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Here’s some unsettling news for Miami fans: The Dolphins got very lucky last season. There’s no real short way to put this, but the Dolphins are likely to finish under .500 this season.
Historically, close games (games within a touchdown) either even out to around .500 in-season or regress to about .500 over two seasons. The NFL plays a 16-game season. Things could get weird for maybe a season, but winning close games isn’t a plan that actually ever works in the modern NFL.
The Dolphins went 8-2 in games within a touchdown in 2016. From 2006 to 2015, there were only 14 seasons (out of 320) which featured a team winning more than two games over .500 in close games. Of those 14, 11 of them had worse records the next season. The three exceptions were all Indianapolis Colts teams. For reference, 15 of 15 teams who were under .500 by more than two games in single-score games in a single season all recorded a better record the next season.
At this point, I’m willing to just treat the Colts as a team that has a tangible ability to win close games relative to the rest of the league. Why? I have no clue. Are they doing it legally? Who is to say? Below is a chart of every team’s projected close wins (total games within a touchdown divided by two) and their actual close games mapped from 2006 through 2016. The Colts are that very high-sitting outlier at the top of the graph.
Since 2006, three-fourths of the NFL is within six games (in either direction) of a .500 record in games decided by a touchdown in over a decade (reference: Miami won six close games more than they lost last season). The Indianapolis Colts are +18. The third-best team (Broncos) is +6.5. The fourth-best team (Falcons) is +4. The worst team (Browns) is basically half as unlucky (-9.5) as the Colts have been lucky. Something is fishy about the Colts in close games. I’m just going to ignore their outlier seasons and possibly start a conversation that leads to an investigation.
Back to the Dolphins! So what does that mean for the 2017 Miami team? These are the teams that won more than two games over .500 in close games from 2006 through 2015 (sans the outlier Colts seasons):
The range for regression is 2 to 10 more losses after a “lucky” season. The mean is 5 more losses the next season. The median is 4 more losses the next season. If you exclude those three Colts seasons, 317 of 317 seasons from 2006 through 2015 have either proven that teams can’t substantially win close games in a single season or that if they do it in fact hurts them the next year.
If you’re buying those numbers alone (317 of 317 seems like a strong enough correlation), then the logical guess would be that the Dolphins fall between five and six wins next season, with a minimum of at least a .500 season, despite the fact that they made the playoffs in 2016. Despite that, Odds Shark has Miami’s season over/under set at 7.5 wins, with even/+100 odds (basically begging the public to take the number relative to the -130 over). If you’re a numbers person, that’s a big value on the market.
Here’s another flash fact: The Dolphins only won 2 of their 10 wins by more than a touchdown last season. The only teams to win fewer games in that manner were the Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers. They won as many multi-score games as the 5-11 New York Jets did in 2016.
In the AFC East, Jets head coach Todd Bowles had a fast start that eventually led to a crashing back to Earth in his sophomore season. At least on paper, that looks to be what’s coming for Miami head coach Adam Gase.
Backs: The Miami Dolphins had a fairly odd passing game last season. They were 8th in completion percentage, 12th in yards per completion, 19th in sack percentage and 27th in interception percentage. That split of completion percentage and interception percentage is obviously one of the widest in the league. My question when I saw those numbers was if the Ryan Tannehill–Matt Moore split, since Tannehill couldn’t finish the season due to a knee injury, had anything to do with it.
The numbers don’t really back up Moore bogging down the team during his late-season stretch. In 123 attempts (including the playoffs), he threw 4 interceptions (3.25%). In 389 attempts, Tannehill threw 12 interceptions (3.11%). Moore also had a betters yards per completion, completion percentage and sack percentage than Tannehill. We’re working off a fairly small sample, but the numbers last year suggest that there was little to no difference between the quarterback who has a $20.3 million cap hit (Tannehill) this season and the quarterback who has a $2.15 million cap hit (Moore) this season.
At running back, the team split their carries three ways last season with Jay Ajayi (260 carries, 4.89 yards per carry), Damien Williams (35 carries, 3.29 yards per carry) and Kenyan Drake (33 carries, 5.42 yards per carry). All three return in 2017, and pushing Williams down the depth chart seems like the only path of action that the Dolphins should obviously take in their backfield in this moment.
The team’s stat line in the running game was as weird as their passing game. They were 8th in yards per carry and 6th in run percentage. They were good at running the ball and they did it often, in part due to the fact that they were in positions to win double-digit games (that could easily change this year as we mentioned previously). The problem was that the team was 30th in both TFL percentage and fumble percentage. This was about as boom-bust of a running game as there was in the league. Their running backs gained a lot of yards despite their blocking, but they also coughed up the ball.
Limiting turnovers on offense, through both the air and the ground, needs to be the number one priority of the Dolphins this offseason.
Pass-Catchers: Miami had six players catch 20 or more balls last season. Two of them were running backs (Ajayi and Williams) and another is a tight end (Dion Sims) who left Chicago this offseason. That leaves three names in Jarvis Landry (94 receptions, 12.09 yards per reception), DeVante Parker (56 receptions, 13.29 yards per reception) and Kenny Stills (42 receptions, 17.29 yards per reception).
There honestly isn’t much to say here. This is a three-receiver team and they have their three young receivers locked in. Expect about the same through the passing game in 2017 as 2016.
The only real change was the team trading for former Denver Bronco and Jacksonville Jaguar tight end Julius Thomas, who recorded 9 touchdowns and 8 receptions of over 20 yards from 2015 to 2016 after he recorded 24 touchdowns and 17 receptions of over 20 yards from 2013 to 2014. The potential of a Thomas bounce back is certainly possible, but the Dolphins pass-catchers are business as usual in 2017, as they hope to keep up with their 12th-ranked yards per reception mark.
Linemen: The Dolphins were 30th in TFL percentage and 19th in sack percentage last year. The Dolphins had a fairly poor line. They had four players play more than 50 percent of the offense’s snaps in Jermon Bushrod, Ju’Wuan James, Laremy Tunsil and Branden Albert. Albert has since been traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he looks to be competing with second-round pick Cam Robinson for the starting left tackle position. The other three return.
Center Mike Pouncey is returning after dealing with a hip injury last season. On paper it appears that Tunsil and James, two former first-round picks, are the bookends, with Pouncey and Bushrod locking up two of the three interior line spots. Anthony Steen and maybe Isaac Asiata, the team’s fifth-round pick from Utah, have the potential to take the other interior line spot. So the team 1) lost a starting caliber tackle, 2) gained a starting caliber center, 3) signed/drafted no one outside of a fifth-round pick and 4) was pretty poor up front last season. I would guess that they get better on the ground with the addition of Pouncey but the drop of talent from Albert to James, who is still looking for a “breakout year” in his fourth NFL season, will hurt them against quality pass-rushers.
Line of Scrimmage: Defensive end is an interesting position to watch in Miami this year. The team finished 21st in sack percentage, despite the fact that Cameron Wake recorded 11.5 sacks last season. The team re-signed Andre Branch to a three-year, $24 million deal, even though he’s never recorded more than 6 sacks in a single season in his five-year NFL career. The team also traded for William Hayes of the Los Angeles Rams, who are converting to a 3-4 defense this season, and restructured his contract to be a one-year, $4.75 million deal. Hayes has only recorded 6 or more sacks one time in his career, his 7-sack 2012.
In terms of average salary, the Dolphins have three of the top 27 most expensive veteran defensive end contracts in the NFL per Spotrac. After doubling-down on Wake and Branch and trading and restructuring a deal for Hayes, the team also drafted Missouri defensive end Charles Harris with their first-round pick. That means the team has four of the top 47 most expensive defensive end contracts based on average salary, per Spotrac, and I’m still not sure if anyone has to worry about any of those pass-rushers in 2017 other than Wake. They invested a lot in the position, but Wake (at 35 years old) is really the only proven pass-rusher in the group.
Defensive tackle is obviously highlighted by Ndamukong Suh, one of the biggest free agent signings of this generation. With that being said, the Dolphins need to get something figured out between the B-gaps, be it defensive tackle or linebacker. The team was 12th in TFL percentage last season and 16th in fumble percentage, but they were dead last in allowed yards per carry league-wide. Teams knew it, too. Despite being a double-digit win team, meaning that teams had to play down against the Dolphins often, they were 24th in run percentage last season. After losing Earl Mitchell to San Francisco, where he signed a four-year, $16 million deal, the team drafted two Day 3 defensive tackles in fifth-round pick Davon Godchaux of LSU and sixth-round pick Vincent Taylor of Oklahoma State. One would assume that Jordan Phillips is going to get a kick in playing time with Mitchell out of the picture. The status quo at defensive tackle didn’t really help Miami in 2016 though.
Backs: If defensive tackle isn’t going to get better, the Dolphins are going to need to demand better play from their linebackers to dig themselves out of the very bottom of defensive ground games in the league. Luckily for them, they signed Lawrence Timmons, a former Pro Bowl linebacker from the Pittsburgh Steelers, this offseason. Timmons signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Dolphins. He’s going to be a plug-and-play starter.
The team also drafted Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan in the second round. Along with Kiko Alonso, who just signed a four-year, $28.9 million contract this offseason, the Dolphins linebacker unit seems pretty locked in. The immediate impact of Timmons and McMillan means that there’s hope for improvement in the ground game.
Miami’s defensive back unit was all-around slightly above average. They were 10th in interception percentage, 14th in completion percentage and 16th in yards per completion. Byron Maxwell and Xavien Howard, a second-year second-round pick, started 19 of the 20 games they were active for last season. They should start at cornerback this year.
The team returns 2015 Pro Bowler Reshad Jones at safety, where he’ll be joined by Nate Allen, who came from Oakland at the cost of $3.4 million on a one-year deal, and T.J. McDonald, who came from Los Angeles at the cost of $1.34 million on a one-year deal. The team also drafted Clemson cornerback Cordrea Tankersley in the third round. Overall, defensive back is the strength of this 2017 Dolphins team.
2017 Prediction: While Miami’s linebackers got significantly better this offseason, I still have questions about the team on both sides of the line of scrimmage and at quarterback. There aren’t many teams that have playoff hopes entering the season with those issues.
History is against the Dolphins making the playoffs again this season, and even Vegas knows this. They set an over-under of 7.5 wins this year and are penalizing the public for taking the over with a much higher number on that end of the bet than on the under. At the end of the day, Miami was a bit lucky to land where they did in 2016.
Only four other AFC teams, the Houston Texans, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the New York Jets and the Cleveland Browns lost two or more multi-score games than they won in 2016. If you expand that list to the NFC, the list grows to seven with the additions of the Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers. To be totally honest, the Dolphins played like a team that was on the fringe of being in the lowest quarter or the second-lowest quarter in the league last season, but everything broke perfectly for them. This is likely to be a year where the other shoe drops, but I can’t see this team falling lower than third place in the AFC East with the rebuilding Jets in the division.
Video Breakdown: Miami Dolphins Rushing Attack by Charles McDonald