AFC East: Joe Philbin

Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin addressed the media Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings. Philbin touched on several topics, including one of high interest involving the Dolphins' No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan in 2013.

[+] EnlargeDion Jordan
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesDolphins coach Joe Philbin continues to stick with Dion Jordan at defensive end despite mediocre results the past two seasons.

According to Philbin, Jordan's focus will remain at defensive end this offseason. There has been speculation the Dolphins may try to play Jordan at outside linebacker after experimenting with the idea at the end of last season. It appears those ideas have been put on the shelf for now.

"Right now we feel like he's [better] utilized as a defensive end," Philbin said. "We want to get his training there to improve so he can continually develop his pass-rush ability. If we play him at linebacker and move him full-time, the dilemma is when is he going to practice rushing the passer?"

I don't agree with this thinking by Miami. The offseason is the perfect time to experiment and get Jordan reps at outside linebacker, which is a position that's currently wide open on the depth chart. There also are schemes where Jordan still would get to rush the passer as a linebacker.

The Dolphins have tried Jordan at defensive end for two seasons without success. It's difficult to get Jordan any meaningful playing time before making way for Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake and solid starter Olivier Vernon. Also, Jordan has done little with his opportunities at the position, recording just three sacks in two seasons.

Miami traded up nine spots in the first round to snag Jordan two years ago. He was expected to be a dynamic pass-rush threat and a starting defensive end by now. Instead, Jordan is a player who looks lost and confused so far. Jordan also didn't help himself by being suspended six games last year for violating the NFL's substance abuse and performance-enhancing drug policies.

Keeping Jordan at defensive end ensures he will be a limited role player for the third straight season, and that is not acceptable for a player the Dolphins traded up nine spots in the first round to get in 2013.

Miami's coaching staff is big on "position flexibility" with many of their players during Philbin's tenure, which makes this close-minded call with Jordan all that more baffling.

What should Miami Dolphins fans make of Monday's news that coach Joe Philbin received a one-year contract extension?

Not much.

[+] EnlargeRyan Tannehill and Joe Philbin
Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesThe Dolphins have extended coach Joe Philbin through the 2016 season.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross announced at the NFL owners meeting in Phoenix that Philbin will be extended through the 2016 season. In a league where perception means plenty, Ross essentially admitted he gave Philbin an extension to avoid the label of a "lame duck" coach. Philbin was entering the final year of the initial contract he signed with the Dolphins in 2012.

However, the extension is merely window dressing and doesn't change Philbin's situation. This remains a playoff-or-bust year for him and for many on his staff.

Philbin must win this season after posting an overall 23-25 record. He promised Ross upon his hiring to "compete for championships" in Miami. Instead, Philbin posted three consecutive non-winning seasons, including back-to-back 8-8 seasons. The Dolphins have been the definition of mediocre the past three years. They haven't been awful, but they haven't been consistently good, either.

Everything will fall into place if the Dolphins end their six-year postseason drought. There is certainly enough talent to make a playoff push, headlined by the recent acquisition of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

This is Philbin's fourth chance in a league where many coaches get three or fewer. The only difference after today's extension is Ross most likely would pay Philbin not to work in 2016 if things go poorly.

The Miami Dolphins ended their 8-8 season with question marks on their defensive staff, most notably with defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. But the Dolphins could have more immediate issues with veteran defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers.

ESPN's Adam Caplan and New York Jets writer Rich Cimini both report the rival Jets have interest in Rodgers to become their next defensive coordinator. The news makes sense following the recent hire of new Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who has strong ties to Rodgers as they coached together in Miami from 2008-11.

Rodgers is one of the most respected coaches on Miami's staff. He is a holdover from the Tony Sparano era and was retained by current Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin. Players such as Pro Bowler Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon, Jared Odrick and Randy Starks all developed under Rodgers' tutelage. The Dolphins recorded 40 or more sacks for three consecutive seasons from 2011-13 and 39 sacks last season.

The opportunity to become a first-time defensive coordinator -- and do it in New York with Bowles -- could be too good for Rodgers to pass up. The Dolphins could be in the market for a new defensive line coach very soon.
The Miami Dolphins ended their 8-8 season with question marks on their defensive staff, most notably with defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. But the Dolphins could have more immediate issues with veteran defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers.

ESPN's Adam Caplan and New York Jets writer Rich Cimini both report the rival Jets have interest in Rodgers to become their next defensive coordinator. The news makes sense following the recent hire of new Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who has strong ties to Rodgers as they coached together in Miami from 2008-11.

Rodgers is one of the most respected coaches on Miami's staff. He is a holdover from the Tony Sparano era and was retained by current Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin. Players such as Pro Bowler Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon, Jared Odrick and Randy Starks all developed under Rodgers' tutelage. The Dolphins recorded 40 or more sacks for three consecutive seasons from 2011-13 and 39 sacks last season.

The opportunity to become a first-time defensive coordinator -- and do it in New York with Bowles -- could be too good for Rodgers to pass up. The Dolphins could be in the market for a new defensive line coach very soon.
The New York Jets hired Todd Bowles as their new head coach on Tuesday night. This surely presents a storyline to keep an eye on with the rival Miami Dolphins.

Bowles has a unique history with Miami. He was the team's secondary coach from 2008-2011 and one of former head coach Tony Sparano's top and most trusted assistants. When Sparano was fired 13 games into the 2011 season, Bowles took over the team as interim head coach and went 2-1 in the final three games.

Bowles clearly had the attention and respect of the players, who kept playing during a lost 6-10 season. He was so impressive that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross twice interviewed Bowles for the head-coaching opening, and Bowles became a finalist along with current San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy and current Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin.

And this is where it gets interesting for Miami. Ross chose Philbin over Bowles three years ago. Now, Bowles finally gets his chance to be a head coach -- but it's with the rival Jets who play Miami twice per year.

Meanwhile, Philbin enters the 2015 season on the hot seat. He has been unable to deliver on his promise to Ross to bring championship-caliber football team to Miami. Instead, Philbin is just 23-25 in three seasons and has yet to make the playoffs. He's also never had a winning season.

It is much too early to say whether Bowles is head-coaching material. But it is clear the Jets believe in his potential. If Bowles has a successful run in New York and the AFC East -- and Philbin continues to struggle -- it will put a bright spotlight on Miami's head-coaching decision in 2012.

The Miami Dolphins hired former New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum to oversee the front office, the team announced Tuesday. His title will be vice president of football operations, and this is an interesting move for several reasons.

This move strengthens Miami's front office. Tannenbaum, whose Jets teams reached back-to-back AFC title games following the 2009 and 2010 seasons, has 16 years of front-office experience in the AFC East -- a division the Dolphins haven't won since 2008. Miami must close the gap with the New England Patriots, and Tannenbaum's knowledge certainly cannot hurt in that quest.

But this move makes you wonder: Did the Dolphins ever truly believe in first-year general manager Dennis Hickey?

Miami went through an extensive search last year, and Hickey was not its first choice. Multiple candidates turned down offers from the Dolphins or declined to be interviewed. Some candidates didn't like that they had to stick with head coach Joe Philbin, as opposed to bringing in their own coach. Others felt the organization setup wasn't right.

In the end, the Dolphins landed Hickey -- and essentially made him the boss for one year before hiring a new boss to watch over him. Hickey will report directly to Tannenbaum -- but not the coaching staff. Philbin, along with Tannenbaum, will report directly to Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.

Hickey's first-year record (8-8) was not a bad one. He found productive rookies Ja'Wuan James and Jarvis Landry in the draft. He also signed left tackle Branden Albert and starting safety Louis Delmas in free agency. There were some misses, but no general manager in the NFL has a perfect record. According to Tannenbaum, Hickey will keep final say on draft picks and personnel, but it will be a "collaborative effort."

Hickey now has an added layer above him in the front office. The pressure is on the general manager -- and many within the Dolphins' organization -- to produce a playoff season in 2015.
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- There are reasons to be disappointed in a once-promising 2014 season for the Miami Dolphins, who lost 37-24 to the lowly New York Jets on Sunday and finished 8-8 for a second straight year.

The Dolphins have holes to fill on the offense line, a No. 1 receiver who isn't happy and a defense that essentially disappeared in the second half of the season. And despite Joe Philbin's vote of confidence from ownership, questions still remain if Miami has the long-term solution at head coach.

Despite all the uncertainty, there is hope at quarterback, where Ryan Tannehill at least provides hope Miami can turn it around. It's clear that the Dolphins will go only as far as Tannehill takes them in 2015 and beyond.

Tannehill had a decent, but not spectacular, game on Sunday. He threw for 259 yards and one touchdown and had an 87.4 passer rating to wrap up a career season. But he wasn't in a festive mood.

"Does it feel good to lose?" Tannehill said. "No, I hate losing. I put [in] a lot of effort, a lot of time, a lot of blood, sweat and tears."

Tannehill eventually will be able to see his progress and individual success once he studies the big picture. By all accounts, 2014 was a good year for the former first-round pick.

Here are some key statistics about Tannehill:
  • He eclipsed 4,000 passing yards for the first time in his career, becoming the first Dolphins quarterback since Hall of Famer Dan Marino to reach that single-season total. Tannehill also set a new franchise record for completions in a season (392), also passing Marino.
  • He set career-highs with 27 touchdown passes and a 92.8 passer rating. Miami's scoring also improved from 19.8 points per game in 2013 to 24.25 points per game this season.
  • He has never missed a start in three seasons, despite being sacked 139 times. "I can't even express how tough this kid is and what he goes through," Dolphins backup quarterback Matt Moore said. "Mentally, physical, it's impressive to watch him go out Sunday, play, get banged around and regroup during the week. ... I don't know if I've met anyone tougher."

Tannehill entered his third season with several questions, and he answered most of them. He learned a new offense under first-year coordinator Bill Lazor and improved within the system as the season went on. Tannehill also improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio and his play speed. A second year in Miami's offense should only make him better.

One weakness continues to be Tannehill's inconsistency throwing the deep ball. That limited the offense to some degree. But Miami cannot expect a perfect quarterback. If I were Tannehill, I would put a major offseason focus on deep balls in an effort to at least become average in that area next season.

The Dolphins have an interesting decision to make, in regards to Tannehill's contract. He has one year remaining on his rookie deal. However, the team has a option this spring that will cost approximately $15 million to keep Tannehill in 2016.

At the very least, the Dolphins should ensure that Tannehill is Miami's quarterback for the next two seasons. Otherwise, they could enter talks for a long-term contract with Tannehill at a time when even up-and-down quarterbacks such as Jay Cutler, Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton receive huge extensions. That route would be more risky for Miami.

But Tannehill's arrow is pointing up and, therefore, so is the Dolphins'. Continued progress from Tannehill in Year 4 makes Miami a playoff contender to watch for next season.

Rapid Reaction: Miami Dolphins

December, 28, 2014

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Miami Dolphins' 37-24 loss Sunday to the New York Jets:

What it means: The Dolphins were officially eliminated from playoff contention last week. So the loss didn't mean much in terms of the postseason. But Miami finished 8-8 for the second straight season, which is underachieving. The Dolphins failed to post their first winning season since 2008 and failed in an attempt at their first season sweep of the Jets since 2009.

Stock watch: Miami's defense continued its free fall in the final game. The Dolphins made Jets quarterback Geno Smith look like Joe Namath. Smith completed his first eight passes of the game and finished with a stellar 358 yards and three touchdowns. Jets receiver Eric Decker also had a huge game with 10 receptions for 221 yards. The Dolphins defense sprung major leaks in the second half of the season, and there's a need to re-evaluate everything. In terms of stock up, Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline was relatively phased out of the offense compared to previous seasons, but he was the most prolific option Sunday. He had five receptions and a season-high 94 yards. It is possible that this could be Hartline’s final game with the Dolphins. He is due a $5.95 million salary in 2015 and hasn't been an ideal fit most of the season in Miami's new offense under Bill Lazor.

Historic run: Miami running back Lamar Miller needed 79 rushing yards to get over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. He did it in style with a team-record 97-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that electrified the crowd at Sun Life Stadium. Miller finished with a season-best 178 rushing yards Sunday and 1,099 rushing yards for the season.

Game ball: Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who threw for 259 yards and one touchdown Sunday, gets the MVP honor for 2014. He surpassed 4,000 yards passing for the first time and set a career high for touchdown passes with 27. Tannehill also set a franchise record, passing Hall of Famer Dan Marino, for the most completions (392) in a season. Tannehill was a bright spot and more than earned Miami’s starting quarterback job in 2015.

What’s next: The Dolphins' season is in the books. Owner Stephen Ross already has said there will be stability this season at head coach with Joe Philbin and in the front office with general manager Dennis Hickey. However, Philbin might have decisions to make about his staff, particularly defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle after such a poor second half to the season.

QB snapshot: Ryan Tannehill

December, 23, 2014
A quick observation of quarterback Ryan Tannehill and how he played in the Miami Dolphins' 37-35 win in Week 16:

Tannehill saved his best for one of the final games of the season. In Week 16, Tannehill threw for a season-high 396 yards and a career-high four touchdowns, and he had a 118.8 passer rating in Miami's victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

This was the kind of performance Dolphins fans have been waiting for. Tannehill made big plays and small plays and was a dominant player. Miami (8-7) had a franchise-record 36 first downs -- and 23 were via Tannehill and the passing game.

There also were subtle things Tannehill did well that didn't show up in the box score. He stood tall in the pocket, took some big shots from Vikings' defenders, and eluded pressure to keep the chains the moving.

Tannehill received praise Monday from offensive coordinator Bill Lazor for successfully executing the game-plan details against Minnesota (6-9).

"This guy is playing quarterback," Lazor said. "It's not just making the deep throws. It's not just getting some things out."

Tannehill solidified his case to be Miami's starter in 2015. This was a big third season for the quarterback and head coach Joe Philbin, who also is set to return for his fourth season.

With one game remaining, Tannehill already has set new career bests in touchdown passes (26) and passer rating (93.2) this season. He needs just 128 passing yards Sunday against the New York Jets to top his previous career mark of 3,913 yards. Tannehill needs 214 passing yards in the final game to reach 4,000 yards for the first time in his career.

Either way, it's been a successful season in which Tannehill made enough strides to provide optimism for 2015.
DAVIE, Fla. -- How did Joe Philbin celebrate Sunday night’s news that he will return as Miami Dolphins' head coach in 2015?

“I had one Guinness,” Philbin said Monday.

Philbin can breathe easier now that his job is secure for another year. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross pulled a somewhat surprising move by making the coaching announcement following Sunday’s 37-35 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

There was a lot of speculation that Philbin’s future would be determined in the final two games. However, Ross said he made up his mind before Sunday.

"Things are happening as an organization. I think everyone feels the buzz that things are changing around here," Ross said. "They say patience is a virtue, you know. But I'm expecting big things next year -- I will tell you that."

Questions about Philbin have been removed, and the mood is different this week going into the season finale.

“It’s important for the head coach of an NFL football team that the owner believes in him and what he’s doing and the program he’s instilling,” Philbin said. “It’s very, very important. If you don’t have that kind of belief and faith from the owner then it’s not going to work.”

Questions remain if Philbin will keep everyone on his coaching staff, particularly on defense, where the team has struggled in the final five weeks of the season. Ross assured Philbin will return, but it remains to be seen if offseason tweaks will be required for the assistants.

Last year, Miami fired offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and replaced him with Bill Lazor, who has been an upgrade. Miami’s points per game increased from 19.8 in 2013 to 24.3 this season.

Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle and Philbin both deflected questions about the future of the staff on Monday.

“Right now, I’m just concerned about playing the New York Jets and winning this football game,” Philbin said. “There’s a time and place to talk about staff.”

Added Coyle, “I don’t think it’s my place to answer any of that type of stuff. Right now we have one game to get ready for as the season ends. That’s not [something] I’m going to deal with.”

A victory over the Jets (3-12) would give the Dolphins (8-7) their first winning season since 2008, and it would mark Philbin’s first winning season as head coach.

A victory over New York also could provide some momentum and good vibes heading into the offseason.

“We approach this as a privilege to put the uniform on and put the whistle on as a coach to represent this organization,” Philbin said. “The goal is to win every single time you step on this field. ... That's the only way I know how to go about preparing a team to play in the National Football League. So that's exactly what we're going to do.”
Lost in Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ newsworthy announcement that head coach Joe Philbin will return in 2015 was the stellar performance by their quarterback that led to Sunday's 37-35 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

 Third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill also solidified his case to be next year's starter. He had his best game of the season, throwing for 396 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. Tannehill also recorded a 118.8 passer rating.

Tannehill posted big numbers in the most important season of his career. He set career-highs for touchdowns (26) and passer rating (93.2) while learning a new offensive scheme.

Similar to the head coach, there is no question on who will be under center in Miami next season. The Tannehill-Philbin tandem will lead the Dolphins again in 2015.

“I’m happy to hear [Philbin is] coming back,” Tannehill said after Sunday's game. “I’m looking forward to it. Let’s keep working on it.”

Tannehill surpassed Carson Palmer for the sixth-most passing yards in the first three seasons in NFL history. He’s started every game since 2012 and has 10,993 passing yards.

The addition of new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has paid off for Tannehill. Together, the pair has improved Miami’s points per game from 19.8 in 2013 to 24.3 this season. And if the Dolphins get 37 points next week against the New York Jets (3-12), they will have 400 points in a season for the first time since the Dan Marino era.

There are still things Tannehill needs to work on. He hasn’t hit on enough deep balls to stretch the defense, and his play speed should improve in his second year in the system. Tannehill -- and Philbin -- also must improve their 23-24 career record. Miami will miss the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year.

But the Dolphins are optimistic Tannehill and Philbin will improve and grow in their fourth season together. They still have a chance to lead Miami (8-7) to its first winning season since 2008 with a victory Sunday over the Jets.

“It’s big,” Tannehill said. “Finishing with a winning record was not our goal to start the year. But at this point that’s what we have to aim for. We’re out of the playoff competition. We’re playing for each other right now. To be able finish on a positive note against a division opponent at home is huge.”
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was beaming in the locker room Sunday, following his team's 37-35 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Although Miami was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs about 20 minutes earlier, Ross excitedly announced that head coach Joe Philbin will return in 2015.

"He's coming back!" Ross said with a smile, squashing speculation on the contrary.

You cannot fault Ross for choosing continuity. He has tried the other way and it hasn't worked. Ross has fired a head coach (Tony Sparano) and a general manager (Jeff Ireland) and it hasn't resulted in a playoff appearance. Philbin would have become the third high-level executive to be let go in four years.

[+] EnlargeRyan Tannehill and Joe Philbin
Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesRyan Tannehill and the Dolphins will miss the playoffs this year, but Joe Philbin says he still expects to compete in the postseason during his tenure as Miami's head coach.
Philbin has his faults, but he made strides in his third season that appeal to ownership. The locker-room chemistry is much better after last year's disastrous bullying scandal. Philbin has the support of his players and has a chance to lead Miami (8-7) to its first winning season since 2008. All the Dolphins must do is beat the lowly New York Jets (3-12) next week at home.

Here are some key statistics in Philbin's favor:
  • Miami's scoring has improved from 19.8 points per game in 2013 to 24.3 points per game this season. Philbin's hiring of first-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor played a key role in that improvement.
  • Third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill is having a career season. He has set career highs in touchdown passes (26) and passer rating (93.2) with one game remaining to pad those numbers.
  • The Dolphins had three losses this season by four points or less to three playoff teams (Denver, Green Bay and Detroit). If Miami pulled off any of these close games, the season result could have been different.

"Things are happening as an organization. I think everyone feels the buzz that things are changing around here," Ross explained. "They say patience is a virtue, you know. But I'm expecting big things next year -- I will tell you that."

Another aspect in Ross' decision is Philbin's support in the locker room. Following last week's loss to New England, which essentially ended Miami's postseason chances, veterans such as team captain Cameron Wake, receiver Mike Wallace and guard Mike Pouncey all came to Philbin's defense. Each veteran said any fault for the Dolphins' shortcomings is on the players.

Wake, who leads the team with 11.5 sacks, was among the players happy for Philbin on Sunday.

"Coach Philbin is a big part of this franchise," Wake said. "He's obviously part of the success of this team. That's great news and I'm looking forward to it."

According to Ross, this team is close to contending. Ross has been a strong supporter of Philbin, the owner's first hire in 2012. Ross said at the time that he's hopeful Philbin could become the "next Don Shula," which is both high praise and high expectations.

Philbin is 23-24 as a head coach, which is not awful but not great. If Ross doesn't think he can get an elite replacement -- for example, Jim Harbaugh -- why break up the entire regime and start from scratch? The worst move the Dolphins could make would be to hire another first-time coach and allow that person 2-3 more years to learn on the job and make mistakes.

Ross believes keeping Philbin and first-year general manager Dennis Hickey together for another year could end the Dolphins' six-year playoff drought. Hickey made several solid moves this year, most notably drafting left tackle Ja'Wuan James and receiver Jarvis Landry. Hickey also signed Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert, cornerback Cortland Finnegan, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and safety Louis Delmas, who all contributed. Hickey wasn't the problem in Miami.

Sure, there is a chance the Dolphins could be in this same spot one year from now, missing out on the playoffs. But if that's the case, Philbin and the Dolphins can make a clean break, the coach having fulfilled the final year of his contract.

But there's also a possibility Philbin rewards the Dolphins for their patience and develops into the coach Ross thinks he can be in 2015. That would provide a long-term payoff.

Philbin must do better in his in-game management, especially in close games. The Dolphins also must play better late in the season. Philbin failed to win big games in December for the second straight season and that's a major reason Miami is not in the playoffs. Improvement in those two areas would go a long way.

"I want to compete for championships while I'm the head coach of the Miami Dolphins," Philbin said Sunday night. "That's what I told Mr. Ross I was going to do. I'm disappointed that we're not in [the playoffs]."

Keeping Philbin is a calculated risk, but it's worth a try.

Rapid Reaction: Miami Dolphins

December, 21, 2014

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Miami Dolphins' 37-35 victory Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings:

What it means: The Dolphins needed a late comeback to pick up a much-needed win after two consecutive losses. Rookie defensive lineman Terrence Fede blocked a punt to give Miami a safety and a wild finish. It certainly wasn't pretty. But the victory gives the Dolphins (8-7) and head coach Joe Philbin a chance to finish with a winning season. However, Sunday's win by the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5) eliminated the Dolphins from playoff contention.

Stock watch: Running back Lamar Miller was a threat on the ground and through the air. He finished with 92 rushing yards and 58 receiving yards. Miller is 79 rushing yards from his first 1,000-yard season. In terms of stock down, Miami's defense gave up a lot of points to Vikings rookie quarterback and Miami native Teddy Bridgewater (259 yards, two touchdowns). Minnesota's 35 points marked its second-highest output of the season.

Wake’s milestone: Cameron Wake recorded two sacks on Bridgewater to notch 11.5 on the season. This is the third time Wake has recorded double-digit sacks in his career. He also became the fourth Dolphin to accomplish the feat. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Wake's first sack of the day triggered a $750,000 bonus in the defensive end's contract.

Game ball: Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill had one of his best games of the season. He threw for 396 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Tannehill also showed toughness by absorbing some big shots and continuing to lead the offense to five touchdown drives.

What’s next: The Dolphins will wrap up their 2014 season the same way they did last year by hosting the rival New York Jets (3-12). Miami likely will be favored to win at home, but anything is possible in this AFC East matchup. The Dolphins won the first meeting 16-13 in Week 13.
DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins (7-7) are on a path towards their sixth consecutive non-playoff season. But one player who is having a consistent season is starting tailback Lamar Miller.

 Miami’s third-year tailback already set new career highs for rushing yards (829) and touchdowns (six) this season. Miller is just 171 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season, and that goal is within reach with two games remaining against the Minnesota Vikings (6-8) and New York Jets (3-11).

“You know, it would be great just to reach 1,000 yards,” Miller said. “I just have to continue to do what I do, come to work every day and try to get better.”

Miller has thrived in first-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's new scheme. Miami’s spread, quick-hitting offense has allowed Miller to find more creases in the defense and make plays in open space, which are strengths.

This season Miller is doing a much better job of getting to the second level. He's run for a career-high 45 first downs, nearly doubling his previous career best of 26 first downs in 2013. Miller also increased his yards per carry from 4.0 last season to 4.7 this season.

“I think he’s made better decisions running the ball,” Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin said. “It’s not always perfect, like the quarterback is not perfect every single time in decision-making. He does a good job, and I think he's done a better job. Less shuffling, less dancing, more running.”

Although Miller has improved in several areas, he mentioned there are still things he must work on to become a complete running back. For example, Miller citied pass protection and catching out of the backfield. Taking on blockers has been a struggle for Miller throughout his career, and he's dropped a few passes this season.

But running is Miller's biggest priority and he's done it well. Perhaps what is most impressive is Miller is approaching 1,000 yards rushing without getting nearly as many carries as other feature tailbacks around the NFL. Miller only received more than 16 carries once in a game this season while constantly rotating with backups Damien Williams and Daniel Thomas. But Miller is making the most of his opportunities.

Miller needs to average 85.5 rushing yards in the final two weeks to reach the 1,000-yard milestone.

“Every time I get the ball, I try to make a big play for this team,” Miller said. “Once I get it, I just try to be decisive, make the right reads and use my vision.”

Vikings vs. Dolphins preview

December, 18, 2014

When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens. TV: Fox.

Two teams out of playoff contention will meet in South Florida on Sunday when the Miami Dolphins (7-7) host the Minnesota Vikings (6-8).

These are two clubs who represent the up-and-down middle class in the NFL. Despite good moments, neither team has been able to reach the consistency it takes to make the postseason.

Who will come out on top? ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker and NFL Nation columnist Kevin Seifert breakdown the matchups:

Walker: Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is a South Florida native with plenty of interest out of Miami. How is his development in his rookie season?

Seifert: He has really come on, via a steady ascendance that makes him without question the best of the rookie quarterbacks in 2014. The Vikings' major goal for Bridgewater's first season was to keep him from getting beat up and beat down. Coach Mike Zimmer was especially cognizant about not ruining him behind a bad offensive line or on a bad team or putting him on the field before he was ready to succeed. That's why the Vikings began the season with Matt Cassel as the starter.

Bridgewater got on the field earlier than they expected because of Cassel's Week 3 injury, and after some expected early struggles -- most notably on deep accuracy -- Bridgewater has gotten on a nice little run. The Vikings are 4-3 in his past seven starts, he has completed at least 70 percent of his passes in his past three starts and thrown for at least 300 yards in his past two. Most recently, the Vikings trusted him in a pass-first game plan against the Detroit Lions' stout defense. He completed 31 of 41 passes for 315 yards, the highest completion percentage for a rookie in a game when throwing at least 40 passes in NFL history. People in South Florida know Bridgewater has a calm personality that allows him to navigate pressure situations well. The early returns are that the Vikings have found their starter for a long time to come.

The Vikings are protecting Bridgewater with three backups on their offensive line, at right tackle, right guard and left guard. Are the Dolphins still as strong up front defensively as they were earlier this season?

Walker: It's an interesting question, because a month ago I would have pegged this as a huge advantage for Miami. However, its defensive line has mostly disappeared the past several games. It has been a mystery here in Miami, because that was the strength of the team in the first half of the season. The Dolphins got zero sacks on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady last week and he put up 41 points. Before that, Miami allowed 661 rushing yards in a three-game stretch from Weeks 12-14. Teams have pretty much done what they wanted against Miami's defense, which at one point was ranked as high as No. 2 in the NFL. The Dolphins are running on fumes, and it is most evident on the defensive line. On paper, it's still an advantage for Miami, but the group must prove it on the field.

Although it doesn't always show in the standings, the Vikings are playing solid football in the past month. What's led to their recent surge?

Seifert: A few things, with Bridgewater's development being the most significant. When you're getting production from that position, everything else is a little easier. It took some time for the Vikings to recover schematically from the suspension of tailback Adrian Peterson. They've used a backfield-by-committee system, getting 538 yards from rookie Jerick McKinnon, who is now on injured reserve, and 421 yards (and seven touchdowns) from Matt Asiata. Dolphins fans can expect to see a mix of Asiata, veteran Ben Tate -- claimed off waivers from the Cleveland Browns -- and Joe Banyard. Bridgewater has benefited from the emergence of receiver Charles Johnson, who was signed off the Browns' practice squad earlier this season. Johnson has replaced the disappointing Cordarrelle Patterson in the starting lineup and has 19 receptions for 355 yards in his past five games. Finally, the Vikings' defense has begun taking the form Zimmer wanted to see when he took over the team this year. Zimmer still calls the defensive signals, and he has helped mold a pair of youngsters -- defensive end Everson Griffen (12 sacks) and cornerback Xavier Rhodes -- into frontline players. The Vikings' three losses over the past two months have all been by one score or less. Even after losing Peterson and Cassel in the first month of the season, they've got a chance to finish .500.

How should we expect the Dolphins to respond emotionally in this game? They're all but eliminated from the playoffs. Do you think they'll pack it in? Will they fight for Joe Philbin's job? Or has the decision already been made?

Walker: I will start with the last question. The decision has not been made officially on Philbin, but the gears are beginning to click in motion. The past two weeks were an eye-opener for the decision-makers in the organization. The team didn't show up in two huge games against the Baltimore Ravens and Patriots. Philbin now has a three-year record of 22-24 and hasn't made the playoffs. His teams play their worst football when it matters most, in key games late in the season. That's not good enough for Miami owner Stephen Ross.

The best Philbin can do is prove he can motivate the Dolphins to play well in these final two games when nothing is at stake. That will be a challenge in itself. A 9-7 season at least gives Philbin a leg to stand on, although I'm not sure that will be enough without making the playoffs. I expect Miami to play for Philbin because he is well-liked in the locker room. But if things get really difficult in this game -- like it has the past two weeks against the Patriots and Ravens -- I'm curious to see how the players respond.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask about the Peterson controversy. Has that worn off on the team, even with new details emerging?

Seifert: I think it did hang over the locker room and the coaching staff for a long time, mostly because there were several stops along the way when it seemed as if Peterson's return was imminent. There were some genuinely shocked players and coaches when the final ruling came down that Peterson would not return this year. Now, I think everyone is past it. The appeals, accusations and lawsuits are all essentially irrelevant to the Vikings' 2014 season. Peterson isn't going to be on the field this season, and he might never be in a Vikings uniform again. My perception is that most of the players and coaches who will decide the outcome of this game Sunday are well beyond worrying about it.

The Vikings are tied for sixth in the NFL with 38 sacks but Ryan Tannehill has taken the sixth-fewest sacks in the league. What has been the key for the Dolphins' pass protection, and do you think it'll hold up against the Vikings?

Walker: The numbers are a bit skewed due to a stellar first half of the season. The Dolphins' pass protection was very good when Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert was healthy and guarding Tannehill's blindside. A strong case can be made that Albert was Miami's first-half MVP. However, a season-ending knee injury to Albert exposed some holes on Miami's offensive line. Rookie Ja'Wuan James moved from right tackle to left tackle and the struggling Dallas Thomas was put at right tackle. Since Albert went down in Week 10, Miami has allowed 21 quarterback sacks in five games. That's a little more than four sacks per game. The Patriots and Ravens registered 10 combined sacks. I do expect the Vikings to get pressure on Tannehill.