I’ve never fully understood the love the Dolphins have for playing musical chairs with offensive linemen during training camp, constantly shifting positions and units on a daily basis.
Yes, I get the theory: by giving guys reps at different positions, and with different teammates, you develop flexibility while gaining a full assessment of talent and tendencies. You also create competition.
Explained offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen, “It’s actually great. We’re going to have more flexibility than ever, because you’ve got some talent in there.”
Fine. I get that.
Christensen continued, ”We’ll have to make some decisions, but those decisions will come more after Week 1 of the preseason and then we’ll still have two weeks of camp and a fourth preseason game and a game week to have the combination right that we want to go into the season with. But I don’t see that happening until after Week 1 of the preseason. I see us just continuing to cross-train a lot of different people and then make our decision from there.”
Not fine. I don’t get why it’s necessary to have another prolonged shuffle for weeks and weeks into the preseason, sometimes right up to the start of the regular season. Failed coaches of the past, most recently Joe Philbin, engaged in this sort of overkill on an annual basis, accomplishing little other than sacrificing cohesiveness of the starting unit for extra tape that, in the end, was irrelevent at best.
This season, the answers across the offensive line seem very clear. Why not just declare and get ready from now?
Tackles Brandon Albert and Ja’Wuan James are locks, as is Center Mike Pouncey. All three are first round draft picks, with five Pro Bowls amongst them. Obviously, no debate here.
At left guard, 2016 first rounder Laremy Tunsil is all but certain to start. Any other decision would be exasperating and inexplicable. Yes, he must earn the job and he is getting a share of the reps with the first teamers to do just that. However, it has been Dallas Thomas who has been coming out with the starters on a daily basis, not Tunsil.
Offensive line coach Chris Foerster does his best tap dance to explain this confusing optic.
“The depth chart hasn’t been set yet. So guys that have been here, guys that are doing better in drill work, guys that understand the offense better. Obviously, there’s a learning curve for everybody. At this point, we are letting Dallas roll, although Tunsil is taking some. A lot of it has to do with how we’re trying to get Laremy reps in other positions. It doesn’t always work out that he can go first, second. If it’s a day we’re trying to get Billy Turner reps at right guard, that affects everybody else in the rotation.”
"If it’s a day we’re trying to get Tunsil more at left tackle, that affects everybody in the rotation. So it’s really all about how the rotation is going during the day, not so much, a little bit is, Dallas has been here and understands it a little better. But not that much better."
Christensen added, “It’s still the teach mode. As much as I kind of want to jump ahead and get into a starting lineup, we haven’t even gotten to the first preseason game or game week (yet). Through the first preseason game, it’s just keep teaching. (Tunsil’s) really a talented guy. He’s going to be a really fine left tackle at whatever point, but there is a learning curve for him at guard. Things actually happen quicker at guard. You have all of the twists. You’ve got a lot more movement. You’re setting outside about 85 percent of the time. It probably is going to be good for him long-term wise to have played in there and understand how quickly things happen in this league. So I think there’s a silver lining for Tunsil that you’re playing a different position where things are happening really, really quickly, which will pay off for him at left tackle also. But we’re going to continue to training him at both positions and knowing full well that it’s not a natural position for him at guard and he’s just learning.”
Got all that?
At right guard, the situation is very fluid and the decision will be tougher. Three veterans (Jermon Bushrod, Billy Turner, and Thomas) are getting first team reps. Turner and Thomas were starters last year while Bushrod has started in the NFL before and has a known history with head coach Adam Gase. Together with the aforementioned linemen, they will occupy seven of the 8 to 9 probable offensive line roster spots.
Look, coaches love to tinker. But letting this go too far would be Gase’s first big mistake. Given the history, it is in the team’s best interest to get all of this sorted out as soon as possible.
Christensen seems to understand the risk of prolonged wishy-washiness, at least in principle, noting, "We'd love to have one unit we know is going to go out there every play and get their chemistry down."
So how long will Gase, Christensen, and Foerster choose to watch the movie before making decisions? This is the salient question, and perhaps the biggest one in terms of giving the Dolphin offense a chance to be good.
In football, the offensive line is the engine that powers drives and points. It’s takes time and lots of reps for the unit to properly gel. When the five guys up front are in sync, including the tight end, it is sweet music. When they are not, as was the case last season and in seasons past, it’s ugly. And no one has suffered more from these disjointed units than QB Ryan Tannehill.
Fortunately, a repeat this season is entirely avoidable. All it will take is some strong leadership and decision-making.
So here’s an idea, which may in fact be their current thinking: let the evaluation continue for another week up to the first preseason game versus the Giants (August 12). Then, make decisions on the likely starters for Week 1. Gase, Christensen, and Foerster will have plenty of practice film to rely on by then.
At left guard, it says here that Tunsil is the man. This will be true even if Thomas is only slightly ahead of him because rookie Tunsil will be much improved by midseason versus a veteran like Thomas who has probably plateaued.
As for right guard, the good news is that the coaches have known commodities to choose from. Gase knows Bushod the best and could opt for the familiarity factor. However, the much younger Thomas or Turner could easily prevail here. The point is, pick a guy and prepare him with the other four starters for the season opener.
The sooner, the better.