As the dust settles from the Miami Dolphins’ season-opening win Sunday in Cleveland, reality will set in that it was only one game. One game against a football team that likely won’t qualify for the playoffs this season.
Beating the Browns far from validates the Dolphins and the direction they are headed under head coach Joe Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland. Winning on Sunday was about avoidance rather than accomplishment. And the Dolphins dodged going into a brutal four-game stretch at 0-1.
It was a must-win game, if the first of 16 contests can be labeled as such, and the Dolphins did what they needed to do to get the victory. And while their performance far from exemplified a well-oiled machine, the Dolphins flashed the potential to be a legitimate playoff contender this season.
The defense was everything Miami hoped it would be, stuffing the run, creating three turnovers and pressuring Brandon Weeden to the tune of six sacks and 16 quarterback hits. Cameron Wake was unblockable to a solid right tackle in Cleveland’s Mitchell Schwartz, sacking Weeden 2.5 times, hitting him six and, although it was rarely called, being held on many plays.
Pair Wake with three stout, penetrating defensive tackles in Jared Odrick, Paul Soliai and the league’s best backup in Randy Starks, who brought down Weeden for 1.5 sacks himself, talent at the opposite defensive end spot in Olivier Vernon and Dion Jordan and physical, attacking linebackers in Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, and the Dolphins just might have themselves one of the best front sevens in the entire league.
Behind the front seven was a secondary that covered well and did something Dolphin defensive backs haven’t been able to consistently do in years — catch the football.
On the offensive side of the ball, Miami’s product was less imposing. The running game was absolutely non-existent, with more carries (23) than rushing yards (20). And the pass protection was shoddy as well, conceding four sacks on the afternoon.
Add the offensive line’s ineptness with $60 million receiver Mike Wallace managing only one catch for 15 yards, and you’d think the Browns’ defense dominated the Dolphins. But Tannehill and his receivers, essentially by themselves, made enough plays to move the football and put points on the board.
Many quarterbacks would have crumbled with no assistance. Not Tannehill, who got into a rhythm in the second half throwing to Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson. If he can produce an 82.3 quarterback rating with no running game and a single connection to one of the league’s most talented receivers, imagine how dangerous he’ll be if the Dolphins can get their ground game going and Mike Wallace more involved in the offense. The sky remains the limit for the unit under Tannehill.
Despite all of the positives that come with a double-digit win, though, have the Dolphins really answered many of the questions they entered Sunday’s opener with?
The offensive line was a major concern. That concern has only been amplified after producing the third-fewest rushing yards in franchise history and conceding frequent pressure in pass pro.
It was uncertain if Miami’s secondary was improved enough to contain some of the league’s elite aerial attacks after finishing 27th against the pass in 2012. Brandon Weeden completed under 50% of his passes and threw three picks. But it was Brandon Weeden. Not Tom Brady. Not Drew Brees. Not Andrew Luck.
Maybe Weeden is really that bad and will go on to struggle as much against most teams. Maybe not. We just don’t know yet.
Perhaps the biggest concern of all was whether Ryan Tannehill could take the next step as a quarterback. Tannehill, particularly in the second half, looked the part of franchise quarterback. But is throwing for 272 yards on a secondary that finished 25th in the league against the pass last season really confirmation?
Not to diminish what the Dolphins did on Sunday. They did what they had to do vs. an inferior opponent. The point is, there is still plenty about this team we remain unsure about.
Obtaining concrete information about a club isn’t exactly feasible after one game, regardless. But that becomes especially true after a win over a presumably mediocre team like the Browns.
Did we see improvement from the Dolphins or a team benefiting from its opponent’s shortcomings? The good news is, at least for the curious types, answers will be provided soon.
Four consecutive legitimate contenders await. All four, individually and collectively, will reveal who exactly these Dolphins are. A playoff-caliber team holds its own. It wins at least two of the next four.
Its offensive line makes significant progress from an anemic debut. Its running backs begin to make plays to help out their quarterback. Its quarterback leaves no doubt. Its defense remains stout against the run, stingy against the pass and relentless on the rush, regardless of opposition.
Its questions are answered. Affirmatively.
It’s all potentially in the cards for the Dolphins. But none of it is certain.
Beating the Browns hasn’t provided clarity in Miami. But it has prevented the addition of ambiguity. The next four weeks, however, will be the true test for this football team.
Win two or more during the stretch, and the playoffs become a possibility. Competing for the division title becomes a possibility. But most importantly, ratification that the Dolphins are heading in the right direction becomes undeniable.