The Miami Dolphins are sinking fast after a 1-3 start. They entered the season with playoff expectations, but nearly all of that optimism is gone after three straight losses by a combined score of 91-48.
Can the season be salvaged?
The Dolphins have a lot of thinking to do as they enter their bye week. Here are five solutions that could get the team going in the right direction:
1. Joe Philbin must show fire, better leadership
Among the most common criticisms of coach Joe Philbin during his tenure in Miami has been his lack of outward enthusiasm and leadership. Philbin has prided himself on remaining steady as a head coach. He doesn't want to ride the emotional roller coaster. But too often that approach has been unable to inspire his players during tough times, as evidenced in back-to-back, late-season collapses in 2013 and 2014. The Dolphins need Philbin to figure out a way to light a fire under his listless team before it's too late.
Philbin is 24-28 as the Dolphins' coach. Many fans have seen enough and want him to be fired. But Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has been fiercely loyal to Philbin the past four seasons, so pulling the plug after four games would be out of character. In the offseason, Ross gave Philbin a one-year extension, through 2016, even though he was coming off his third consecutive nonwinning campaign. Ross didn't want his coach entering the season with "lame duck" status.
"You don't get the best from someone when they're operating with a gun to their head," Ross said in March.
Also, there is no clear choice for an interim head coach on staff. All these factors should buy Philbin a little more time to try to turn things around.
2. Make a change at defensive coordinator
It's no secret Philbin is loyal to his assistants. But it's time to make a change at defensive coordinator. The Dolphins got DC Kevin Coyle the biggest acquisition of the offseason, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and the defense is still struggling in many of the same areas as last year.
Miami is allowing an astounding 160.5 rushing yards per game -- which we will get to later -- and has just one sack in four games. There is a growing disconnect between defensive players and coaches, and the defense needs a new voice and perhaps major changes schematically to turn things around. Linebackers coach Mark Duffner is the best candidate to take over for Coyle if a change is made.
3. Stop. The. Run.
The Dolphins have suffered three straight losses to so-so quarterbacks Blake Bortles, Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose teams all posted strong rushing performances that alleviated the pressure. The New York Jets rushed for a season-high 207 yards against Miami on Sunday. The Buffalo Bills rushed for 151 yards in Week 3. The Jacksonville Jaguars rushed for 123 yards in Week 2. These embarrassing numbers are only getting worse for a Miami defense that, on paper, has a solid front seven.
The $114 million addition of Suh was expected to make a big difference in Miami's run defense, but the team is actually worse in that area. The Dolphins allowed 121.1 rushing yards per game last season, nearly 40 yards fewer than this season's average. Granted, four games is a small sample size, but the early results are shocking.
It's hard to win games when opponents can run the football with that much success and dictate the pace of the game. Any good defense starts with stopping the run, and Miami must put its focus there, first and foremost. It starts with the fundamentals of tackling and getting off blocks. If it takes more blitzing at the risk of giving up more passing plays, Miami must take those chances.
4. Ryan Tannehill must raise his level of play
QB Ryan Tannehill's numbers have taken a dive after a career year in 2014 earned him a $96 million contract extension. He has a 77.1 passer rating so far and a career-low 56.7 completion percentage. Not much has gone right around Tannehill: He has been sacked 10 times in four games as the offensive line has struggled with blitz pickups and one-on-one matchups. The potential return of starting left tackle Branden Albert (hamstring) after the bye could help.
But the bottom line is this: Tannehill is paid like a franchise quarterback. Now it's time to play like one. He must do his part to lift this team out of the doldrums.
5. Commit to the run
The Dolphins simply aren't running the ball with enough regularity. Part of it is that Miami has fallen behind in the first half of every game. But Philbin and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor also have shown little commitment and have given up on the run too early. Starting running back Lamar Miller had just seven carries for 26 yards in Sunday's loss to the Jets; Miami ran the ball just 11 times to go with 44 pass attempts. The Dolphins have been at their best in the past when they had balance, but that hasn't been the case most of this season. Miami must get back to that in these final 12 games.