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2018 NFL Preview: Maybe this time Dolphins coach Adam Gase can finally run his offense

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

When the Miami Dolphins hired Adam Gase in 2016 it was supposed to be a new age for the franchise, particularly on offense.

Gase was going to run an exciting, up-tempo offense. The debate wasn’t whether they’d run a no-huddle attack. The talk was about how fast their no-huddle offense was going to be.

Two years later, the Dolphins are as boring as any offense in the NFL. Over the past two seasons only the Chicago Bears, run by outdated coach John Fox, ran fewer plays than the Dolphins. Miami finished 24th in yards in 2016 and 25th in 2017. The Dolphins, Cleveland Browns and New York Jets are the only teams that haven’t finished higher than 24th in total yards either of the past two seasons.

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The revolution hasn’t happened. The Dolphins’ offense has been slow and ineffective. There were reasons. The Dolphins slowed to a crawl in 2016 because the faster tempo wasn’t working early in the season. Then the Dolphins got on a roll with a slower offense (albeit against a very friendly schedule) and made the playoffs. Hard to argue.

“When you get into a situation where the quarterback feels comfortable but then you have 10 other guys that it’s hard with, you really have to go away from it,” Gase said in 2017, according to the Sun-Sentinel, explaining why the Dolphins gave up the no-huddle approach the year before. “If you have 50 percent, it’s just not enough. Last year we just got into a situation where we needed to settle everything down and really keep learning what we were doing and get better at that.”

With another offseason to implement the scheme, 2017 was supposed to be the year. Then Ryan Tannehill tore his ACL in training camp and the Dolphins had to drag Jay Cutler out of retirement. They played slow again. The offense was awful most of the season, and Gase knew it.

“I’m tired of watching for two years this garbage,” Gase said after a 20-6 loss to the Jets last September, when the Dolphins were shut out until a meaningless touchdown on the final play. “We’ll make the proper adjustments, probably make some changes. We’ll figure out what we’ve got to do and get that thing rolling. I’ve been watching it for two years and it hasn’t worked.”

You don’t get unlimited time to figure things out as an NFL head coach, unless you’re Marvin Lewis. Gase has been on the job two seasons and hasn’t run his offense yet. It might be now or never.

“Obviously we want to run an up-tempo, no-huddle offense,” new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said this offseason, according to the Dolphins’ transcripts. “That’s what Adam has done in the past and that’s where our vision is and we’re trying to get going that way.”

We’ve heard that before. At least this time the Dolphins should have their quarterback, although perhaps not much else.

Tannehill is back. He is practicing and all signs are that he has recovered from his injury, but there was the same optimism last offseason and it didn’t matter. There should be concern until Tannehill makes it through August looking healthy.

This is a huge season for Tannehill, who will turn 30 on July 27. Tannehill has played well at times. His career 86.5 rating is less than a point behind the career marks of Alex Smith, Andrew Luck and Jameis Winston, and ahead of the career marks of Cam Newton and Eli Manning. However, he hasn’t been overwhelming and he’s expensive. Tannehill’s annual average salary of $19.25 million is 18th highest in the NFL, more than any non-quarterback in the league. It’s hard to justify paying Tannehill more per season than Von Miller or Antonio Brown. Tannehill’s 2019 salary-cap number, as it stands, is $26.6 million, according to Spotrac. It’s hard to imagine the Dolphins paying that if Tannehill doesn’t take a step forward (though, NFL teams often make suboptimal decisions when it comes to average quarterbacks).

If Gase wants to finally run his preferred offense and Tannehill is going to turn into more than a forgettable quarterback, some offensive talent will have to emerge. Jarvis Landry was traded this offseason. Jay Ajayi was traded last season. Former first-round pick DeVante Parker hasn’t panned out, though there’s another offseason of syrupy sweet reports that this looks like his breakout. Sure. The Dolphins will try again at tight end with athletic rookie Mike Gesecki. Miami’s offensive line is in the bottom half of the league. Receivers Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson were added, Kenny Stills is an interesting weapon, Kenyan Drake would probably be a fine running back if the Dolphins would finally trust him, but it’s still a thin offense.

Excuses won’t matter. Gase and Tannehill have to make it work. Gase has good reasons for not yet delivering on his offensive promises, and Tannehill’s development wasn’t helped by mediocre supporting casts, a coaching change and injuries. The NFL generally doesn’t care about anything but the bottom line.

If things don’t look different this season in Miami, they’ll probably look a lot different next year.

Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase enters his third season with the team. (AP)

It’s hard to get too excited when the biggest move of Miami’s offseason was cutting defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. We can argue if Suh was worth what he was getting paid, but the Dolphins can’t replace him. Losing center Mike Pouncey is an underrated blow too. The main free-agent additions of receiver Danny Amendola, guard Josh Sitton and running back Frank Gore are fine, but all are at least 32 years old. Receiver Albert Wilson will be 26 this season and is an intriguing gamble, but he still has just 1,544 yards and seven touchdowns in four seasons. The Dolphins spent what amounts to only a fourth-round pick on pass rusher Robert Quinn, which made sense. I like first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick, and second-round pick Mike Gesecki has great athleticism for a tight end. But overall, it’s hard to say the Dolphins are better.

GRADE: C-

The Dolphins’ secondary could end up being a strength. Safety Reshad Jones is one of the best in the NFL, and should still have plenty left in the tank at age 30. Cornerback Xavien Howard had a great stretch late last season, and perhaps he’s ready to consistently play at that level. First-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick was a great value pick at No. 12, and his versatility will be a plus for the Dolphins from his first game on. The Dolphins’ secondary wasn’t good last season – a poor pass rush didn’t help – but if Miami can turn that into a strength, it’s a big boost.

I’d like to have more faith in the Dolphins’ receivers. I get why they didn’t want to invest a huge contract in Jarvis Landry. But Albert Wilson is unproven, Danny Amendola is old (for all his playoff success, he has never posted 700 yards in a regular season), Mike Gesecki is a rookie and DeVante Parker is a perennial tease. Kenny Stills is a good deep threat but isn’t a No. 1 receiver. Maybe one or more of these targets has a great season, but you’d like to see more certainty as Ryan Tannehill tries to get back on a positive career track.

The Dolphins are in a tough spot. Ryan Tannehill is slated to get paid like a perennial Pro Bowler next season. Yet, they have no substantial backup plan if they have to move on from Tannehill next year. The other quarterbacks on the roster are Brock Osweiler, Bryce Petty and David Fales, and none of them should be starting for an NFL team. It’s understandable why the Dolphins didn’t move up like the Buffalo Bills or Arizona Cardinals for Josh Allen or Josh Rosen, and it was even reasonable for them to pass on Lamar Jackson. But now Tannehill could have a bad season and still have leverage with his $26.6 million salary-cap hit next season. The Dolphins are walking a tightrope at quarterback.

The Robert Quinn trade was a surprise. The Los Angeles Rams are loading up for a Super Bowl run, and traded away a former All-Pro pass rusher with no clear replacement? The Rams saved more than $11 million on the cap, but it was still startling a contender would trade a 28-year-old with 62.5 career sacks for what amounts to a fourth-round pick (the Dolphins and Rams swapped sixth-round picks too). Why would the Rams dump him? Quinn was a 2013 All-Pro with 19 sacks, but the past three seasons have produced just 17.5 sacks combined. Are the Dolphins getting the guy who had 40 sacks from 2012-14 or the player who has struggled with injuries for three years? Cameron Wake is amazing, but he’s also 36 and won’t post double-digit sacks forever. The Dolphins need Quinn to make an impact.

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “In 2016, with Ryan Tannehill under center, Jarvis Landry averaged 8.5 targets per game. With Landry gone, one might assume Danny Amendola would receive a hearty target share. Except … the Dolphins have a plethora of bodies that can man the slot. From Albert Wilson to Jakeem Grant to two pass-catching running backs, the Dolphins have options. At 32 years old, and with a history of durability concerns, Amendola seems much more like insurance than reassurance. Don’t chase the brand name.” 

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Dolphins.]

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If you’ve read these previews over the years, you know I study win-loss records in close games. A great record in close games is often fool’s gold and not repeatable, and a bad record in close games usually means a team was unlucky. Well, the 6-10 Dolphins were 5-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less (and 3-1 in games decided by a field goal or less). That’s right, the Dolphins had one convincing win all season, a 35-9 drubbing of the Denver Broncos in Week 13. As bad as this sounds, the Dolphins were lucky to be 6-10. That’s not good.

WHY DON’T THE DOLPHINS LOVE KENYAN DRAKE?

It’s a red flag when teams can’t see what they have in a player. Case in point: Last season’s Tennessee Titans staff refused to make Derrick Henry their lead back over DeMarco Murray. Murray was finished and everyone could see it … except the Titans’ staff. Then Murray got hurt, the Titans had no choice, and Henry dominated in a playoff win at Kansas City. If last season’s Titans staff couldn’t get that obvious decision right, how many other things was it screwing up? In a similar tale, I wonder why the Dolphins are so lukewarm on Drake. Even when Jay Ajayi was traded during last season, the Dolphins made sure to give pedestrian Damien Williams close to half the snaps. When Williams went down, they had to use Drake. And the multi-talented Drake played very well, gaining 129 yards from scrimmage per game in five games as the unquestioned lead back. The Dolphins should be thrilled by that development, right? They didn’t show it, engaging in trade rumors for some running backs, then signing Frank Gore and drafting Kalen Ballage. Every team needs depth at tailback, and Drake hasn’t shown he can hold up with 250 or more carries over a season, but reports indicated Gore is far more than just a veteran insurance policy. Based on the Dolphins’ weird reluctance to feature Drake, would it surprise anyone if Gore gets way too many carries this season? Probably not. The Dolphins have a young, talented back in Drake. Now let’s see if they give him a real chance to shine, or if they screw it up.

The most optimistic, “everything that could possibly go right goes right” prediction for the Dolphins still puts them in only second place of the AFC East. And that isn’t all that impressive. The AFC isn’t as deep as the NFC, so perhaps the Dolphins can work some 2016 magic and get a wild-card spot. Regardless of record, it would be nice if they finish the season believing Adam Gase and Ryan Tannehill are the answers at the two most important spots for an NFL franchise.

The worst possible outcome might be mediocrity. What if Ryan Tannehill is just good enough that the Dolphins can’t cut him and that enormous 2019 salary? What if Adam Gase still doesn’t field a good offense, but the Dolphins win just enough games that they convince themselves to run it back with Gase for a fourth season? If the Dolphins win two or three games, everything is easily defined: Gase is gone, Tannehill gets cut and the Dolphins draft a quarterback replacement in the top three next year. It seems like the Dolphins aren’t good enough to make the playoffs, yet won’t be bad enough that they’ll hit the reset button. That’s a bad place to be in the NFL.

The Dolphins will be OK, right in that middle ground that will probably paralyze them next offseason. The fact that we’re at No. 24 on the countdown and three AFC East teams have already appeared says there are some winnable division games on Miami’s schedule. Ryan Tannehill may not thrill anyone, but he’s better than Jay Cutler. Adam Gase will finally get his offense going, to some extent. Seven wins sounds about right. And if I’m being too optimistic and the Dolphins finish with double-digit losses again, there’s a good chance we’ll see a new coach and quarterback in Miami next season. Who knows, maybe that would be for the best.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!