Miami Dolphins: Rex Ryan
The division was an impressive 3-1 last weekend to open the regular season. The Miami Dolphins (1-0), New York Jets (1-0) and Buffalo Bills (1-0) all picked up victories, while the reigning AFC East champion New England Patriots (0-1) suffered a loss to Miami.
That brings us to our latest poll question: Who will win the AFC East?
What about the New York Jets? Head coach Rex Ryan & Co. finished 8-8 last year but made some improvements via the draft and free agency. The Jets beat the Oakland Raiders last week and look to be a strong defensive team.
Can the Bills surprise the AFC East? Buffalo has the NFL’s longest playoff drought. The Bills haven’t made the postseason since the 1999 season. But Buffalo picked up a quality road win last week against the Chicago Bears in overtime and can make another statement by beating Miami in Week 2. Are the Bills a legitimate threat to win the division?
Finally, will the Patriots win the AFC East? Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have ruled the division for a decade. New England is the preseason favorite to win the division but didn’t show it last week in Miami. Will the Patriots get back on track and win the AFC East?
Using our SportsNation poll, vote on which team will win the AFC East. You can share your thoughts in the comment section below or send a message via Twitter @JamesWalkerNFL.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.
Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.
Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?
Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.
Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.
James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.
Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?
Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.
Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.
Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.
Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.
@mikerodak running backs look to be more interesting than I expected, and even though there isn't competition QB growth is #1- Bob rieth (@Bob_rieth) June 16, 2014
Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?
Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.
Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.
Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.
Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.
@JamesWalkerNFL Dion Jordan. Can't hold him back anymore. He will get 10 sacks and will be on the field 40 plays per game- Tom Ernisse (@ternisse13) June 4, 2014
How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?
Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.
Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.
Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.
Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.
@MikeReiss Two. (hoping he goes out with a ring (a la John Elway)- Because i think he has less than 3 - I'm watching the back up QB battle.- Elizabeth (@capesquad) June 18, 2014
The Miami Dolphins and New York Jets are heated rivals, but the Jets did something last season that paved the way for the Dolphins in 2014.
Miami parted ways with longtime general manager Jeff Ireland on Tuesday after six years. The Dolphins completed their fifth consecutive non-winning season under Ireland. Second-year head coach Joe Philbin remains on board.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who lives in New York, essentially is copying the blueprint of the 2013 Jets in hopes of similar results.
The Jets fired general manager Mike Tannenbaum -- who ironically could be a candidate for Miami's new opening -- after the 2012 season but retained head coach Rex Ryan. Jets owner Woody Johnson made it clear that new general manager John Idzik had to work with Ryan for at least one year before potentially hiring his own head coach. The partnership worked in 2013 -- Ryan went into the season on the hot seat but did well with the talent he had -- and Ryan and Idzik will spend a second season together.
New York also fired its offensive coordinator, Tony Sparano, after 2012. Sound familiar? It should: The Dolphins got rid of their general manager and offensive coordinator, Mike Sherman, this week.
So Joe Philbin is the new Rex Ryan, as odd as it might sound. Philbin is 15-17 in two seasons, and it's more clear than ever that 2014 is a make-or-break year for Miami's head coach.
The Dolphins will be looking for a new general manager for the first time under Ross, but that new hire will not have the ability to hire his own head coach. Ireland's replacement must work with Philbin for at least one season. It will be up to Philbin to produce more wins and impress his new general manager to keep his job beyond next season.
The approach worked fine for New York this past season. It remains to be seen if following that blueprint also works for the Dolphins in 2014.
The Dolphins are still alive for the final wild card in the AFC, despite laying an egg last week in a 19-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Miami must beat the Jets and get help from other teams.
Meanwhile, the Jets are out of the playoff chase but are still fighting for fifth-year head coach Rex Ryan. The Jets will have their third straight non-winning season under Ryan but can finish the year with two straight victories.
Who will prevail? ESPN.com Dolphins reporter James Walker and Jets reporter Rich Cimini weigh in.
Walker: Rich, we are back for the second meeting between the Jets and Dolphins in December. The last time, Miami essentially put New York's playoff chances to bed with a 23-3 victory on Dec. 1. But since then, a lot has happened. The Dolphins won two of three and still have a chance for the playoffs. Meanwhile, there is speculation this could be Ryan's final game as head coach.
Do you think this is it for Ryan? And will a win or loss matter to Jets owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik?
Cimini: It's hard to imagine a decision of this magnitude coming down to one game. My hunch is Ryan will be fired, which is too bad because he has done a terrific job with this team. Remember, the Jets began the season ranked 32nd in ESPN.com's Power Rankings, and many figured they'd be a laughingstock.
No matter what happens, Ryan earned a lot of respect around the league by squeezing seven wins, maybe eight, out of this roster. Unfortunately for him, he's working for a new GM. John Idzik had no say in Ryan's status for 2013, so this will be his first chance to hire his own guy. The Jets have missed the playoffs for three straight years, so I can certainly understand why a new GM would want to go in a different direction, but change for the sake of change doesn't always mean more wins. I think he earned another shot.
James, what happened in Buffalo? That was a stunning meltdown for a team with so much at stake?
Walker: The Dolphins finally laid an egg, and it came at the worst possible time. That's really the best way to explain it. Miami has been in every game but one entering last week. So it was a matter of time before the Dolphins had a no-show performance. Miami simply was outplayed on both sides of the ball and there was nothing it could really take from the game to build on for next week. The Dolphins must quickly put that performance behind them and move on. The effort and intensity certainly must improve.
Rich, the last time the Dolphins saw Geno Smith, he was benched in the second half. How far has the Jets' rookie quarterback come since Dec. 1?
Cimini: Smith's performance against the Dolphins was the low point for him -- a season-low 8.3 passer rating. I mean, who gets an 8.3 nowadays? Despite a public groundswell to bench him in favor of the unproven Matt Simms, the Jets stuck with Smith. Maybe the benching was a wake-up call because he's playing better, evidenced by his 83.0 average passer rating over the past three games. In last Sunday's win against the Cleveland Browns, he played turnover-free football (only the third time) and completed 9-for-12 on third down. The big difference is that he's using his mobility to his advantage. He has rushed for 142 yards in the past three games, and he leads the team with five rushing touchdowns. If he feels the pocket collapsing, he'll take off. If he can finish with a strong outing against the team that nearly cost him his job, it would signify real improvement.
James, in the previous meeting, the Dolphins dominated Smith. Is the Miami defense still playing that well?
Walker: Miami's defense started to turn the corner in the Jets game. That was probably the best Miami's defense played this year. Since then, the Dolphins have been back to being inconsistent. Miami allowed 28 points to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but only 20 to the New England Patriots. The 19 points allowed to the Bills had a lot to do with the fact Miami's offense had numerous three-and-outs and couldn't get anything going. The Dolphins' defense was worn down and things snowballed. Perhaps the biggest worry is Miami's run defense allowed 203 yards to Buffalo. The Dolphins haven't stopped the run consistently all year, and I'm sure that will be a heavy part of New York's game plan on offense.
Rich, Miami had a lot of trouble last week against Mike Pettine's defense in Buffalo. What can a similar Jets defensive scheme do better in the second meeting?
Cimini: I don't think they can be worse than the first game, so let's start there. The Jets played as if they were in a trance, allowing a season-high 453 total yards on Dec. 1. This time, they should be better equipped to handle Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie (hip) is healthier, and rookie Dee Milliner, coming off his best game, is playing with confidence.
The key for the Jets is generating pressure. Even though their scheme is similar to that of the Bills, the Jets don't have as many pure pass-rushers, and they're not blitzing as much as they did last season. Of course, the Dolphins' pass protection is highly suspect, so maybe Muhammad Wilkerson & Co. can crank it up one final time. The Jets would like nothing better than to shatter the Dolphins' playoff dreams.
What are the implications of this game? I mean, if they miss the playoffs by losing to the hated Jets, will heads roll in Miami?
Walker: It's not that simple. Dolphins fans have been riding the keep- or fire-everyone roller coaster this season. But ownership has not. All indications are that Joe Philbin is safe regardless of whether the Dolphins make the playoffs. He is 15-16 in two seasons and, barring unexpected circumstances, will get an important third year in 2014.
Making the playoffs is bigger for the job security of general manager Jeff Ireland, who has been in Miami longer and spent more than $100 million in guaranteed contracts last offseason to build a playoff team. Winning this game and getting into the postseason for the first time since 2008 could be just what Ireland needs to get another year.
However, the great unknown is what details will come out during the NFL's investigation of the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal. If things are ugly, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross promised there would be repercussions. But the Dolphins internally appear confident they will come out of this situation without too much damage. That is all to be determined after the season.