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How Did the Dolphins Go From Being an NFL Blueprint to a Directionless Mess?

After finishing 10-6 last season, Miami seemed poised for a long run of success. Now it’s on a five-game losing streak and its entire foundation is crumbling. What went wrong? And how did it happen so fast?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There was a time when the Dolphins seemed like they had it all figured out—and that time was only a few months ago. In 2020, Miami went 10-6, barely missing the playoffs in a loaded AFC that featured seven teams with at least 11 wins. The franchise had the right head coach, Brian Flores, and was hopeful that it had the right quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa. And on top of that, it had the no. 3 pick in the 2021 draft, a byproduct of a 2019 trade with Houston that looked lopsided even before the Texans collapsed.

You’re not supposed to be good and have a high draft pick in the NFL, but the Dolphins had cracked the code. They’d made all the right moves. Not only were they capable of identifying the best people for their organization, but they had also correctly foreseen the downfall of the Texans, who weren’t able to see it themselves. It felt like the Dolphins would have something to say about the present and future of the league.

Fast-forward to right now, and the Dolphins seem to have nothing figured out. They’re 1-5, in the midst of a five-game losing streak. Their lone 2021 win came by a single point; the subsequent week they lost 35-0. They rank 29th in points scored and tied for 30th in points allowed, giving them a worse point differential than the winless Lions. Miami just lost to the Jaguars, whose dysfunction has been one of the biggest stories in the NFL.

And on top of that, the Dolphins don’t even have their own 2022 first-round pick. That’s the byproduct of a bewildering trade made before last year’s draft in which they sent that pick to the Eagles. It could easily turn into a top-three selection next spring.

You’re not supposed to be bad and have a low draft pick in the NFL, but the Dolphins seem broken. They have so many holes on their roster that it isn’t clear what they’d address if they did have a top pick. They might even have to go after a quarterback, since Tagovailoa has done relatively little to prove he’s the foundation of their future. Adding insult to injury is that every week Dolphins fans see the success of Justin Herbert, the QB picked one spot behind Tagovailoa in the 2020 draft. Herbert has already emerged as one of the league’s most valuable players.

The Dolphins’ sudden transformation from a model franchise into a directionless mess has been stunning. And it raises questions that echo throughout the league. Did they sabotage their well-planned future? Was their blueprint flawed from the start? How, exactly, did things go so wrong?

When teams trade away future draft picks, those moves can age poorly. Take the Saints trading up to snag Ricky Williams in 1999. New Orleans sent Washington a haul of draft capital, including a 2000 first-rounder that became the no. 2 pick used on LaVar Arrington. When Washington traded up to take Robert Griffin III in 2012, it sent the Rams a series of future selections, including a 2014 first-rounder that also became the no. 2 pick. The Rams and Eagles traded up in the 2016 draft to grab Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively; both teams gave up 2017 picks that later went in the top 12. The Texans made two moves like this: In addition to the no. 3 pick they sent to the Dolphins, they shipped the Browns a pick that became the no. 4 selection in 2018. And the Seahawks gave away 2021 and 2022 first-rounders as part of last summer’s trade for Jamal Adams. Seattle is currently 2-4 and its franchise quarterback is on injured reserve—Jets fans are eager to see how high that 2022 pick will be.

When teams trade away future first-round picks, they’re betting on themselves. Take the Texans. When they completed their 2019 trade that sent a 2021 first-rounder to Miami, they were coming off a stretch in which they’d made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. They figured they had one missing piece: a stalwart left tackle. So they paid big to get Laremy Tunsil from Miami, only to see their window of contention close. In 2020, they went 4-12, without the consolation of an early draft pick.

The Dolphins also had good reason to bet on their future. Within the span of two years, they went from being the league’s worst team to a promising squad that was building a culture and stockpiling assets. In 2019, Miami opened the season 0-7—but Flores and his team never quit, closing 5-4 and still getting a chance to draft Tagovailoa, the player who was once the focal point of tanking discussions. In 2020, the Dolphins doubled their win total to 10. Flores, the longtime Patriots assistant who crafted the game plan that shut down the Rams in Super Bowl LIII, transformed Miami’s defense. It ranked sixth in points allowed in 2020 after finishing a league-worst 32nd in 2019.

All of that progress has come to a screeching halt. The defense has regressed, falling back to tied for 30th in points allowed. It’s 26th in the NFL in yards allowed per play, which doesn’t account for the fact that it’s 31st in yards allowed on defensive penalties (428). Miami is 29th in sack rate (4.5 percent), 29th in interception rate (0.9 percent), and tied for 27th in tackles for loss (19). It’s allowing first downs on 52.4 percent of opposing third downs, the second-highest rate in the NFL, and is tied for sixth in missed tackles (45).

In 2020, cornerback Xavien Howard seemed like a budding star. The first-team All-Pro led the league in interceptions (10) and passes defensed (20). This year he leads the NFL in touchdowns allowed (five) among corners. He’s getting scored on by everyone from Antonio Brown to Hunter Renfrow:

The offense, led by first-year coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville, isn’t much better. Against the Raiders, the Dolphins ran a play believed to be the first completed pass for a safety in NFL history:

The offensive line may be the worst in football. According to Pro Football Focus, Miami has three of the top 10 players in pressures allowed: Austin Jackson, Liam Eichenberg, and Jesse Davis. Jackson leads the league with 29 even though he didn’t play in the first game of the season. Jackson was supposed to be the team’s left tackle, but he’s been moved to left guard. In his place, Miami inserted the rookie Eichenberg, who rates 76th out of 79 qualifying tackles by PFF. These screenshots sum up the unit:

The Dolphins are 31st in rushing yards, 29th in yards per attempt, and dead last in first downs gained by running. Only one of their running backs, Myles Gaskin, was drafted, and even he was a seventh-rounder. Miami’s backs have rushed for just one touchdown this year. As a trio, Gaskin, Salvon Ahmed, and Malcolm Brown have combined for fewer yards after contact (147) than 22 individual running backs, and have fewer broken tackles (four) than 29 individual running backs.

Assessing the Dolphins’ running woes is tough: Are they the result of the bad offensive line? Or are the bad running backs at fault? Which brings us to the biggest question about these Dolphins: What’s going on with Tua?

Evaluating Tagovailoa at Alabama was hard because there was so much talent around him that it was tough to say whether he was responsible for the team’s success. Evaluating Tagovailoa with the Dolphins is hard for the opposite reason; there are so many problems around him that it’s tough to say whether he’s responsible for the team’s failures. PFF graded the Dolphins as having the league’s worst pass-blocking unit and the 30th-ranked receiving corps.

At Alabama, Tagovailoa averaged 10.9 yards per pass attempt, the second-highest mark of any quarterback in NCAA history. But of the 46 QBs to start at least five games in the NFL over the past two seasons, Tagovailoa ranks 40th in yards per attempt. Five of the six names below him are no longer NFL starters (Andy Dalton, Alex Smith, Mike Glennon, Dwayne Haskins, and Nick Foles); the sixth is Ben Roethlisberger, who’s widely recognized to be in an advanced state of disrepair by everyone who doesn’t call into Pittsburgh sports talk radio. In college, Tagovailoa was the player brought off the bench when Alabama needed to unlock its passing game. Last season, he was repeatedly benched when Miami needed to unlock the passing game behind Ryan Fitzpatrick.

I was a huge fan of Tagovailoa in college and endorsed the Dolphins’ decision to draft him. But something is different. Tagovailoa was a ridiculously accurate passer in college. Now he does stuff like this:

Part of the problem could be that his receivers are less open than they were at Alabama. But that wouldn’t explain passes like the one below, where Tagovailoa’s receiver was wide open, but the quarterback misthrew the ball so badly that the broadcast camera never even showed the receiver he was targeting.

There are other complicating factors with Tua: He was coming off a major hip injury last season and then injured his ribs this season; his offensive coordinator last year was Chan Gailey, who didn’t allow Tagovailoa to run the full playbook and was hired by Miami specifically for his familiarity with Fitzpatrick; the Dolphins have a new set of coordinators this year who are completely unproven. But none of that excuses struggling to complete easy passes, which Tagovailoa often does.

So what went wrong? I can point to two main things.

The first is that a lot of Miami’s 2020 defensive success stemmed from turnovers, which can be unsustainable. The Dolphins led the league in interceptions and were fourth in opposing fumbles recovered. They also ranked 10th in sacks. Meanwhile, they were 25th in yards allowed per play (5.9) and 30th in yards allowed per pass attempt (8.0). They made massive plays to swing the outcome of games, but allowed opponents to move the ball against them.

This year, Miami is still allowing opponents to move the ball. From a rate perspective, the defense is almost identical to the 2020 group: It’s allowing 6.0 yards per play compared to 5.9, and still allowing exactly 8.0 yards per pass attempt. It just isn’t coming up with game-changing plays. It’s getting close—the Dolphins are seventh in passes defensed (28) and third in QB hits (46), two positive indicators from a season when everything else has gone wrong. But they’re not turning those breakups and knockdowns into interceptions and sacks. Fundamentally, this terrible defense isn’t all that different from last year’s excellent defense. But last year the Dolphins caught all the breaks. This year they’re catching none.

The second issue involves the front office. While Miami general manager Chris Grier successfully executed a strategy of accumulating draft picks, he subsequently whiffed on most of them. Grier has now made nine first-round picks with the Dolphins. The two biggest successes of that bunch—Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick—were later traded for more picks. Miami’s 2017 first-rounder, Charles Harris, never became a starter and was sent to the Falcons in 2020 for a seventh-rounder. Miami’s 2019 first-rounder, Christian Wilkins, showed relatively little improvement in his first two seasons, although he’s had some encouraging flashes this year.

In 2020, Grier had three first-round picks: Tagovailoa (no. 5), Jackson (no. 18), and Noah Igbinoghene (no. 30). We’ve already delved into Tua, and the two other picks seemed bad at the time and have only gotten worse. In The Ringer’s 2020 NFL Draft Guide, neither player was deemed first-round worthy: Igbinoghene and Jackson ranked 54th and 65th, respectively, on Danny Kelly’s Big Board. Igbinoghene has barely seen the field and looked awful in his brief action; Jackson is now playing left guard. It’s probably too early to make any conclusions about the team’s 2021 first-rounders, Jaylen Waddle and Jaelan Phillips, but it’s not a good sign that Phillips was initially listed as a third-teamer on the depth chart.

Miami’s pitiful offensive line is a prime example of the franchise’s problems in the draft. Normally a team’s line would be this bad only if it hadn’t invested the requisite resources in it. But Grier has used four top-100 picks here in the past three seasons: a first-rounder, two seconds, and a third. The Dolphins still have one of the worst lines in the league.

Accumulating draft picks has been perceived as the most foolproof way to rebuild a franchise, and Grier did a good job of that. But what happens if a team simply misses on the vast majority of those picks? The Dolphins may be an unfortunate test case.

And by making a pair of trades before the 2021 draft, Grier essentially doubled down on his past choices. The Texans trade gave the Dolphins a top-three pick in one of the most quarterback-heavy drafts ever. It would’ve been a chance to take a mulligan on a QB, but instead Grier maneuvered down to no. 6. In the process, Miami gained the 49ers’ 2022 first-round pick, but gave its own 2022 first-rounder to the Eagles. This told us two things: The Dolphins believed Tagovailoa was their QB of the future, and they believed they’d have a pretty good team in 2021.

When the Dolphins emerged from the 2020 NFL season with a solid record and the Texans’ top pick, it seemed like they’d taught everyone a valuable lesson about how to win in the NFL. Very few teams head into each season thinking they’ll be bad. You can thrive by taking advantage of the teams whose reality doesn’t align with their internal expectations.

Then the Dolphins made the exact same mistakes they had exploited. Grier couldn’t see how fragile the Dolphins’ success was, and he didn’t grasp just how many draft picks he was missing on. As Miami plummets to the bottom of the standings without its own first-round pick, the potentially catastrophic results are clear. A team that once seemed to have it all figured out could now be on the verge of blowing it up.