NFL Nation: Miami Dolphins

Chiefs vs. Dolphins preview

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
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The Kansas City Chiefs (0-2) and Miami Dolphins (1-1) meet for the first time since 2006 on Sunday at Sun Life Stadium. The Chiefs are coming off a 24-17 loss to the Broncos in Denver, a game in which the result wasn't decided until the Chiefs' fourth-down pass from the Denver 2 fell incomplete in the end zone in the final seconds. The Dolphins, after beating the Patriots to begin the season, are coming off a 29-10 loss at Buffalo.

ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker discuss Sunday's game:

Teicher: This is the first time the Chiefs will play against Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Give us a little scouting report on him, his strengths and weaknesses. His season isn't off to a great start, statistically at least. How committed are the Dolphins to Tannehill?

Walker: It's funny that you mention Tannehill, because heading into this season, I've often compared him to Alex Smith. The comparison isn't necessarily based on physical traits, because Tannehill is more athletic and probably has a slightly stronger arm. But in terms of Tannehill's ceiling, I'm starting to think developing into a quarterback like Smith is the best the Dolphins can hope for.

I've watched every one of Tannehill's games in two-plus seasons and nearly every practice open to the media. I don't see that jump into superstardom the Dolphins are expecting. Tannehill hasn't shown he can take over games with his arm and he hasn't been consistent. It doesn't mean you can't win with Tannehill; like Smith, Tannehill just needs a lot to go well around him. Smith eventually figured that out and won with multiple teams. He also got a nice payday from Kansas City. It remains to be seen whether Tannehill can do the same.

Adam, what's the latest with Jamaal Charles and how would his potential absence impact the running game?

Teicher: Charles has a high ankle sprain, so it would be something close to a miracle if he played Sunday. I'll be interested in seeing how Knile Davis does with a full week of practice and after the Chiefs have built their game plan around him and his abilities. Davis is a lot bigger at 227 pounds than Charles, but he's fast -- maybe as fast as Charles. So he is a big-play threat, although he lacks Charles' ability to make defenders miss.

Going back to last season and counting the playoff game, Davis has carried the ball far more than Charles, but his average is about 3.3 yards per carry, compared to almost 6.1 for Charles. So Charles has been far more effective, but the Chiefs haven't been able to build a plan for Davis, as they will this week. The loss of Charles is actually bigger in the passing game. Charles is a better pass protector and receiver than Davis. The Chiefs might use either Joe McKnight, Cyrus Gray or De'Anthony Thomas as a third-down back.

James, what about Branden Albert? He was the longtime left tackle for the Chiefs before signing with the Dolphins this year. It looks like he's playing well. Has he stabilized Miami's offensive line?

Walker: Albert has fit in well here in Miami. Not only is he a good player at an important position, but Albert has taken on a leadership role and coached up younger players such as rookie right tackle Ja'Wuan James. The Dolphins have some issues on the offensive line, but Albert certainly isn't
one of them. He has been consistent in the running and passing game.

Since we're on the topic of former players, the Dolphins are facing cornerback Sean Smith and tight end Anthony Fasano for the first time. Both were significant contributors in Miami. How have they fit in since leaving for Kansas City?

Teicher: Smith is what the Chiefs thought they were getting. Certainly not a Pro Bowler, but a dependable cornerback who can match up with bigger, more physical receivers. He's moved into the No. 1 corner spot after the Chiefs released Brandon Flowers. Fasano missed half the season last year because of injuries, but has missed only a couple of snaps so far this season. He has quietly developed into a reliable red-zone receiver for Smith. He has the Chiefs' only receiving touchdown this season.

The Chiefs last season consistently won in the kicking game. That hasn't been the case this season, but the potential is there. Miami had problems last week on special teams. Are the Dolphins truly vulnerable there or was Sunday just a bad game in that regard?

Walker: Miami's special teams are indicative of its record. The unit was very good in Week 1 and very bad in Week 2. That's pretty much how the Dolphins have played as well. Miami is the only NFL team to allow and successfully execute a blocked punt in the first two games. The Dolphins probably won't dominate on special teams consistently, but I don't expect them to give up a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown every week. It's too early to say special teams are a major concern.

Finally, Adam, is this a must-win game already for the Chiefs?

Teicher: I'm usually not big on the concept of must-win games in September, but this is probably as close as it gets. After losing at home to Tennessee and coming up 2 yards short in their comeback attempt against Denver, the Chiefs have dug themselves a hole and it's impossible to see a realistic way out of it without beating the Dolphins. The Chiefs are 0-2, and after Miami, their next three games are against the Patriots, 49ers and Chargers, with two of those on the road. So this thing has already started to get away from the Chiefs, and they'll be miles behind the pack if they don't win in Miami.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs - AFC East

May, 7, 2014
May 7
2:01
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Did the AFC East's best keep on getting better?

The perennial division champion New England Patriots signed elite cornerback Darrelle Revis, which could offset significant free-agency gains by the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.

The Buffalo Bills are in good position to improve through this week's NFL draft. EJ Manuel, the Bills' top pick last season, returns as the starting quarterback and is one of three second-year players facing intense scrutiny in 2014.

Who finishes atop the AFC East in 2014 could depend largely on which team best handles the stretch run, as December features five inter-division matchups -- including three in a row for the Patriots to end the season.

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 offseason and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which AFC East team has had the best offseason to date?



Rich Cimini: I'm all about the stars, which is why I'm picking the Patriots, who landed the best free agent of them all: Darrelle Revis. He's one of the top two cornerbacks in the league, a legitimate game-changer. His presence will allow Bill Belichick to play more press-man coverage, which will help their pass rush and create headaches for opponents. Once Brandon Browner serves his suspension, they'll have two physical corners. The Jets and Dolphins helped themselves in free agency, addressing need areas, but neither team acquired a player as good as Revis. The Patriots lost a terrific corner in Aqib Talib and actually upgraded. How often does that happen in free agency?

Mike Reiss: The Patriots get the nod here because they added the best overall player in cornerback Darrelle Revis and re-signed receiver Julian Edelman (the Jets had explored poaching him), but I don't think it's a large gap to the next club. I like what the Dolphins have done to start rebuilding their offensive line (Branden Albert, Shelley Smith) while also bringing in defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, re-signing cornerback Brent Grimes and potentially getting some value with cornerback Cortland Finnegan.

Mike Rodak: Comparing gains and losses in free agency, the Patriots have fared the best. The season is never won in March, but the Patriots were able to upgrade even after losing cornerback Aqib Talib. Signing Darrelle Revis was the most significant free-agent move in the division, while Brandon Browner adds another quality player to the secondary. The Jets aren't too far behind. Eric Decker and Chris Johnson add firepower where the Jets have struggled in recent years -- at their skill positions. Neither player, though, is on the same level as Revis, which is why I give the Patriots the edge. Honorable mentions go to the Dolphins for signing Branden Albert and the Bills for signing Brandon Spikes.

James Walker: I like what the Jets have done this offseason. It has been offense, offense and more offense in free agency for New York. The Jets went out and signed wide receiver Eric Decker, former Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson and veteran quarterback Michael Vick. All three have a chance to make an impact on New York's weakest side of the football. Jets head coach Rex Ryan is a great defensive mind and has that side taken care of. It's just a matter of New York scoring more points this year. If the Jets can add a receiving threat such as Marqise Lee or Brandin Cooks in the first round Thursday, look out for "Gang Green."


Second Down

Will an AFC East team select a quarterback in the first three rounds of the draft?



Cimini: No one will pick a quarterback in the first two days of the draft. The most likely candidate is the Dolphins, who have a new offensive coordinator and might be looking to acquire some Ryan Tannehill insurance after two so-so seasons -- but it won't happen before the fourth round, not this year. Neither Geno Smith nor EJ Manuel is entrenched with the Jets and Bills, respectively, but their teams have too many other needs to start doubling down on quarterbacks. The Patriots made headlines by hosting Johnny Manziel on a pre-draft visit, but I'm not buying it. It's still too early to start looking for an heir to the Tom Brady throne.

Reiss: Yes. One of the things that has become clear in the build-up to the draft is that this is a good year for clubs looking for a developmental quarterback. ESPN's Mel Kiper said he has spoken with teams who have identified as many as 15-20 draftable quarterbacks this year, which is higher than the norm. NFL Network's Mike Mayock said he has 10 signal-callers with grades within the first three rounds, which is about double the norm. I think Buffalo (insurance for EJ Manuel) and New England (backup Ryan Mallett's contract expires after the 2014 season) are the spots to look within the division.

Rodak: The Patriots are the most likely to select a quarterback in the first three rounds. Their backup since 2011, Ryan Mallett, enters the final season of his rookie contract and hasn't proved in limited playing time that he's capable of being a starter. Mallett was a third-round selection and that could be the sweet spot for the Patriots again, although I wouldn't put it past them to take a quarterback in the second round if one of the top signal-callers falls. The Bills might also pluck a quarterback off the board by Friday night. EJ Manuel, a first-round pick last year, is their starter but they could use an upgrade over Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel as their backup. If the right quarterback falls, Buffalo might pounce.

Walker: The third round seems like the best possibility; it's the safest round of the three for avoiding a quarterback controversy. The Bills would have the best case for drafting a quarterback fairly early. The team has said several times that it's behind 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel, but I don't see any reason for the Bills to avoid adding depth at the position behind Manuel in the middle of the draft. Backup quarterbacks Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel are not the answers. Manuel had injury issues last year, as well. It makes sense for the Bills to consider a capable backup.


Third Down


What stands out about the NFL schedule for each AFC East team?



Cimini: Prepare for the missiles of October. The Jets face Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in a 12-day span, Weeks 5 to 7. Before that, they meet up with a few other top quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. The Jets' suspect pass defense, which allowed nearly 4,000 yards last season, will be seriously tested. This is the main reason they need to prioritize cornerback in the draft.

Reiss: The Patriots have a well-placed bye week and some of their biggest games around it. A Nov. 2 home game against the Broncos precedes the bye, then coming out of it is a Nov. 16 road game against the Colts. Fun, fun. If that's not the iron of the schedule, then back-to-back road games against the Packers (Nov. 30) and Chargers (Dec. 7) probably qualifies. Also, with the season concluding with three straight division games, the AFC East could still be up for grabs late.

Rodak: I've harped on this point before, but the Bills might have the NFL's toughest December schedule. Who knows where they'll be by Thanksgiving -- they could be in the playoff hunt or fading -- but their final month is brutal. The Bills must travel to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos, return home to host Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, make a cross-country trip to face the Raiders and then head back East to finish their regular season on the road against Brady and the Patriots. Ouch. Perhaps it's better that this four-game stretch comes at the end of the season rather than the beginning -- the Bills could be staring down an 0-4 start if it did -- but if they have any hope at the playoffs, they're going to need to win a couple of those games.

Walker: The Dolphins must bring their A-game on the road because they do not have back-to-back home games until the final two weeks. The Dolphins were a respectable 4-4 on the road last season, but it will be challenging for them to put together any significant winning streaks away from Sun Life Stadium. Miami's regular-season opener at home against the Patriots also stands out. We will find out immediately whether the Dolphins are a legitimate threat to New England in the AFC East.


Fourth Down


Which AFC East second-year player has the most to prove?



Cimini: My first inclination is to say Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who could lose his starting job to Michael Vick, but that's the Jets beat writer in me talking. The better answer is Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. Why him? Unlike Smith, Manuel was a first-round pick, which means greater expectations -- and those expectations were heightened when the Bills anointed him as The Guy. Smith has yet to receive that kind of endorsement from the Jets. The Bills have hitched their franchise to Manuel, who is coming off a mediocre-at-best rookie season in which he went 4-6 as the starter. He was hampered by injuries, but part of being a franchise quarterback is being on the field.

Reiss: Bills quarterback EJ Manuel would be my choice. He looked like a foundation-type player in the season opener against the Patriots last year, and had a few bright spots in ensuing weeks, but overall had an uneven first year in the NFL that was affected by injuries. The Bills surprised many by using a first-round draft choice to select him last year, and because of that Manuel gets the nod here over Jets quarterback Geno Smith, a second-round pick. It will be intriguing to see how things unfold with Smith now that the Jets have also signed Michael Vick, but I think the discovery process on Manuel in Year 2 -- is he really a franchise quarterback? -- trumps it.

Rodak: It has to be EJ Manuel. Geno Smith is a close second, but the Jets have Michael Vick to lean on. The Bills decided not to add an experienced backup quarterback this offseason, clearing the way for Manuel to be their unquestioned starter. Manuel needs to be more consistent. He showed flashes last season but also had some downright horrid games, including a four-interception afternoon against the Buccaneers. Manuel must also stay healthy. His three knee injuries last season limited him to 10 games and set back his development. Another injury this season will cloud the picture and keep the Bills from knowing exactly what they have. That could give him more leeway if he isn't progressing as quickly as the team would like, but it could also cause the Bills to look elsewhere.

Walker: It's easy to point to the quarterback position and say New York's Geno Smith and Buffalo's EJ Manuel have the most to prove. But neither player was drafted higher in 2013 than Miami's Dion Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick. The Dolphins traded up nine spots to get Jordan last year, only to use him as a backup defensive end and special-teamer. It was head-scratching to figure out why such a dynamic talent couldn't find his way onto the field. Jordan's usage actually was one point of contention between Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin and former general manager Jeff Ireland, who had a falling out last season. Was Jordan not ready for the NFL level? Was Miami's coaching staff holding him back? This is a big Year 2 to answer those questions.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC East

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
10:00
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There's the New England Patriots ... and then there's everyone else.

With a few exceptions, that has been the makeup of the AFC East since 2001, when Bill Belichick and Tom Brady won their first division title -- and Super Bowl -- for New England. Even when the Patriots lose, they win. One day after free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib left for Denver, New England replaced him with perennial Pro Bowl corner Darrelle Revis.

Belichick will turn 62 next month and Brady turns 37 in August. Both are closer to the end of their careers, so is it realistic to expect the Patriots to decline soon? The Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets are all surely hoping so, as recent history has been that they need to get past the Patriots to make a playoff run.

The AFC East hasn't produced a wild-card playoff team since 2010, when the Jets went on the road to upset the Patriots and punch their ticket to the AFC Championship Game. The Jets' success was short-lived, and they've since been cast back into the pack with the Bills and Dolphins.

Overall, this is a young division. All four teams, including the Patriots, were among the youngest in the AFC at the start of last season. That youth shows up most at quarterback, where Ryan Tannehill, Geno Smith and EJ Manuel are all green and looking to prove their worth in the NFL. Their teams' ability to challenge the Patriots might hang in the balance.

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 power structure in the AFC East and some other some key offseason topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which AFC East team is closest to catching the Patriots?



Rich Cimini: The Jets, no question about it. The Jets, Bills and Dolphins are three teams with question marks at quarterback -- and quarterback play is everything in the NFL. So why the Jets? When rating teams, I like to look at which ones can be dominant on at least one side of the ball. Clearly, the defenses of the Bills and Jets (ranked 10th and 11th, respectively) are the best units among the three Patriots-chasing teams. Beyond the stats, I'd give an edge to the Jets because their defensive line has a chance to be the most dominant position group in the division. And the Bills lost their best defensive player, safety Jairus Byrd. Another reason I'd pick the Jets is the coaching staff. Granted, Rex Ryan has missed the playoffs for three straight years, but he has a veteran staff that experienced little upheaval. Continuity is important. The Bills have a new defensive coordinator and the Dolphins ... well, that situation is dysfunctional.

Mike Reiss: Tough to answer, obviously, before we see how each team comes together after adding pieces in the draft and free agency. Last year, it was the Dolphins. Now, after a turbulent offseason and offensive line questions, I'll move off them to the Jets. Why the Jets? Respect for a very good defense and a belief they will address major deficiencies on offense, starting with a viable quarterback option to pair with shaky Geno Smith. All that said, I still see a rather wide gap between the Patriots and the next team in the division.

Mike Rodak: The Patriots hardly tore through the division last season, losing to the Dolphins and Jets on the road, while nearly dropping their season opener in Buffalo. But it's difficult to see the other three teams contending for a division title until their quarterbacks emerge as quality NFL starters. In Miami, Ryan Tannehill showed flashes last season. It's hard to predict much of anything season to season in the NFL, but I think the Dolphins are the closest to contending. The Jets and Bills are not that far behind.

James Walker: My short answer is no AFC East team is ready to catch the Patriots in 2014. As long as Tom Brady is healthy and Bill Belichick is coaching, the Patriots will be the favorites to win the division. But the team with the smallest gap is the Dolphins. They have the most talented roster to challenge New England and the second-best quarterback in the division in Ryan Tannehill. Miami's problem is it can't stay out of its own way with infighting and in-house controversy. Last year, there was the bullying scandal and coach Joe Philbin had a falling out with former general manager Jeff Ireland. Miami still split with the Patriots, mostly because of talent. But how can the Dolphins win consistently when they're fighting themselves?


Second Down


How justified is the AFC East's reputation as a weak division?



Cimini: I hate to say it, but it's justified. The division doesn't have much street cred these days. The Jets helped the cause with their little run there in 2009 and 2010, when Ryan was in his "I'm not kissing Belichick's rings" phase, but the AFC East has turned into a bottom-heavy division. Since 2011, the Jets are 22-26, the Dolphins are 21-27 and the Bills are 18-30. In that span, the teams not named the Patriots have combined for a grand total of zero playoff appearances. The Bills haven't made the playoffs since 1999, which is practically prehistoric. The Dolphins haven't made it since 2008. Records aside, the division lacks star power, save for Brady, Belichick & Co. Each team has a handful of good players, but we're not talking about guys with a lot of box-office appeal. Everything is cyclical in the NFL, so I'm sure things will swing the other way. But right now, the AFC East is in a state of depression -- except for the Patriots.

Reiss: I'll start with some stats. Last season, AFC East teams were 22-18 against out-of-division teams. That was the third-best mark of the eight divisions. As it turned out, AFC East teams were tied for the second-best record against non-division playoff teams. So while I wouldn't call the AFC East an elite division, I'd strongly counter any line of thinking that the division is a doormat. What impresses me the most about the division is the quality along the defensive line, which rivals any division in the NFL.

Rodak: Strength of divisions is always difficult to measure because it changes so often. The NFC West was considered a weak division for several years, but recently it has been the class of the NFL. The Seahawks groomed their young talent into a perennial playoff team, while the 49ers found a coach (Jim Harbaugh) who has brought his team to three consecutive NFC title games. They're a far cry from the Seahawks, but the Bills and Jets both had some of the NFL's youngest rosters last season. Let's see if those teams can make the next step before we label the AFC East as "weak." Plus, how many other divisions have a team that has been as dominant as the Patriots? That adds strength at the top of the division while making life tougher for everyone else.

Walker: Absolutely, the reputation is justified. I cannot think of another NFL division that was mostly owned by one team over the past dozen years. I've said since last summer that the 2013 Patriots were the weakest New England team in years. That Patriots group still won the AFC East by four games! That is more of an indication of poor football by the Jets, Dolphins and Bills than dominant football by New England. Here is all you need to know about the AFC East: No team other than New England has posted a winning record the past three seasons.


Third Down

Ryan Tannehill, Geno Smith and EJ Manuel: Which young QB will still be his team's starter in three years?



Cimini: I'll be blunt: I'm not confident that any of the three young quarterbacks will be starting in three years. They all have talent, but each one was thrown into a difficult situation. Smith and Manuel were rushed into starting jobs, and Tannehill was under siege last season, behind the worst (and most dysfunctional) offensive line in the league. Out of this group, I'd say Tannehill probably has the most staying power. I'm not saying he will be a star, because I've seen him throw passes that conjure up images of Nuke LaLoosh of "Bull Durham" fame, but he has a decent amount of talent and moxie. That said, Tannehill has a new coordinator, and he could have another one next year if the Dolphins decide to blow up the coaching staff. The same could happen to Smith next year if things go sideways on the Jets. Continuity is vital for a young quarterback. So is the quality of his supporting cast. Smith could overtake Tannehill in this category if the Jets surround him with better players. That, undoubtedly, would accelerate his growth.

Reiss: I'll go Tannehill, assuming the Dolphins protect him better than they did in 2013. I think he's the most naturally gifted of the three. When I watch him beat a Patriots game plan in December that dared him to make throws to the outside of the field, and he succeeded in doing so, it reflects a promising foundation on which to build. I'm interested to see how the presence of a new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, affects his development.

Rodak: The Bills, Dolphins and Jets have dealt with inconsistent quarterback play for the past decade. Of those three teams, only the Jets with Chad Pennington had a starter for more than three consecutive seasons since 2000. Three years is a very long time in the NFL -- enough time for young quarterbacks to see their stars rise and fall. Smith, Tannehill and Manuel were all high draft picks and have the potential to be long-term starters. Of the three, I think Smith is least likely to stick. Playing in New York can be tough, while the Jets' coaching situation remains volatile. The Bills might have the most stable environment for Manuel to grow, but his knee injuries are a concern. Tannehill has shown promise in Miami, but changes in the front office might bring different opinions. This might be radical, but I don't see any of the three quarterbacks starting in three years.

Walker: My first response hinted at my answer: I'm going with Tannehill, though the instability of the Dolphins' organization gives me pause. Joe Philbin might not be Miami's head coach in 2015, let alone in three years. That obviously impacts Tannehill's job security. However, I think Tannehill has the most pure talent of the three young quarterbacks. Tannehill set career highs in yards (3,913), touchdowns (24) and passer rating (81.7) last season. He also was sacked a franchise-record 58 times last season and had little help from the running game. I believe Tannehill can thrive with good pass protection and a stronger running game. He needs to work on his deep ball and make quicker decisions, but that might improve with time.


Fourth Down

The Dolphins, Bills and Patriots each experienced noteworthy changes to their coaching staff. Which will have the greatest impact?



Cimini: The Patriots lost a beloved assistant coach, Dante Scarnecchia, but let's be honest: As long as Bill Belichick is the HC of the NEP, the Patriots will be a highly competitive team. Assistants and coordinators come and go, but the Patriots remain the Patriots because of one man. I think the Bills' coaching change -- Jim Schwartz as the new defensive coordinator -- will have the greatest impact in the division. True, the Bills took a big jump last season under the departed Mike Pettine, but they still stunk against the run. Schwartz will fix that. The Dolphins' new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, has a chance to make a big impact, but it won't happen right away. Why not? Because the Dolphins' offensive line is in shambles (maybe you heard about the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin mess), and no offensive genius has invented a scheme that works without efficient line play. They addressed it in free agency by signing Branden Albert, but there will be growing pains for the offense.

Reiss: I was going to say the Patriots because of the wide-ranging respect retiring offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has across the NFL, and also with linebackers/scout team coach Pepper Johnson landing in Buffalo. But the more I thought about it, how can it not be the Dolphins with a new offensive coordinator and two new offensive line coaches? The Patriots will miss their two assistants for different reasons, but that seems to pale in comparison to Miami based on the bigger role/responsibilities of offensive coordinator.

Rodak: I think the Patriots' changes are the least likely to have an impact given Bill Belichick's reputation to wield nearly absolute control. Assistant coaches come and go in New England, but Belichick keeps his staff small and his message consistent, so there typically isn't much change. It's a toss-up, then, between the Dolphins and Bills. The Bills have seen significant changes on their defensive coaching staff, but their personnel doesn't figure to change dramatically. The Dolphins have a new offensive coordinator, and while their skill positions could remain intact, their offensive line will be different next season. That, coupled with the need for a culture change after their bullying scandal last season, means the Dolphins' coaches have more to overcome this season.

Walker: I really like the addition of Jim Schwartz in Buffalo, and it goes beyond X's and O's. Schwartz brings head-coaching experience to Buffalo's coaching staff. Bills head coach Doug Marrone is entering his second year after a 6-10 record in 2013. There were some things last year that appeared a little too fast for him as a rookie head coach in the NFL -- and that's expected. Schwartz can help slow things down in Year 2 for Marrone, who is trying to make the transition from the college game. Schwartz experienced plenty of ups and downs with the Detroit Lions and can be a shoulder for Marrone to lean on. Mike Pettine also was a solid defensive coordinator, but he couldn't bring that element to Buffalo's staff.

McShay Mock 3.0: Dolphins 

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6
11:00
AM ET
Todd McShay’s third NFL mock draft Insider for 2014 is out on ESPN Insider today.

The top need for the Miami Dolphins is very obvious right now. They need offensive line help in a big way, and while they are sure to be quite active on this front in free agency, more help will be needed through the draft.

But as it stands now, there doesn’t look like an obvious fit up front for Miami in the first round. That could mean the Dolphins go in a different direction and select one of the top defensive tackles to replace free agents-to-be Randy Starks and/or Paul Soliai. A safety also could be an option if Chris Clemons moves on in free agency. As they were a year ago, the Dolphins could be a prime candidate to move out of this pick if offensive line help isn’t available.

Physical and sexual threats about a teammate's mother and sister. Repeated and derogatory references to racial backgrounds. A $10,000 "fine" paid to other players for missing a group trip to Las Vegas.

Those are among the incidents that befell offensive lineman Jonathan Martin during his time with the Miami Dolphins, according to a report released Friday by NFL-appointed investigator Ted Wells. The subsequent question many will have: How typical is such behavior in an NFL locker room?

Green Bay Packers guard T.J. Lang took to Twitter in an attempt to distance his contemporaries from the tawdry details contained in the report, saying: "Please don't stereotype NFL players for what's going on with Miami. That type of stuff is not common in other locker rooms."

Is that truly the case? At any given time, there are 1,696 active players during an NFL season. I imagine each of them would have their own spin on that question. So on Friday I reached out to recently retired linebacker Ben Leber to get a sense of the true shock value here.

Leber, who played 10 seasons for three teams before his career ended in 2012, wasn't stunned to hear the details. During his career, I found Leber's interest in the psychology of the locker room to be particularly enlightening. As we talked Friday, Leber said the most noteworthy part of the report to him was a series of letters between Martin and his parents outlining his struggles -- none of which had been reported to teammates or the Dolphins' organization.

"That really gives you a candid insight into his mindset," Leber said. "In my mind, it exonerates a little bit of what was going on. It's not like they knew the mental turmoil he was experiencing. It looks like kind of a perfect storm to me. You had probably an amped-up locker room that was more extreme than most, and you have a guy in Jonathan Martin who realized how fragile his own mindset was. And then, it just so happens he is paired with an extremely aggressive kind of wheels-off offensive line crew that probably took it further than most guys do.

"But from their perspective, it sounds like they didn't do anything to intentionally harm him. They thought they were having fun. They're being 'bros' and figured this is what guys normally do. They might have gone above and beyond that in the end, because Jonathan didn't fight back, but they didn't know that he had these other issues and had been dealing with them since he was a juvenile [as detailed in the report]."

As wild as it sounds, Leber said he could see how some of the thousands of text messages between Martin and teammate Richie Incognito could devolve into such crude language, threats and personal attacks.

"I have two brothers who played sports," Leber said. "I think if people saw the text messages that we share between the three of us, they would be shocked. One says something off the wall, you go crasser and dirtier, and when it gets to a certain point, you 'win.' We all know each other. And I'm sure Richie and those guys thought they knew Jonathan."

We all want to believe this episode was in fact a perfect storm of circumstances. But as I wrote earlier Friday, the NFL and/or the Dolphins didn't have enough of an institutionalized boundary to protect against it. If the report is to be believed, none of the Dolphins' decision-makers were aware of interactions that ultimately left Martin contemplating suicide, and nothing stopped until Martin walked out on the team.

"To me," Leber said, "it's just a wake-up call to everybody in every locker room. We talk about players being respectful, treating the game with respect, but a lot of guys don't know what it means to respectful. The locker-room atmosphere, what we've known since high school and college, we don't truly respect people and we don't think about hurting people as a result."
PITTSBURGH -- Was a Steelers player prepared to lobby Pittsburgh to sign guard Richie Incognito had the Dolphins cut him in the aftermath of bullying allegations that generated national headlines?

Consider what Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said Wednesday morning on ESPN’s "First Take."

"The only person that I know that knows Richie Incognito personally said the day after (the story broke), ‘If Richie Incognito gets cut I’m walking upstairs and telling coach to pick him up,’ " Clark said. "He’s like, 'That’s the type of football player I want to play with. All of that stuff in the locker room, that’s how they act, that’s how they talked but as far as playing football I want you to play nasty, I want you to be like that.’ "

Clark did not reveal the name of the player who told him that, and it could well have been someone on other team with whom the veteran free safety is friendly. But it is reasonable to assume that there is a good chance Clark’s conversation took place with a Steelers teammate.

Would the Steelers have given any consideration to signing Incognito had the Dolphins released him last November? Not a chance.

But Clark's revelation shows a different side of NFL locker rooms, one in which players are able to separate or overlook behavior, no matter how coarse it is, from the business of winning games.

It is also consistent with how a significant number of players in the Dolphins’ locker room felt after offensive tackle Jonathan Martin abruptly left the team last October and later leveled bullying charges against Incognito.

The accusations led to Incognito’s suspension -- it was lifted earlier this week -- and a host of Dolphins teammates defended him and backed Incognito’s claim that he and Martin were friends.

The recent release of text messages between the two, bawdy as they were, appear to support what Incognito has maintained all along and that there may have been a rush to judgment.

Clark did not defend Incognito or the offensive language he used freely around teammates.

But he questioned whether the physical and psychological stress of playing football had led to Martin breaking down and then scapegoating Incognito for his hasty exit from the Dolphins.

Clark recalled a conversation he had with former Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells in 2010 when he nearly signed with Miami as an unrestricted free agent.

"He said ‘One day Ryan you’re going to walk out of the huddle, it happens to every player, and you’re not going to want to hit the person on the other side of the ball and when that happens it’s time to let it go,’ " Clark said. "I just think Jonathan Martin got there earlier than most people do."

As for the NFL futures of both players, Clark said, "I think (Incognito) will get a chance before Jonathan Martin. The way he behaves is genuinely who he is where Jonathan Martin behaves more to me like a person who is being advised."

Video: Patriots-Dolphins wrap-up

December, 15, 2013
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ESPN.com NFL Nation Dolphins reporter James Walker captures the atmosphere in the locker room after the team’s thrilling victory and how there is a feeling they can beat anyone, while ESPN.com NFL Nation Patriots reporter Mike Reiss relays the disappointment on the Patriots’ side as they let an opportunity to clinch the AFC East slip away.
Hartline/WorildsGetty ImagesBrian Hartline, left, and Miami face Jason Worilds and Pittsburgh in a game with playoff implications.
The postseason has started early for several teams around the NFL. The Miami Dolphins (6-6) and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7) are two of those clubs, and they will meet Sunday at Heinz Field in what could amount to a playoff eliminator.

Miami and Pittsburgh are fighting for the final wild-card spot in the AFC, which is currently held by the Baltimore Ravens (6-6). The winner of Sunday’s game will remain firmly in the playoff hunt, while the loser falls behind the pack.

ESPN.com’s Dolphins reporter James Walker and Steelers reporter Scott Brown weigh in on who will prevail in this important game.

Walker: Scott, I think much of this game will be determined by the matchup between Miami’s ninth-ranked pass defense against Pittsburgh’s eight-ranked passing offense. This is a strength vs. strength clash. The Dolphins are very wary of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle knows Roethlisberger well from his days with the Cincinnati Bengals and has a healthy respect for “Big Ben.” He’s unlike any quarterback Miami has faced this season because of his ability to extend plays to throw deep, not necessarily to run for extra yards. There is a lot of pressure on Miami’s cornerbacks and safeties to maintain their coverage longer than usual to prevent big gains on broken plays.

Speaking of which, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown is Pittsburgh’s best playmaker, and leads the NFL in receptions. What makes him so dangerous?

Brown: It’s funny that Brown still doesn’t get his due as a No. 1 wide receiver, even from some media types in Pittsburgh, despite the phenomenal numbers he has put up this season. Brown might not have the size associated with No. 1 receivers, and he does not have blazing speed, but he has excellent quickness, is a superb route runner, and Roethlisberger has said he’s never seen a receiver who is able to adjust to a ball while it’s in the air the way Brown regularly does. Above all, Brown works at it. I mean really works at it. He is maniacal about training, and it’s not uncommon for Brown to hit the gym for a workout after spending all day at Steelers’ headquarters.

James, you have been immersed in one the biggest stories of the season, and I’m sure Steelers’ fans would appreciate your take on how the Dolphins have dealt with the turmoil and distractions caused by the Jonathan Martin bullying allegations. Have the Dolphins settled into any semblance of normalcy, or is their a new normal in Miami?

Walker: Things have been as close to normal this week as it's been since Martin left the team Oct. 28. There was a huge dark cloud hanging over the Dolphins, and things intensified and became very uptight the week NFL lead investigator Ted Wells visited the team. I expect things to be relatively calm for a couple more weeks until Wells completes the report and releases his findings. After that, all bets are off. There will be no winners in this complex situation. I don't expect Richie Incognito or Martin to return to Miami. So the Dolphins have already taken a hit. More heads could roll if others are found culpable.

Scott, one Dolphin who is excited about this matchup is former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace. What type of reception do you think he will receive, and how will Pittsburgh's secondary defend Wallace?

Brown: I think Wallace will hear his share of boos. I think he is perceived, fair or not, by a lot of Steelers fans as selfish and a player who did not produce enough last season or help the team chemistry because of his contract situation. I’m real interested to see how the Steelers try to defend Wallace. His speed is going to be a problem for a defensive backfield that has lost a collective step given the age of its starting safeties, not to mention top cornerback Ike Taylor.

Taylor usually draws the assignment of shadowing the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver, but I’m not sure the Steelers will do that with Wallace, since coach Mike Tomlin has a lot of respect for Brian Hartline as well. Whoever draws Wallace will get help from a safety, but he could have a big game at Heinz Field. The Steelers have given up seven passing plays of at least 50 yards this season, and I’m sure Wallace would love nothing more than to add to his former team’s total.

James, what are the early reviews on Wallace? It doesn’t seem like the Dolphins are getting the return from the investment they made in him, though I know it’s early.

Walker: It’s still a work in progress, Scott. Wallace hasn’t put up the production many in Miami expected, but there is plenty of blame to go around. Starting with Wallace, the drops are on him. Wallace had too many drops early in the season, although he’s gotten better in the second half of the year. But other factors such as scheme and quarterback Ryan Tannehill's inability to throw a consistent deep ball has made it tough for Wallace to make the same plays he made in Pittsburgh. Tannehill doesn’t have Roethlisberger’s arm strength or ability to extend plays. Wallace thrived off broken plays that Roethlisberger created. Tannehill doesn’t have near the same elusiveness and ability to out-throw the coverage. Wallace is getting open, but many of Tannehill’s deep balls have been underthrown, which allows defenders to recover. There are some things involved that Wallace cannot control. But he does have momentum coming into this game. Wallace has totaled 12 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns in his past two games. I expect him to be amped for Sunday.

Finally, Scott, what do you think of Pittsburgh’s playoff chances, and how it relates to this game?

Brown: In spite of the latest wave of injuries to hit the offensive line, I actually think the Steelers have a chance to win their final four games and make the playoffs -- if they get the help they are going to need with the Ravens. My outlook probably changes if Aaron Rodgers is playing quarterback in the Steelers’ Dec. 22 game at Green Bay. But if the Packers drop out of playoff contention, does Rodgers play against the Steelers? That is a big if as of right now.

Green Bay is the only remaining road game for the Steelers, so the schedule sets up favorably, especially given Rodgers’ uncertain status. Roethlisberger is really locked in right now, and I think he is capable of carrying the Steelers and masking a lot of problems assuming an offensive line that is held together by duct tape can do a reasonable job of protecting him.

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Star LotuleleiGetty ImagesStar Lotulelei and the Panthers' front four will bring pressure on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Two teams battling for playoff positioning will face off Sunday when the Carolina Panthers travel to play the Miami Dolphins.

Carolina (7-3) is one of the hottest teams in the NFL behind a stout defense and improved play from quarterback and MVP candidate Cam Newton. The Dolphins (5-5) have fought through off-the-field distractions to win two of their past three games and are just a tiebreaker behind the New York Jets for the final wild-card spot in the AFC.

Who will prevail? ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and Dolphins reporter James Walker weigh in.

James Walker: This looks like a game of matchups. One that looks concerning from Miami's perspective is Carolina's aggressive, physical defense against the Dolphins' inconsistent offense. The Dolphins are still searching for an offensive identity 10 games into their season. There is nothing they do particularly well on that side of the football: Miami is ranked 20th in passing and 24th in rushing. In fact, the Dolphins haven't scored more than 27 points in a game all season.

Is Carolina's defense as good as advertised? What kind of challenge can Miami's offense expect?

David Newton: It's hard to argue the numbers Carolina's defense has put up, particularly against the run, allowing just 84.5 yards per game. The front seven is as good as there is at making a game one-dimensional and forcing teams to pass; the defensive line can apply pressure on the quarterback, which allows seven, and sometimes eight, to drop back into coverage. It's really an unselfish group that is working as well together as any unit I've seen this season. The return of defensive tackle Dwan Edwards from a hamstring injury three weeks ago has added a more consistent third-down inside pass rush and made this unit even stronger. The defense that helped the 2003 Panthers get to the Super Bowl was good, but I believe this one is better.

The Dolphins bounced back from the loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a solid effort at San Diego. Has this team put the off-the-field issues behind it completely?

Walker: I wouldn't say completely, because the investigation is ongoing. I don't see an end to the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin saga for at least several more weeks, if not longer. The NFL spent a lot of time at the Dolphins' training facility this week to try to get to the bottom of things, and the NFLPA will reportedly do its own investigation soon.

I thought Miami handled this situation better against San Diego, and it showed in the Dolphins' preparation. Miami put together a focused effort to pick up a big win. I think the team was a bit shell-shocked by the circumstances and the amount of media scrutiny leading up to the Tampa Bay game when everything first came out. It's really going to be a week-to-week scenario with the Dolphins as this investigation unfolds.

Carolina is coming off a short week of preparation after winning a thriller against the New England Patriots on "Monday Night Football." Is this a concern, especially going on the road, where the Panthers are 3-2?

Newton: The short week shouldn't be a problem. They had a Thursday night game a few weeks ago at Tampa and played well for having only a few days of preparation. The coaching staff has really gotten into a groove with knowing when to go hard and when to back off in practice. From a defensive standpoint, because they don't rely on a lot of fancy formations with the front four so solid, it really just comes down to tweaking things for individual matchups.

The biggest issue might be from wear and tear. They played three games in a span of 12 days a few weeks ago, and they're coming off consecutive games against San Francisco and New England, elite teams that really get after you.

Speaking of physical teams, what problems will Miami's defense cause Newton and the Carolina offense?

Walker: Miami's defense has been an enigma. There is talent and depth, especially in the front seven, but the defense hasn't lived up to its potential. The Dolphins' best chance to rattle Newton is to stop Carolina's running game and make the Panthers one-dimensional. That's a tall order. I thought Miami's defense had the talent on paper to be top 10 against the run, but that's far from the case. The Dolphins are 25th against the run.

But in games when the Dolphins have earned a second-half lead, their pass rush has been able to cause problems. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake is healthy again and back to his old self; he has four sacks in his past three games and 6.5 overall. Fellow defensive end Olivier Vernon (5.5 sacks) has been a pleasant surprise. The Dolphins have four players with three sacks or more this season. They have the ability to pin their ears back and get to the quarterback. But the Dolphins haven't had enough leads late in games.

David, one area in which Carolina has struggled is its 28th-ranked passing offense. How can the Panthers improve?

Newton: Carolina's ranking is a bit misleading. The key number is Newton's efficiency. He's completing a much higher percentage of passes -- 63.2 -- than in his previous two seasons. He's also throwing more short passes as the offense goes with more ball control. He's more or less taking what defenses are giving him better than he has before. Because the Panthers are so balanced in rushing and passing, Newton's passing yards are down. But they have deep threats when they need them in Steve Smith and Ted Ginn. They just haven't needed them because, for most of the past two months, they've been getting big leads and running more.

James, my last question to you is, do you believe the Dolphins are a playoff team?

Walker: The Dolphins feel confident because they are still in the hunt. They are just a tiebreaker behind the Jets, and the teams still have two games against one another. But I haven't seen any consistency from Miami since its 3-0 start. Since then, the Dolphins have gone 2-5, so there isn't much reason to believe they can go 5-1 or 4-2 down the stretch to get into the playoffs. Miami has a huge three-week stretch ahead, with Carolina and games at the Jets and at Pittsburgh. All of these games are going to be tough.

Double Coverage: Chargers at Dolphins

November, 15, 2013
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Philip Rivers and Cameron WakeUSA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoPhilip Rivers and the Chargers travel to face Cameron Wake and the Dolphins as both teams try to reach a 5-5 record.
Teetering on the edge of the AFC wild-card picture, the San Diego Chargers travel across the country to face a Miami Dolphins squad embroiled in turmoil.

Both teams sit at 4-5 and a game behind the New York Jets (5-4) for the last wild-card spot in the AFC. A setback on Sunday could drastically affect the losing team's playoff fortunes for the rest of the season.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, nine teams playing in Week 11 are either 4-5 or 5-4. Under the current playoff format which began in 1990, only 7 percent of teams to start 4-6 went on to make the playoffs. That number jumps to 29 percent for teams starting 5-5.

So the team that improves to the .500 mark has much better odds of grabbing a postseason berth.

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Dolphins reporter James Walker break down the matchup.

Walker: Eric, with Philip Rivers' numbers, you would think San Diego would have a better record. What's gone wrong?

Williams: That's a fair question. Rivers is having one of his best seasons of his 10-year career. He's first in the NFL in completion percentage (71.6 percent), second in quarterback rating (72.6), fifth in total passing yards (2,691) and fifth in passing touchdowns (18). Where San Diego has struggled is finishing games and playing consistently on the defensive side of the ball. Three of San Diego's five losses have come in the final 15 seconds of the fourth quarter or in overtime. The Chargers are allowing a league-worst 6.4 yards per play. Opponents are converting 42 percent of the time against San Diego's defense on third down, which is 27th in the league. And San Diego's defense has forced a league-low six turnovers this season.

The Dolphins are losers of five of their past six games, and appear to be struggling in dealing with the distraction created by the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation. James, what's the situation like in the locker room? And can Miami's players solely focus on playing against San Diego on Sunday?

Walker: The Dolphins are trying to put a good face on the situation. But truthfully, it's weighing on them. More than anything, players are constantly peppered with questions about Martin and Incognito, who are currently not with the team. There have been reporters here from CNN, ABC News and other major news outlets to find out what is going on in Miami's locker room.

On the field, Miami lost two of its top starters on the offensive line. It's not a coincidence the Dolphins rushed for a franchise-low 2 yards in Monday's loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Dolphins' offensive line was dominated. I also don't think it's a coincidence Miami started the game flat and fell behind 15-0 early. I think the Dolphins are shaken up right now, and I'm not sure which team to expect on Sunday.

Is it possible Miami is a trap game for San Diego with the Chiefs coming up next?

Williams: The Chargers are not in a position to overlook anyone. San Diego has defeated just one team with a winning record this season -- Indianapolis. And with the loss to Denver, the Chargers are in the middle of a two-game losing streak for the first time this season. West Coast teams traveling to the East Coast traditionally struggle, although San Diego is 2-1 in those contests this season. The Chargers understand if they want to hold on to postseason aspirations they have to win games like this one on Sunday, so the Dolphins will have their full attention.

What's your evaluation of the progression of Ryan Tannehill in his second season?

Walker: Tannehill got off to a fast start during Miami's 3-0 run. But since then he's been average and too turnover prone. Tannehill has most of the tools you want in a quarterback. But he also has some weaknesses that are concerning. Tannehill's deep ball and pocket presence must improve if he wants to take the next step.

However, I sometimes refrain from fully evaluating Tannehill because his supporting cast is so inconsistent. As I mentioned earlier, the running game produced all of 2 yards on Monday. How can a quarterback win with that kind of production? The offensive line is the weakest unit on the team, and Tannehill has been sacked 37 times already this season. Both of those factors have led to a lot of his mistakes.

How much will the time change to 4:05 p.m. ET help the Chargers?

Williams: It should help players adjust their body clock to the time change. The Chargers usually travel on Friday for East Coast games, and will do so again this week. San Diego coach Mike McCoy also holds morning practices, so the players are used to getting up and practicing around that time. Although it's sunny in San Diego, there will be more humidity for the players to deal with in Miami. So players are making sure they drink enough water this week so they do not get dehydrated on Sunday. The late afternoon kickoff could help with that.

At 4-5, Miami is one of a handful of teams fighting for a wild-card spot in the AFC. In his second season, does coach Joe Philbin have what it takes to lead the Dolphins to the team's first playoff berth since the 2008 season?

Walker: An NFL head coach usually gets three years to implement his program and prove his worth. But due to extenuating circumstances with the Incognito-Martin scandal, the time is now for Philbin. How Philbin handles these final seven games and leads Miami through adversity will say a lot about his future. He is 11-14 as a head coach since taking over in 2012, which is not good enough. The NFL investigation also is a huge concern for the entire organization. If Philbin and his staff were part of any wrongdoing, jobs could be lost. The Dolphins remain in the playoff hunt. But it's hard to view them as a serious contender after they just lost to the winless Buccaneers.

CINCINNATI -- An anonymous, unscientific survey of 72 NFL players conducted this week by ESPN.com's team reporters revealed that Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin was overwhelmingly viewed as the more favorable teammate in the now nine-day-long saga involving him and teammate Richie Incognito.

Incognito, who has been suspended indefinitely by the Dolphins for his part in a bullying scandal that has swept over the league and saw Martin leave the team, has received public support from many of his teammates in recent days, including quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Support for Incognito has run thin in other locker rooms, though. The survey, which was released Friday afternoon, found that only 21 percent of NFL players would consider Incognito a good teammate. Another 47 percent believe Martin was the better teammate.

And then there's that other 32 percent who don't side with either one. In their eyes, both Martin and Incognito were at fault in this situation that has already spilled over into its second week of games. Their thinking, it seems, is that Martin could be tougher, and that Incognito should have had a better grasp on what specifically he was saying or doing to a particular teammate.

"It's all about knowing personalities," was the way one Cincinnati Bengals player put it.

To that player, who was one of the 23 respondents who said both Martin and Incognito were poor teammates, there were no "real men" in this incident.

"That's the thing about this locker room," he said, speaking of the Bengals. "We have real men in here. There's none of this fake, facade thing where you don't know what you're getting. If I have a problem with one of my teammates, I let him know. We all let each other know. You've got to talk."

Both Martin and Incognito would make bad teammates, according to this Bengals player, because "one was too soft and one was too aggressive." The player bemoaned the fact that there was seemingly no middle ground between Martin and Incognito. Since neither appeared to properly hold the other in check, he didn't feel comfortable saying he wanted either to be his teammate.

His sentiments were echoed by another Bengals player who also questioned Martin's ability to stand up for himself, while also wondering how Incognito thought it was OK to leave the type of messages laced with racial epithets and profanities on Martin's phone that he did.

In addition to the bullying issue, the issue of hazing, both financially and physically, has come up this week because of the scenario that's playing out in South Florida.

The first Bengals player said he felt a measure of hazing occurred in the league, and that when he was a rookie, he spent as much as $10,000 on dinners purchased for teammates. He said he viewed the purchases as the equivalent of "a tax write-off."

"It will all come back to you," the Bengals player said. "That's the thing you have to realize is that it'll all come back."

Asked to explain that comment, the player said that form of hazing was just one way of having the young players feeling they belonged to something bigger than themselves. Near the end of the year, he said players on that team all bought one another Christmas presents as a way of making sure no one on the team felt they were investing so much externally without feeling that they weren't part of the team.

It should be pointed out that this player did not begin his career in the Bengals organization. Other players who did had vastly different and much less expensive rookie seasons. The other Bengals player mentioned above said he helped pitch in to buy chicken from Popeye's for veterans when he first arrived to Cincinnati. He figured he might have spent $50 helping with the whole meal.

With so much still unknown in the Incognito-Martin story, it's tough to say who is completely right and who is completely wrong at this point. What is known, though, is that there are a lot of NFL players who wouldn't lose any sleep if either player never stepped foot in another locker room again.
Mike Glennon and Ryan TannehillGetty ImagesMike Glennon, left, and Ryan Tannehill have a lot to prove in the season's second half.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Although their records are uninspiring, the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been all over the news this season -- for all the wrong reasons.

The recent incident involving Miami offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito has dominated the headlines. Earlier in the season, the Bucs were in the news as the rift between coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman erupted, and Tampa Bay continues to draw attention after three players were diagnosed with MRSA infections.

But, on Monday night, the Dolphins and Bucs finally will be in the football spotlight as they play in a nationally televised game. ESPN.com Dolphins reporter James Walker and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss the matchup.

Pat Yasinskas: James, the Martin-Incognito situation has been one of the biggest stories of the season. How much of a distraction has it been for the other Miami players?

James Walker: The Dolphins are trying to put a decent spin on things this week. However, you can tell it’s weighing on them. Players are genuinely upset that it came down to this. They felt Martin could have handled this differently, and in a way that was better for the team, himself and Incognito. I would think most people outside of Miami’s locker room would find issues with that line of thinking. But it’s really within the NFL culture to think week-to-week and how to win games immediately. This has been an interesting case study on NFL locker rooms and how it relates real societal issues.

Pat, the Buccaneers have had their own share of drama this season. How is Tampa Bay handling its various issues at 0-8?

Yasinskas: James, things finally seem to have settled down a little bit the past week or two. But, for the longest time, it seemed as if the Bucs had a fresh controversy every day. The Freeman saga was nothing short of a soap opera, and the MRSA is a very serious issue. Cornerback Darrelle Revis has admitted the Bucs have been affected by the distractions. Throw in the fact that the Bucs are 0-8 and have lost several games they should have won, and it appears as if there’s a situation that could blow up at any time. But the one thing the Bucs have going for them is that they still are playing hard.

All right, let’s move to some on-the-field stuff. How are the Dolphins going to adjust their offensive line?

Walker: Here is the interesting thing about Miami's offensive line: It wasn't good with Martin and Incognito. Ryan Tannehill is the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL at the midpoint of the season, and, until two weeks ago, the running game was hit-or-miss. So, yes, on the surface, the Dolphins lost two starters on the offensive line. However, the bar set by the old group wasn't very high. Tyson Clabo will start for Martin at right tackle and Nate Garner at left guard. They're capable of holding up the same standard, but it remains to be seen whether they can do better.

Speaking of better, how much has the quarterback play improved with Mike Glennon? Can he become the long-term solution?

Yasinskas: Glennon has shown gradual improvement in each game. He’s been poised and has shown more mobility than most people thought he had. He has gone three straight games without an interception, which is a major accomplishment for a guy who has only five career starts. Schiano is very high on Glennon, and that admiration goes back to when Schiano tried (unsuccessfully) to recruit the quarterback to Rutgers. If Schiano sticks around, I think he views Glennon as his long-term answer at quarterback. But, with the way the Bucs are losing games, there is no guarantee Schiano will be back next season. A new coach might not be as high on Glennon as Schiano.

Speaking of long-term answers, has Tannehill shown enough to convince the Dolphins he can develop into a top-line starter?

Walker: I like what Tannehill brings to the table. However, this season has been challenging to evaluate because of all the troubles on the offensive line. Tannehill has a few holes in his game, such as poor pocket presence, suspect ball security and an average deep ball. Maybe some of those can be corrected with experience. This is a big eight-game stretch for Tannehill and his long-term future in Miami. That important period starts Monday night.

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Bengals can't get caught up in blowout

October, 30, 2013
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MIAMI -- It was a comment Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis made in passing, at the tail end of a broader point he was trying to emphasize. Like many quotes he and countless other coaches often give at news conferences, it was the type of statement that could have easily been thrown away, dismissed as being something comparatively insignificant.

But upon further review, the point Lewis was making is actually a pretty strong one, and one Bengals fans have to hope their team was paying attention to.

"We know it's going to be difficult and tough," Lewis said this week, discussing the challenge of playing the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night. "We're going to play a football team that's lost a lot of close football games, so we've got to play great football."

OK, so it wasn't the football equivalent of John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" or Franklin Roosevelt's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," but Lewis' quote got the point home. The Bengals will be going into a hostile environment against a team desperate for a win after having lost its last three games by a total of 15 points. The added adversity of bringing an injury-depleted roster to South Florida makes the Bengals' challenge that much greater.

Days after earning their easiest win in five seasons, the Bengals know that when they step through the tunnel at Sun Life Stadium they will have to brace for 60 minutes of intense, physical, grinding football. The 49-9 blowout they just enjoyed against the New York Jets can't be expected this week, no matter how much the Dolphins are scuffling.

"It's going to be a tough game," Bengals cornerback Chris Crocker said. "[The Dolphins] are in a lull right now and they're really trying to find a way to win. Those guys are going to play really hard."

After jumping out to a 3-0 start, the Dolphins have lost their last four games. Aside from a 38-17 loss at New Orleans that kicked off the losing streak, they have been in the other three games until the final minutes.

"They've had their struggles on offense, but they're going to find a way," said Crocker, who spent part of the 2008 season with the Dolphins. "This league is all about parity. There's good players on each team. They're going to make good plays. We just have to make more."

Miami caught the rest of the league's attention last week when it jumped out to an early 17-3 lead at New England and looked poised for a big streak-snapping victory. After two quarters, the game appeared to be well in the Dolphins' favor. And then the Patriots stormed back, scoring 24 unanswered points in the second half to claim a 27-17 victory. While the Dolphins may have been disappointed by the result, that first half was enough to prove to the Bengals that Miami won't give in like the Jets eventually did.

The good thing for the Bengals, though, is that if Thursday's game ends up going down to the wire, they have experience in situations like this. Indeed, games like Sunday's are a rarity for them. If anything, tight contests are more of the norm for them, which is why columnists and feature writers have for years nicknamed them the "Cardiac Cats."

Just take a look at the Bengals' record for the rest of the first half of the season. Excluding last Sunday's blowout and a 17-6 loss at Cleveland, every other game the Bengals have played has been decided by 10 points or fewer. They are 5-1 in such contests. At Buffalo and Detroit in consecutive weeks, they walked off with wins after Mike Nugent hit a pair of game-winning kicks. He made a 43-yard field goal to beat the Bills in overtime, and a 54-yarder as time expired against the Lions.

"We've been in a lot more dogfights than being in games like this," Bengals receiver Marvin Jones said after the win over the Jets. "We know what it is. We can't let our guard down, and we're just going to keep going forward and keep preparing like we're going to be in a dogfight and go out there and get the 'W.'"

As insignificant a storyline as it may seem, it is true: the Bengals can't get caught up in reliving their blowout. That game was the exception. The rule is that winning each week in this league is tough, and this week could be the toughest.

Power Rankings: No. 19 Miami Dolphins

October, 29, 2013
10/29/13
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A weekly examination of the Dolphins’ ESPN.com Power Ranking:

Preseason: 20 | Last week: 16 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002

It’s the same old song for the struggling Miami Dolphins. They lost their fourth game in a row and continue to plummet in ESPN.com’s Power Rankings. Miami came in at No. 19, which is three spots lower than the previous week.

You can’t blame ESPN.com’s voting panel for being down on Miami. The Dolphins suffered a 27-17 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday. Miami (3-4) hasn’t won a game since Sept. 22 and is 0-2 in its own division. There are not many things to feel confident about with this team.

The Dolphins certainly have talent, which was evident Sunday when they jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead against New England. But Miami often fails to put together four good quarters.

Things do not get easier for Miami. The Dolphins will host the AFC North leading Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) on Halloween night. This is a must-win game for Miami if it wants to make anything significant of its season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only 1.7 percent of teams since 1978 have made the playoffs after losing five straight games in the regular season.

NFLN says: 3-0 Super Bowl contenders?

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
6:55
PM ET
Smith, Cutler & BreesGetty ImagesAlex Smith, Jay Cutler and Drew Brees have led their teams to a 3-0 start.
The danger in getting excited about a 3-0 start is that pesky little thing known as "The Other Thirteen Games." Victories in the first three weeks can lead to a 15-1 season, as they did for the Green Bay Packers in 2011. Or they could mean a 2-11 finish and a fired coaching staff, as the Arizona Cardinals found out last year.

So let's keep our wits as we analyze the seven teams that have started this season 3-0. It has been four years since that many teams were still perfect after three weeks. The 2009 season offers another lesson in early conclusions: One of the seven (the New Orleans Saints) won the Super Bowl but two finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs altogether (the New York Giants and Denver Broncos).

So who is this year's version of the 2009 Saints? Are there any candidates to emulate the 2012 Cardinals? NFL Nation has some thoughts.

If there is anything to glean from the first three weeks of this season, it's the emergence of two early powerhouses. The Seattle Seahawks and the Broncos have outscored opponents by a combined 213-98, and their individual point differentials of 59 and 56, respectively, are by far the best in the NFL. (The next best is the Kansas City Chiefs at 37).

The Seahawks' path to Super Bowl XLVIII seems clear: Clinch home-field advantage at CenturyLink Field, where they have won 10 consecutive games, and book their ticket to New York. The Broncos, meanwhile, have scored the second-most points through three games in NFL history and only figure to improve as defensive stalwarts Von Miller (suspension) and Champ Bailey (injury) return to the lineup.

What about the rest?

Has Andy Reid built an instant Super Bowl contender in Kansas City, or will his Chiefs level off? Has Ryan Tannehill really developed into a championship-caliber quarterback for the Miami Dolphins?

Are the Chicago Bears for real after two fourth-quarterback comebacks followed by two defensive touchdowns in their victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers? The New England Patriots are fortunate to be 3-0, right? And has Sean Payton restored the Saints' magic? Let's take the pulse of NFL Nation.

Which 3-0 teams are legitimate Super Bowl contenders?

The Saints should definitely be considered as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, based on their offensive track record under coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. Not only did they win the Super Bowl in 2009, but their offense was even better in 2011, when they finished 13-3 and set the NFL record for yards gained in a season (7,474). I don't expect an exact repeat this year, but I think that's closer to the norm than last year's 7-9 season.

Especially with tight end Jimmy Graham healthy again and back to being one of the most difficult matchups in the league. Clearly, however, the Saints need to improve a run game that has been practically non-existent to keep defenses honest and keep Brees upright.

Meanwhile, the Saints' young defense has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this year under new coordinator Rob Ryan. I still expect a few growing pains before the season is over. But they don't need to be dominant for the Saints to succeed. And I think they can continue to come up big in some big moments. Players are clearly responding to Ryan's energetic approach and versatile schemes. And they have some bona fide talent to work with in every unit -- including emerging young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. That was the biggest question mark heading into this season. If the defense can keep playing anywhere near this level, the Saints could run away with the NFC South title.

The undefeated Miami Dolphins are arguably the biggest surprise in the NFL.

But can the Dolphins be serious Super Bowl contenders? Let's temper those expectations. The Dolphins absolutely have playoff potential. This is a franchise that hasn't made the postseason since 2008. Ending that streak and having a winning season should be Miami's primary goals.

A 3-0 start is terrific, especially after beating the talented Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons in back-to-back weeks. But the Dolphins certainly have holes.

Depth is an issue in several areas and will be tested. Miami could be without several defensive starters -- defensive end Cameron Wake (knee), defensive tackle Paul Soliai (knee) and cornerback Dimitri Patterson (groin) -- against the New Orleans Saints on "Monday Night Football." The Dolphins also face issues such as pass protection (14 sacks allowed) and having the 28th-ranked rushing attack.

In addition to the undefeated Saints, Miami has tough games against the defending champion Baltimore Ravens (2-1), New England Patriots (3-0) and Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) before the end of October. The Dolphins cannot rest on their early success. They must continue to improve.

The health and production of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the biggest key. However, the Dolphins have a lot to prove over the course of 16 games.

Miami has a perfect record, but it's far from perfect.

Judging strictly from the numbers, the Kansas City Chiefs are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They are No. 1 in the AFC in scoring defense, No. 2 in the conference in scoring differential and, most importantly, tied for first place with a 3-0 record.

But it's another number, one that will be impossible to sustain, that's feeding the Chiefs' success and threatens to reveal them as pretenders once it begins its inevitable correction.

The Chiefs are leading the league in turnover differential at plus-9. They are one of two NFL teams yet to commit a turnover. That's a statistic capable of making a good team look great as long as it lasts. The trouble is, it never does last, at least not at this rate. Once their turnover differential starts to balance out, here is the advantage the Chiefs will lose:

The Chiefs have started 10 possessions on their opponents' end of the field. Their opponents have started one in Kansas City's territory, and even that drive began at the Chiefs' 49.

Such consistently favorable field position can make life easy for a team, and credit to the Chiefs for enjoying the ride while it lasts.

It won't forever. When it ends, the Chiefs will have to make their own way.

Their defense looks capable of doing that, but their offense needs a boost. When it doesn't get one, the Chiefs will suddenly look mortal.

This 3-0 team is better than the Bears squad from 2012, which started 7-1, and is a legitimate Super Bowl contender for a variety of reasons. The Bears have already scored three defensive touchdowns, but the major difference is the club is getting contributions from both sides of the ball and special teams.

Chicago provided evidence of that with quarterback Jay Cutler engineering back-to-back, come-from-behind victories over Cincinnati and Minnesota to start the season, before coming through in the clutch on the road Sunday, bailing out a struggling defense to clinch a victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bears racked up nine defensive touchdowns last season, which tied for the second most in NFL history. But at this juncture last year, the unit had only one score, yet basically carried the entire team through its impressive first half.

Through the 7-1 start in 2012, skepticism existed because the Bears simply hadn't played good teams. This year, the combined record of the teams first three opponents is 2-7. But don't be fooled, this is a better Bears team.

Cutler is one of the main reasons for that. He's matured. He's accepted the coaching. He's putting in more time to sharpen his craft, while shedding the enigmatic gunslinger persona for a more controlled approach. His protection is better. The front office has surrounded him with more weapons and an offensive-minded coach in Marc Trestman, who is the architect of a system Cutler believes in.

If there has been one constant of Bill Belichick-coached Patriots teams since 2000, it's that they usually get better as the season progresses. Surely, there have been exceptions (2009 comes to mind), but there are no indications this year's team is headed down that path at this point.

The defense has exceeded expectations through three games, although a lingering question is how much of the unit's success is a result of playing weaker competition. Sunday night's game on the road, against the fast-starting Atlanta Falcons, should tell us more about the unit. And while the offense has struggled to find its groove, the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski should provide a boost and with Danny Amendola saying he envisions being 100 percent shortly, big-time reinforcements are on the way.

So if you're judging on the present picture, it's understandable that one would say this team isn't a Super Bowl contender. In a game against the Denver Broncos, right now, you would have to pick the Broncos. But this is about projecting what the Patriots could be, and at this point, there's no reason to think they won't evolve as past Belichick teams have. Many of those clubs have been Super Bowl contenders. 

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