“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” - To A Mouse, by Robert Burns
As the Miami Dolphins endure the dog days of training camp under the fierce Florida sun, we are quickly coming to terms with the fact that this year’s edition will bear little resemblance to last year’s scrappers.
Some of this is by design because a 10-6 record and a first round playoff exit demands improvement. This is especially true when we accept that last season’s path to success wasn't sustainable.
Defensively, extensive change was prioritized. The Dolphin spin doctors hate the term “rebuild”, but there was little choice given their 30th overall ranking.
Rookie defensive coordinator Matt Burke signed up for the task and is working hard to identify as many as six new positional starters plus several new situational contributors. Above all, talent is what wins. Add to this all the new wrinkles and adjustments which are being installed to better fit this new talent and it's a tall order for Burke and his boys to complete before opening day.
Re-tooling the defense and making some tweaks on offense is a major undertaking. But unexpected events have since turned that home improvement project into a more extensive makeover.
Burke is now dealing with an implosion of his LB corps. The season ending losses of MLBs Koa Misi and Raekwon McMillian tore a hole in the middle of his defense, forcing Burke to compensate with new player rotations and on-field responsibility adjustments. Third year man Mike Hull has now been called up, ready or not, with more help likely in the weeks to come once cut downs occur. It is possible that the permanent starter at MLB is not yet on the current roster. This person must be identified, and soon.
The loss of Misi and McMillan hurts, but is manageable. The real game changer facing the Dolphins is the loss of QB Ryan Tannehill. It moves the entire offense into scope.
We all know the narrative: Tannehill and the team bet the house that ACL surgery would not be necessary, and that a regimen of physical training, together with a knee brace, would be sufficient for him to fully compete. That gamble failed in an instant when Tannehill hyperextended his injured knee on August 3, largely due to lingering instability under full training conditions.
In hindsight it seems foolhardy for the Dolphins, the doctors, and Tannehill to have opted for anything but surgery. It also seems out of place to criticize those very same experts, given their acumen in dealing with such matters. Either way, the inescapable consequences are profound not only to the Dolphins but to Tannehill as well.
The Dolphins immediately signed former Bears QB Jay Cutler, an Adam Gase pupil from his time in Chicago, to be their new starter. The rationale for the move is inescapable.
'We would have been in good shape if Matt (Moore) would have been the starter and we had somebody else as the backup. We would have still felt good about it', Gase told PFT Live, 'but I wanted to make sure we had two guys we felt good about.'
The Dolphins were very fortunate to get a player of Cutler's ability without surrendering more than a big wad of Steve Ross's money (1 year, $10 million). A former Pro Bowler with deep playoff experience, Cutler possesses the best arm talent South Florida has seen since Dan Marino. Yes he has been inconsistent throughout his career, but he also enjoyed his best season under Gase's tutelage.
And now the two are reunited. Therein lies the allure.
Tannehill is a great teammate and a good Dolphin, but the NFL is a cold place for players on season ending injured reserve. It's even colder for starting quarterbacks without elite credentials who lose their job to a man some think may be better.
Here's a hard truth: When Cutler arrived at the Davie training facility the Dolphins immediately ceased being Ryan Tannehill's team. That's because Jay Cutler is now the starting quarterback of the Miami Dolphins.
And Tannehill's ability to stay deeply involved is limited, as there cannot be two alpha dogs in the QB room. That tenet, together with Cutler's resume and his history with Gase, makes him The Man. And it makes Tannehill an outsider looking in.
In the way, that is.
To Cutler's credit, he isn't foolishly strutting around as a prima donna would; he's handling things the way you'd expect from a mature veteran leader. He's deferred to Moore in practices and taken advice from Tannehill and Marino. Funny cigarette memes aside, the man knows how to earn respect. But it's also clear that the team has paid deference to Cutler and expects him to lead. The Dolphins will have a different vibe about them as a result.
Quietly and with some compensation, Brandon Doughty promptly yielded his #6 jersey to Cutler. Gase has restructured practices to allow Cutler to acclimate and settle in as the starting QB. The offensive system, while very familiar to Cutler, is being reshuffled to prioritize plays and formations more suitable to Cutler's talents and his preferences.
This means that what we see being run in games will be different than last season. One example will be a more vertical passing game like Marino and other fastball pitchers prefer.
Even the pro shop has bowed to the new pecking order. Cutler jerseys were promptly made and displayed on the high visibility racks while the Tannehill jerseys were relocated to a lower visibility area.
Out of the way.
Look, it's not personal. None of this is. It's the reality of the NFL for players on IR who don't have premier cache. As much as he is respected, Tannehill is no exception.
It's fair to wonder if Tannehill will get his job back when he returns from injury, especially if Cutler plays well. That's too far in the future to comment on today. What we can say for certain is that the 2017 Miami Dolphins will look a lot different than expected.