The Miami Dolphins had their fair share of distractions in 2013.
Most of the season centered around what was happening off the field instead of what they were doing on it.
Offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin were involved in a bullying scandal that surely distracted the team to no end, made national headlines and redefined how we view the culture of NFL locker rooms. According to Martin, due to a slew of text messages and mean-spirited acts from Incognito, he had no choice but to leave the team on Oct. 28 to receive help for his emotional issues. A little over a week later Incognito was suspended for misconduct related to the mistreatment of a teammate and never returned.
The national media ate the story up and regularly attended practices to get the latest scoop on the Dolphins' dilemma. Despite all the distractions, Miami were in the thick of things late in the season. Thanks to a pair of three-game winning streaks, they had a chance at grabbing the AFC's second Wild Card spot with a victory in one of the last two games. They proceeded to be shut out in Buffalo by the Bills and then were trounced at home by the New York Jets in the final week. Miami finished with an 8-8 record and missed the postseason for the fifth consecutive campaign.
But that was then and this is now.
Both Incognito and Martin have gone their separate ways and the Dolphins, for the time being, are distraction-free going into 2014. Ironically, not only were members of the offensive line the biggest problem off the field for Miami last season, but they were equally destructive on it. The South Beach club led the league in sacks allowed with 58 and were tied for fifth in quarterback hits with 100.
New General Manager Dennis Hickey made that a priority in the off-season and Miami could have up to four new starters when Week 1 rolls around. The biggest addition is Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert who they signed to a five-year, $47 million contract. The 29-year-old will be expected to defend Ryan Tannehill's blind side. They also picked up promising guard Shelley Smith, right tackle Jason Fox and former Green Bay Packer Daryn Colledge. The 32-year-old Colledge has appeared in all 128 career games over his eight-year career and could prove to be instrumental in helping to defend the quarterback. Miami selected, to the surprise of some, offensive tackles Ja'Wuan James in the first round (19th overall) out of Tennessee and Billy Turner out of North Dakota State in the third round of the 2014 Draft.
The only returning starter is Pro Bowl centre Mike Pouncey, but he'll be out for at least the first month of the season due to off-season hip surgery. Right guard Dallas Thomas - who appeared in six games in 2013 - is back in Miami colours this season and could be used in a more important role. Either way, the Fins' o-line should be much better with these additions and it might even add a few W's to the win column.
All in all, like last year, the Miami Dolphins will probably be a fringe playoff team at best in 2014. However, with the Incognito fiasco in the rear-view mirror, Miami might be able to surprise some people.
Tannehill's New Boss
How good can Ryan Tannehill be? The 26-year-old Texan is entering his third-year in the NFL after a solid sophomore campaign where he threw for close to 4,000 yards and 24 touchdowns with 17 interceptions and an 81.7 QB rating. Things will be different for Tannehill this year though. For the first time since his second year at Texas A&M, Tannehill won't have Mike Sherman calling him the plays. The Dolphins fired Sherman, who also coached Tannehill in college from 2008-2011, after two seasons as offensive coordinator in January. After being ranked 27th in the league in total offence and a dismal end to the season where they scored seven points over two games, change was inevitably in the air. In comes 42-year-old Bill Lazor with a new playbook and a new mindset that will hopefully, for the Dolphins' sake, make Tannehill and wide receiver Mike Wallace one of the most dangerous tandems in the NFL. The progression of that combo is a major storyline to follow for Miami in 2014. Second round pick Jarvis Landry, out of LSU, has impressed many at camp and could be a viable option for Tannehill as the season progresses. The Fins' running game should see improvement as well with the addition of Knowshon Moreno.
The Dolphins weren't great at preventing the run last year, allowing 124.9 yards per game on the ground. To make matters worse, they lost former Pro Bowl nose tackle Paul Soliai to the Atlanta Falcons after he spent the first seven years of his career in South Beach. Miami signed Earl Mitchell to a four-year contract in free agency and re-signed Pro Bowler Randy Starks to a two-year deal. They'll both be trusted to fill the void up the middle left by Soliai's departure.
Strength of Schedule
Miami has the 12th toughest schedule this year according to an opponents' winning percentage of .508 from last season. Big tests include Week 1 and Week 15 against the New England Patriots, Week 6 against the Green Bay Packers, Week 12 against the Denver Broncos and Week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens. The Dolphins finish off the regular season with winnable home games against the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets over the final two weeks. If the Dolphins are on the verge of clinching, it will be interesting to see if they learned their lesson from the collapse in 2013.