Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Dolphins, Part II

NinersDigest's Craig Massei and DolphinDigest's Alain Poupart go Behind Enemy Lines to preview Sunday's game between the 49ers and Dolphins. What happened to the Dolphins after a promising start? Is new coach Joe Philbin the right guy for the job? How close did the Dolphins come to signing Alex Smith in the offseason? How much does the loss of Jake Long hurt Miami? These Q&As and more inside.

Craig Massei, publisher, After a 1-3 start to the Joe Philbin era, the Dolphins rattled off three consecutive victories and were in the thick of a wide-open AFC playoff chase at 4-3 nearing midseason. Then they lost three winnable games in a row. What happened to turn Miami's fortunes, and is that a stretch that will define the Dolphins' season? They looked pretty good the past two weeks against the Seahawks and Patriots, but at 5-7, what's realistic for Miami to accomplish over the final quarter of the season?

Alain Poupart, Associate Editor, Perhaps instead of what happened to the Dolphins during their three-game losing streak, the better question would have been how did they get to 4-3 in the first place? I say that not to be a smart alec, but to point out the fact that the Dolphins really weren't expected to be contenders this season with a new coach and a rookie at quarterback and they were a major surprise when they stood at 4-3. In fact, there was more than one national analyst who was picking the Dolphins at the time to emerge as the last wild card in the AFC. What happened from that point on is that the Dolphins' personnel shortcomings started creeping up. The slide started with a really disappointing loss at Indianapolis, when Andrew Luck just had a monster game and the Dolphins just couldn't get off the field on third down on defense. To be honest, their current record of 5-7 probably is better than what most observers would have predicted they'd stand after 12 games. The Dolphins are coming off a good effort against New England last Sunday, but the fact they couldn't beat the Patriots on an off day for Bill Belichick's team tells you they're not quite ready to compete with the elite teams yet. That said, it's going to be awfully hard for them to win at San Francisco and New England in the last four weeks, although their home games against Jacksonville and Buffalo are certainly winnable. Under that scenario, the Dolphins would finish at 7-9 for the third time in four years, but the season will not have been a complete disaster.

Craig Massei: After bouncing back from the ignominious 1-15 season of 2007 to win the AFC East title the next year, the Dolphins seem to be in a holding pattern of sub.-500 seasons. What has been going on with the direction of the franchise during this stretch, and what went into the decision to hire Philbin, who was sort of off the radar as far as being a top head-coaching candidate when the Dolphins hired him? How are things working out with Philbin? Is he the right guy for the job?

Alain Poupart: After the Dolphins bottomed out in 2007, there was a perfect storm the next year between great luck with injuries, the energy brought in by the arrival of Bill Parcells and Chad Pennington falling into the Dolphins' lap and playing tremendous football that resulted in an unlikely AFC East title. The problem was that the blueprint for that team was flawed because it depended on toughness and winning by not making mistakes – a recipe that rarely wins in the NFL – and then it was compounded by Pennington starting to break down. In the last three years, the Dolphins weren't quite overwhelming enough on defense to win with a deficient offense, and a big problem was the 2008 second-round pick Chad Henne never developed into a consistent, productive quarterback. The Dolphins interviewed a lot of candidates, including Jeff Fisher, this past offseason to find a new head coach and in the end decided that Philbin was the kind of no-nonsense guy they wanted. A longtime assistant with the Green Bay Packers, Philbin is a detail-oriented guy who's obviously got offensive knowledge. It's still too early to make a determination on Philbin as a head coach, but the fact the Dolphins are 5-7 and have been much more competitive than expected speaks well for him.

Craig Massei: A few 49ers-related inquiries here: The Dolphins had quarterback Alex Smith in for a visit during the offseason. How close did they come to signing him away from the 49ers? Did Miami go after him seriously? How did Smith's decision to stay with the 49ers affect the direction the Dolphins decided to go with their quarterback situation? And, going back a few years, how were the 49ers able to get Ted Ginn from the Dolphins on the cheap in 2010? Ginn has been valuable in San Francisco as a kick returner, but he's never looked like a former first-round pick as a wide receiver. Is that pretty much what the Dolphins got out of him when Ginn was in Miami?

Alain Poupart: We'll start with Smith. He did come to South Florida for a visit in March and left after reports surfaced that contract negotiations had taken place. Philbin declined Wednesday to discuss specifics when he talked to San Francisco reporters in a conference call, choosing instead to defer to Smith. Two weeks after Smith's visit, the Dolphins ended up signing veteran David Garrard to join Matt Moore, who started the last nine games of 2011, and young player Pat Devlin. The Garrard signing didn't prevent the Dolphins from taking Ryan Tannehill with the eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft, so one would think they would have followed the same course had they ended up signing Smith. Despite Moore playing very well in leading the Dolphins to a 6-3 finish last season, GM Jeff Ireland said after the end of the season it was vital that the Dolphins get better quarterback play. So that's why they explored every possible avenue in the offseason. As for Ginn, the Dolphins ran out of patience with him a couple of years ago, in part because he contributed next to nothing on offense but mostly because a regime that emphasized toughness got tired of a guy who, how shall we put this delicately, ain't exactly tough. What Ginn did in Miami was the occasional big play – he had two kickoff returns for touchdowns in that one game against the Jets in 2009 – surrouonded by a lot of frustrating ones where he too often seemed to be searching for the sideline.

Craig Massei: The Dolphins have bounced around between different quarterbacks for several years now, but after selecting Ryan Tannehill in the first round this year and making him their starter this season, does he look like the franchise QB going forward that the Dolphins have been lacking? What do you see as Tannehill's potential and upside, and how has the Miami offense been better/worse this season with him at the controls?

Alain Poupart: As with Philbin, it's probably too early to make a definitive judgment on Tannehill's ability to become a franchise quarterback, but he clearly looks the part. Since day one, his teammates have raved about his maturity and his leadership ability and he has shown an uncanny knack for remaining even-keeled regardless of what happens. He's a very good athlete with a live arm and he throws very well on the run. Like all rookies, though, he's prone to being inconsistent and his accuracy hasn't been quite as good as the folks in Miami would like to see. Like Tannehill, the Dolphins offense has been up and down all year.

Craig Massei: How much does the loss of offensive tackle Jake Long hurt the Dolphins, and has Long been as good as all his Pro Bowl/All-Pro accolades over recent seasons would suggest? There seems to be some question about whether the Dolphins plan to bring Long back next year with the high price tag he will command. If Long is one of the NFL's best players at his position, why would the Dolphins consider letting him leave? Is he a franchise cornerstone, or a guy the Dolphins see as expendable in the future?

Alain Poupart: The loss of Jake Long obviously hurts because he's still among the best left tackles in the NFL. Sure, maybe his play has slipped a little, but remember that he set a pretty darn high standard his first few years in the league. Like I said earlier, the guy clearly is among the top left tackles in the game. As for his future, I don't want to pretend to know what the Dolphins are thinking. All I'll say is that he'd be awfully tough to replace because stud left tackles don't grow on trees. That said, Long will be pricey. His base salary for this year is somewhere in excess of $11 million and putting a franchise tag on him next spring would cost more than $15 million. That's an incredibly high figure for a player who doesn't touch the ball. Another option, of course, is re-signing Long to a new long-term deal, but there again the Dolphins are going to have to decide how much they're willing to spend.

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