Analysis

Don’t Count On the Miami Dolphins Carrying 2021 Momentum Forward

Don't Count On the Miami Dolphins Carrying 2021 Momentum Forward

The 2022 Miami Dolphins are an interesting enigma.

After starting the 2021 season with a 1-7 record, Miami rattled off seven consecutive victories to scratch and claw their way back into Wildcard contender-ship. While they fell short of their first playoff appearance since 2016, there seemed to be clear steps forward down the stretch.

What followed was an offseason full of surprises. To begin, the Dolphins fired head coach Brian Flores, who had led the team to consecutive seasons with winning records — a feat that the Dolphins hadn’t accomplished since the 2002-03 seasons. Miami then hired 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel as their new head coach, and also added All-Pro receiver Tyreek Hill via trade with the Kansas City Chiefs.

While the Dolphins’ roster features promising talent at the skill positions, and a dynamic cornerback duo, it’s fair to question if Miami can keep up in the absolutely stacked AFC with a lot of new faces and moving pieces.

Revisiting 2021

While the Dolphins ended 2021 as arguably the hottest team in football, the first half of the season was nothing short of a disaster. After defeating the New England Patriots in Week 1, the Dolphins lost their next seven contests. In that span, Miami averaged just 17 points per game, while their opponents scored 31 points per game.

The low point of the Dolphins’ season came in Week 6, when they faced the Jacksonville Jaguars in London. Jacksonville was in the midst of their own tumultuous season, as they entered the game winless under Urban Meyer. The Jaguars won on a last-second field goal, and the Dolphins downward spiral continued. Another close loss to the Atlanta Falcons, and a second loss to the Bills rounded out the nearly two-month long skid before Miami beat Houston in Week 9.

As impressive as the incumbent win streak was, it’s important to add context to the seven games in which the Dolphins won. The combined final records of the teams the Dolphins beat was 34-68. Miami defeated just one team with a record north of .500 in this span — a New Orleans Saints teams quarterbacked by Ian Book on a Monday Night game in which the Dolphins dominated the rookie from Notre Dame in his first career start.

Miami was then humiliated by the Tennessee Titans in a 34-3 loss in Week 17, before defeating New England in Week 18. In totality, the Dolphins were 3-5 against teams who finished 2021 with a winning record, with two of those coming against the Patriots. They need to show they can hang with tougher competition in order to be part of the playoff conversation in the AFC.

The Dolphins 2022 Schedule

Miami has two daunting stretches in 2022, the first of which comes at the beginning of the season. From Weeks 1-6, here is what they will have on their plate: New England, at Baltimore, Buffalo, at Cincinnati, at Jets, and Vikings. Three divisional games, one of which is against a Bills team that Miami hasn’t beaten since 2018. Baltimore will have half of their roster back in comparison to last year’s matchup where their entire secondary and running back room was on IR. Nothing needs said about the Bengals, they made it out of the AFC last season for a reason, and Minnesota is a team that will be fighting for a division title.

The back half of the Dolphins schedule is brutal. From Weeks 13-15, they have three consecutive road games against the 49ers, Chargers, and Bills, respectively. Off that stretch, they host Green Bay, travel to New England, and finish out the season at home against the Jets.

Now, there are some positives for Miami in terms of their impending schedule. For starters, they have winnable games within their division. While Buffalo has had Miami’s number for the last number of years, their four games against the Patriots and Jets are all winnable contests. New England was a 10-win team in 2021, but they also had a lot of luck fall their way and looked more like sheep in wolves clothing in their lopsided playoff loss to Buffalo. The Jets had a fantastic offseason, but how big of a jump will they make? Are they an eight- or nine-win team? Are they still a year away? Both teams have questions of their own. At the bare minimum, the Dolphins can split those four contests.

They also benefit from a relatively easy middle stretch of their schedule. Their games against the Steelers, Lions, Bears, Texans, and Browns are all winnable. If they can rattle off wins in October and November, as well as stay above water in the first quarter of the season and down the stretch, then the Dolphins will be in the Wildcard hunt.

The Tua Tagovailoa Dilemma

There may not be a more polarizing player in the NFL than Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. While the now third-year quarterback is 13-8 in 21 career starts, and the Dolphins have been on the brink with Tagovailoa, there is an immense amount of pressure on him in 2022.

When considering how Justin Herbert has skyrocketed into the elite quarterback conversation, and Joe Burrow has already appeared in a Super Bowl, Tagovailoa already feels like the odd man out among the three notable quarterbacks from the 2020 NFL Draft.

Now, it is true that Tagovailoa was very precise on several occasions in 2021. He completed at least 70 percent of his passes six times, including consecutive weeks in late November where he completed over 80 percent of his attempts. He was also fifth in the NFL in on-target throwing percentage. That said, Tagovailoa’s accuracy comes with the caveat that he rarely tests defenses downfield.

Tagovailoa was 30th in the NFL in intended air yards per pass attempt, and 25th in completed air yards per completion. If that trend continues, then the Dolphins will have to bank on Jaylen Waddle and Hill being numbers one and two in the NFL in YAC. While both are explosive receivers, and likely capable of doing so, what happens when defenses begin to take away the short throws? Eventually, Miami’s opponents will dare Tagovailoa to beat them with his arm. If the Dolphins’ passing game becomes too one-dimensional, they will become easy to stop, even with Hill and Waddle.

Everything will come down to how quickly Miami’s offense begins to click under McDaniel, and if Tagovailoa can take the next step from serviceable starter to franchise quarterback. If he doesn’t, Miami will have to ask themself several questions about what they will do with him going forward, especially in a conference that continues to load up on the best young quarterbacks in the league.

Read More: Former NFL Scout Says There are No More Excuses for Tua Tagovailoa