensive tackle with Earl Mitchell, Jared Odrick and Randy Starks. Winning in the trenches on defense would go a long way towards controlling the pace of games this season.
3. There is still optimism in Miami that Tannehill can develop into a franchise quarterback. He's 15-17 as a starter but had to deal with a lot of issues beyond his control in 2013. He had arguably the NFL's worst offensive line and little help from the running game. But 2014 also is a make-or-break year for Tannehill to prove he's the long-term solution. The waiting game is over after two seasons. Now is the time for Tannehill to reach his potential, or the Dolphins may have to go in another direction next year. Tannehill has been decent but not spectacular in training camp. As expected, there have been some growing pains learning Lazor's new offense. But quarterbacks often make a nice jump in Year 3. Improvement at quarterback is the quickest way for the Dolphins to get over the hump and end their five-year playoff drought.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. The Dolphins are trying something rare this season. They will have five new starters on their offensive line compared to last season. Granted, Miami's offensive line was horrendous in 2013. The Dolphins set a franchise record with 58 quarterback sacks allowed. They also were 27th in rushing. However, continuity is a major issue. Miami added new offensive tackles with Pro Bowler Branden Albert at left tackle and first-round pick Ja'Wuan James at right tackle. Currently Dallas Thomas and veteran free agent Daryn Colledge are the starting guards, but the center position remains wide open. The Dolphins lost Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey for the first 4-8 games of the regular season after hip surgery. The Dolphins tried mixing and matching at center with Nate Garner, Sam Brenner and Shelley Smith with questionable results. There were approximately a dozen bad snaps in the first week of training camp. Therefore, the Dolphins signed veteran center Samson Satele on Saturday to bring stability to the position. Satele is the early favorite to be the Week 1 starter.
2. Miami's linebacker experiment is still a work in progress. The Dolphins invested a lot of money in Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler and Koa Misi last season, and this trio underachieved. Miami had trouble stopping the run and covering tight ends and slot receivers. The Dolphins are hoping a shake-up to move Ellerbe to outside linebacker and Misi in the middle will help this unit make more plays. The run defense has looked better so far. But we'll know more once the Dolphins face different offenses in the preseason and regular season.
3. The past two seasons the Dolphins proved they were not built to thrive in the AFC East. Miami is 4-8 against division opponents in that time -- including a 2-4 mark last season. The Dolphins have two division games to start the regular season at home against the New England Patriots in Week 1 and on the road against the Buffalo Bills in Week 2. These are two teams that have Miami's number, and the Dolphins will know right away if they will change this trend. It also doesn't help that Miami has the NFL's 12th-toughest strength of schedule. It's going to be tough for the Dolphins to get to 10 wins and make the playoffs if they can't beat the Patriots, New York Jets and Bills.
The Dolphins have an interesting dilemma with 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan. The second-year defensive end was suspended four games for violating the NFL's policy on performing enhancing substances. Miami is trying to balance reps to get Jordan ready for the season as well as fellow defensive ends who will be available in the first four games of the regular season. Jordan is available to practice and play in the preseason. To his credit, Jordan hasn't gone in the tank. He's made several nice plays in camp so far, including an interception off Tannehill for a touchdown. "He's been great," Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said. "Dion has done nothing but come to work every day. He's a lunch pail kind of guy as it is. There is no prima donna in Dion Jordan, from the time he came here a year ago he was out here jumping on the scout team before he was even asked to do it."
The biggest rookie standout so far has been second-round pick Jarvis Landry. The rookie wide receiver has displayed strong hands, solid routes and toughness. Landry is best in the slot where he can use his savvy and strong hands in traffic. He's made several of the most impressive catches so far of training camp. Landry is currently behind veteran slot receiver Brandon Gibson. Landry's also competing with Marcus Thigpen on punt returns.
Dolphins incumbent starting running back Lamar Miller added about five pounds of muscle and hasn't lost any explosiveness. Miller had a strong offseason to take the lead ahead of Knowshon Moreno. With Moreno injured (knee), Miller likely will be the starting tailback in Week 1 for the second year in row. The reason Miller added a few pounds was to help with strength running the ball and with pass protection, which was a weakness last season.
James, Miami's first-round pick is having a tough time trying to block Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake in the first week of practice. Wake is winning most of those battles and already registered several sacks against James in team drills. The Dolphins believe Wake is making James better. Wake has been helping him along with tips after practice, as well. But it will be important for James not to lose confidence early in his career.
Keep an eye out for rookie free-agent running back Damien Williams. With Moreno missing the first week of camp, Williams is getting quality reps and making plays in practice. Williams is quick with a nice burst to the line of scrimmage. He appears to fit in well in Miami's spread-offensive sets. Williams may have a tough time making the 53-man roster behind Miller, Moreno and Daniel Thomas. But Williams should at least be a strong candidate for the practice squad.