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The Dolphins’ Historic Tank Job, As Explained by the Worst Plays From Every Position Group

Miami is in the midst of the most aggressive teardown the NFL has ever seen. That’s best understood by going to the tape.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every Miami Dolphins play this season has felt like a scene in a movie about a space catastrophe or nuclear accident. The ball is snapped, and before you know what’s happening, alarm bells are ringing: The linemen are out of position, or an opposing player is streaking unimpeded toward somewhere he’s not supposed to be—either the end zone or the Miami quarterback. Some Dolphins player steps up to be the authority figure, grabbing a megaphone to stress that everything is under control and urge everyone to remain calm. But soon he is dead, killed by the obvious disaster that he just tried to pretend didn’t exist. The Miami football experience is like this on virtually every play. The spacecraft computer malfunctions on first down; the airlock won’t close properly on second down; an oxygen tank explodes on third down. Watching this unfold at home allows us to consider the structural causes of the catastrophe. For the players, though, there’s no time for deep critical thinking. The alarm bells are ringing, and they’re trying to survive.

The Dolphins have allowed 1,498 yards through three weeks, the most in NFL history. They have scored one touchdown in three games; they have allowed 16. They have scored just 16 total points; no other team this season has fewer than 33. They have allowed 133 points; no other team has allowed more than 94. Miami’s point differential of minus-117 is the worst of all time through three weeks. The Jets, another football failure factory, have the second-worst differential at minus-37. Miami is three times worse. The Dolphins are on pace to score the fewest points of any team since the NFL moved to a 16-game regular season, breaking a record set in 1992. They are also on pace to allow the most points of any team in history, snapping a mark set in 1981. It seems unfathomable that one team could shatter decades-old records to become the worst at offense and the worst at defense. The Dolphins legitimately have a shot.

Of course, this is partly intentional. Like so many marine mammals at aquariums around the world, the Dolphins are in the tank. Miami massively overperformed expectations last year by going 7-1 in one-score games and 0-8 in games decided by multiple scores. In spite of finishing 26th in total points and 27th in points allowed, it nearly made the playoffs. Some front offices might have considered this exciting and built around incumbent quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Miami thought that it was a bummer to be such a crappy team without getting any material reward for its crappiness. So the Dolphins stripped away everything of value: They made no effort to sign or draft a quality QB, let former Pro Bowlers Robert Quinn, Cameron Wake, and Frank Gore walk in free agency (and lost a fourth, Josh Sitton, to retirement), and made no noteworthy offseason signings. They changed coaches, bringing in longtime Patriots assistant Brian Flores, who had never previously worked as a coordinator. The disassembly has continued into the season. Since training camp began, Miami has traded away two of its three best players, Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick, for future first-round draft picks. There is no danger of going 7-9 this time around.

In the long term, this is a sound strategy. I have seen Tua Tagovailoa play football, and would happily have my team go 0-16 to guarantee that he becomes its quarterback of the future. The wealth of other draft picks the Dolphins have acquired in exchange for spare parts should set them up to build a contender in a few years.

In the short term, though, life is bleak. Pro Football Focus ranks just one Dolphins starter, wide receiver Preston Williams, as “above average,” with seven coming in at “average,” 10 at “below average,” and four as “poor.” Only five of the 53 players on the roster are former first-round picks. One of those, quarterback Josh Rosen, performed so poorly as a rookie that the Cardinals traded him for a fifth-rounder in April; another, defensive end Taco Charlton, was cut by the Cowboys last week after just two seasons in the NFL. The veterans on the roster are reportedly trying to abandon ship rather than wasting a year of their careers on this team.

I am fascinated by these Dolphins. No single bad positional grouping can sink a football team this thoroughly. Even teams that feature a bad player at quarterback, the sport’s most important position, are capable of achieving success—sometimes they even win the Super Bowl! Being this bad requires total teamwide ineptitude. So, I rewatched every play the Dolphins have run this season and selected the ones that best demonstrated the failings of each position group in an attempt to illustrate Miami’s front-to-back failure. These Dolphins are an 11-man symphony of suck.

Offensive Line

A bad offensive line makes bad players at every other offensive position worse. With a bad line, bad quarterbacks can’t think before throwing, bad running backs sprint into human walls, and bad wide receivers don’t have time to get open. Because all of those things happen, the punt team comes out every four plays (unless there’s a turnover) and the defense is forced to stay on the field for about 40 minutes per game.

It makes sense, then, that Miami has by far the worst offensive line in the league, ravaged by attrition, trades, and injuries. PFF rates the Dolphins toward the bottom of the league in every category, with Miami coming in at dead last in pass blocking and run blocking. Allow me to demonstrate the complete failure of the Dolphins’ line with one play from last Sunday’s 31-6 loss to the Cowboys. On this play, the Cowboys do not blitz; they send just four pass rushers. Three of them get to the quarterback. Approximately 2.5 seconds after Rosen touches the ball, former Dolphins standout Robert Quinn drags him to the ground.

The most glaring error here comes from rookie Michael Deiter, who is playing left tackle. Deiter should not be playing left tackle. Although he played there as a junior in college, he told press after being drafted that he was most comfortable playing “in the middle three.” After Sunday’s game, he said, “I definitely didn’t expect to play left tackle.” But he was playing nonetheless, in part because of an injury to starting left tackle Jesse Davis.

It should be noted that Davis also should not be playing left tackle—he started at right guard for the Dolphins last year, but was suddenly asked to switch sides and positions after Miami traded starting left tackle Tunsil to Houston in August. (“It’ll be hard to transition into in one week or so,” Davis told the team website.) The Dolphins acquired left tackle Julie’n Davenport in the Tunsil trade, but Davenport suffered a hyperextended knee in practice and is on injured reserve. So Deiter it is.

Deiter’s assignment is to stop Quinn, who is lined up especially wide in an obvious pass-rushing situation. Unsurprisingly, a rookie interior lineman has trouble keeping up with a Pro Bowl pass rusher. Deiter politely taps Quinn on his way to the quarterback, just saying hi.

However, don’t let Deiter’s egregious failure here distract you from the rest of the line. Look at J’Marcus Webb, the right tackle. Before this fall, Webb had played in only one game since being cut by the Seahawks in 2016; he was cut by the Colts after training camp this year. Miami signed him after the Tunsil trade, though, and after Davenport’s injury he was inserted into the starting lineup. He’s been really bad! Webb allowed 10 pressures on 49 pass-blocking snaps against the Cowboys. He’s already tied for second in the NFL in pressures allowed despite playing in two games of the first three games.

Webb is beaten with comic ease by Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, who briefly feigns a rush to the outside before sprinting past Webb’s left shoulder. It’s pretty pathetic, but Webb gets bailed out of that situation by running back Kalen Ballage, who picks up Lawrence for long enough to prevent a quick sack. However, Webb falls down when trying to recover. And in falling, he takes out the legs of right guard Shaq Calhoun, an undrafted rookie playing due to an injury to Danny Isidora.

So when left guard Evan Boehm shoves Cowboys defensive tackle Maliek Collins toward the right side of the line, there’s nobody there to stop him. Webb is on his ass and took Calhoun down with him. Ballage is dealing with the player Webb didn’t block. Collins gets to the QB only to find out he’s already being sacked. Let’s watch the whole thing on All-22 in slo-mo:

It’s a circus of failure. Everybody is calling for reinforcements, but the reinforcements are already dead.

There is no real hope for improvement. On Wednesday, the team announced that Isidora is out for the season with a foot injury, so the Dolphins will move forward starting a third-rounder, a fifth-rounder, a seventh-rounder, and two undrafted players. The third-rounder is being asked to play out of position, and the team’s only natural tackle might be the worst active offensive lineman in the NFL.

These are the Maginot Dolphins: They will start every play with the defense breaching their poorly planned fortifications, and then it will get worse.

Quarterback

Grading the Dolphins’ quarterbacks is tough. They often make quality throws that are dropped by incompetent receivers. They also make hideous throws that should be intercepted but somehow fall incomplete. They are the luckiest and unluckiest quarterbacks on the planet, but when factoring everything in, the stats tell the story: They are bad.

The Dolphins began the season with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starter, perhaps hoping for some of the Fitzmagic he showed at the beginning of last season with Tampa Bay. Instead, they got the guy who led the NFL in interception percentage in 2018. Fitz threw four picks on just 52 passes before he was benched in favor of Rosen. Here’s his worst:

This has to be the closest target for any intercepted pass ever, right? I mean, Fitzpatrick throws the ball from his own 45-yard line. Gilmore corrals it at the opposing 46-yard line, 9 yards downfield. I’d guess the ball traveled 2 or 3 yards horizontally. That means, in total, the ball flew 10, maybe 11 yards, and yet Fitzpatrick still got picked off. An NFL field is as long as the distance from home plate to the foul pole, and Fitzpatrick somehow failed to notice another human standing the equivalent of half the distance between the plate and the pitcher’s mound. What makes the play more egregious is tight end Mike Gesicki running unguarded a few yards downfield.

I’ve watched every throw made by Rosen, and honestly I’m kind of impressed. Or, at least I’m as impressed as you can be by a quarterback who has completed fewer than half his attempts and has yet to throw a touchdown this season. I don’t want to roast him.

Alas, here is a throw he made against the Patriots that was so badly overthrown that the deep safety can’t intercept it, a 30-yard pass overthrown by roughly 7 yards.

Wide Receivers

The Patriots shut out the Dolphins 43-0 in Week 2, but Miami should’ve scored at least seven points. On one fourth-quarter drive, Rosen threw back-to-back passes to Jakeem Grant and Preston Williams that should have been touchdowns. Both were dropped:

Grant has been a disaster. The Dolphins defense made only one stop in Week 1 against the Ravens, and Grant muffed the ensuing punt, meaning that the Dolphins actually got no stops. He’s 5-foot-7, so he’s not an easy target for QBs to hit, and yet he’s dropping 20 percent of the passes that hit him in the hands. Miami just gave him a four-year, $24 million contract.

Williams, an undrafted free agent from this year’s class, has been a surprising bright spot. Miami’s lone touchdown drive of the year culminated with three consecutive passes to Williams. The fact that an undrafted rookie is probably the team’s top receiver is telling: Of the six receivers on the roster, three were undrafted, one was taken in the sixth round, and one was taken in the seventh. DeVante Parker was once a first-round pick, but he hasn’t panned out as Miami had hoped.

Running Backs

I know I said I’d be presenting one representative play for each position group. For the Dolphins’ running backs, however, I’m going with this two-minute cut-up of Kalen Ballage attempting to catch passes out of the backfield. That’s right—it’s time for a Ballage Montage!

Ballage may be the worst pass-catching back in recorded football history. He doesn’t know how to run routes, he doesn’t know how to catch, and at one point in the montage he ducks out of the way of a football thrown in his direction. Against the Patriots, he bobbled a ball directly into the hands of a New England defender, who returned it for a pick-six.

He has just three catches on nine targets this year. It’s baffling, because Ballage had 44 catches for 469 yards as a junior at Arizona State. Now he treats footballs thrown to him the way infomercial actors treat plates of messy food. He hasn’t been running well, either—he has 17 carries for a whopping 22 yards.

Ballage is Miami’s backup behind Kenyan Drake, who has also been underwhelming. The Dolphins have made only two trips inside the opposing 10-yard line all season: One ended with back-to-back Ballage runs for no gain, and the other ended with a Drake fumble. (I’m just sayin’ you could do better.) (This is a Drake joke from 2011.) The two have combined to break one total tackle through three games, and the team has yet to record a rushing play of 10 yards or more.

Defensive Line

The funniest play involving Miami’s defensive line this season was the 83-yard touchdown pass from Lamar Jackson to Hollywood Brown in the Dolphins’ 59-10 loss to the Ravens. The main focus is obviously Minkah Fitzpatrick, who gets burned by Brown, but he’s not on the team anymore. So instead, let’s look at the line:

The player on the left side of the Miami line is Avery Moss, who was picked in the fifth round of the 2017 draft by the Giants. Moss played one year in New York and then couldn’t find a team during the 2018 season. On this play, he does a good job engaging with Baltimore’s left guard until left tackle Ronnie Stanley knocks him onto his ass. In the middle of the line is Davon Godchaux, also selected in the fifth round of the 2017 draft. He goes nowhere. On the right side of the line is Christian Wilkins, the Dolphins’ first-round draft pick this season and a stud on two Clemson national title teams. Wilkins does some stutter steps and fakes that don’t fool the Ravens tackle even a little bit. It looks like he’s just standing there.

Jackson makes the throw after about three seconds, which is enough time for Brown to run across the causeway to Miami Beach and back. But he could have taken as long as he wanted. Moss gets a run at Jackson as he releases the ball mainly because the Ravens forgot about him after they knocked him out. I’m not going to get too mad at the Miami D-line for its horrible play here, because the true sin came from its coaching staff: Rushing three men on third down is a classic dumb football move that always results in the opposing quarterback having endless time to throw and complete a pass against an overly conservative defense. And yet!

Miami is also not good at defending the run. Let’s talk about that next!

Linebacker

It’s really tough to highlight plays in which just one part of Miami’s defense is having a problem. Generally a terrible pass rush allows terrible coverage to be exposed, or a nonexistent run defense sets the stage for a linebacker to do something stupid. Here are two plays from Sunday’s loss to Dallas in which the Dolphins’ line gets ripped to shreds by the Cowboys offense. Miami’s linebackers aren’t sure what to do about it.

On this first play, Dallas opens up a massive hole in Miami’s front. Middle linebacker Jerome Baker doesn’t fill it, because he has his eyes on a receiver motioning across the backfield. Ezekiel Elliott runs through the hole:

On this second play, Dallas opens up two massive holes in Miami’s front, one between the guards and a cutback lane in between the left guard and left tackle. Ideally, these two holes would get filled by the players backing the line, known as “linebackers.” Again, they are nowhere to be found:

Let’s go to Jerome for some analysis:

Secondary

The most embarrassing play involving the Dolphins secondary this season was not even a pass play. It came on the first play from scrimmage of the season, when Ravens running back Mark Ingram trucked cornerback Eric Rowe into the turf and ran another 39 yards afterward. The Miami season hasn’t gotten much better since.

But the pass defense has been absolutely abysmal. The Dolphins have surrendered 10 passing touchdowns and managed just one interception. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 72 percent of their passes and averaging more than 10 yards per attempt. There are eight Dolphins defenders against whom quarterbacks have completed 100 percent of their passes—and that doesn’t even include cornerback Jomal Wiltz, against whom they have a perfect 158.3 passer rating.

So let’s turn to the other Hollywood Brown touchdown from Week 1. This is a play-action pass, and, suffice it to say, the Dolphins bit.

(To be fair, the guy filming the All-22 bit too.)

The biggest mistake here is made by free safety Bobby McCain. McCain is not a free safety by trade: He was a cornerback in college, a slot corner in his first three years in the NFL, and an outside cornerback last year. This offseason Flores made the surprise choice to shift McCain to safety. It’s unclear why this move was made, considering the team’s highest-paid player, Reshad Jones, and best player, Fitzpatrick, were already at safety. But the move was made nonetheless. Week 1 was McCain’s first regular-season game at safety as the team’s last line of defense.

McCain doesn’t seem to realize that on this play. Even though McCain is a single-high safety and no other player is remotely prepared to defend the deep part of the field, he aggressively pursues a run play that isn’t happening. In fact, he’s still storming forward to stop the run when Jackson throws a pass.

This means the only person who could possibly prevent Brown from reaching the end zone is Eric Rowe, a corner Flores brought over from the Patriots in the offseason. Rowe fails. He gets crossed up when Brown runs a route to the middle of the field, losing a step on the speedster while flipping his hips back to the inside. Then he chooses to dive in an all-or-nothing effort to break up the pass. Maybe if Rowe had safety help, this would’ve been an acceptable choice, since there would have been another defender there to clean up his mess. But McCain is off defending ghosts.

There are so many brutal plays here. There’s the time Xavien Howard went the wrong way:

The time Eric Rowe ran the wrong way:

The other time Eric Rowe ran the wrong way:

And the time Walt Aikens went the wrong way:

I can keep going, but I’m choosing to stop. That isn’t a luxury afforded to these Dolphins. They must play 13 more games. Team management would probably prefer to fast-forward through the season, but I can’t look away.