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The Horn Section
Wannstedt Under Fire - And Deservedly So
1/18/02

Okay, it's been a few weeks now, and the coach has finally broken the silence regarding the Dolphins' 9-7 season this year, arguably the most disappointing season the team has had since Don Shula began intense practices in the summer of 1970.

So, why did this team, with 6 Pro Bowlers and a wealth of talent to match any other team in the league (I will back this statement up; read on), fail to make the playoffs for the first time in 6 years? Well, according to the coach, this team is lacking on the field:

1. The passing offense simply needs more playmakers.
2. The talent in general needs upgrading.
3. Injuries, particularly to the QB, hit this team hard.

Forgive me if I seem harsh, but such arguments stink on ice. First off, they give the impression that the coach is an innocent victim of circumstances beyond this control: that the talent on the field is lacking in some areas, and when injuries hit, all the coach can do is hope for the best with the backups. Hooey. Good coaches find solutions; bad coaches stand there and lose. More on this further down.

Secondly, the numbers just don't back him up. Let's examine each of these statements.

The passing offense: a weak link?

Wannstedt made this statement to the media earlier this week: "If you can't throw the ball and score some points, you're not going to win. To me, that's what has made the difference in these playoff games". So in other words, the Miami passing offense simply wasn't good enough to win at a playoff level.

The passing offense is an easy enough scapegoat at first glance. The Dolphins ranked 26th in the NFL in passing yards per game. But this is a flawed evaluation number, because, as Norv Turner himself pointed out earlier this week, teams that throw the ball less will rank lower. Which is absolutely true. So instead of using the total yards method, let's use yards per play instead, as this puts every team on equal footing.

The Dolphins ranked 13th in the NFL in average gain per pass play; out of 32 teams, this is at least average. Certainly not a weak link. Of course, "average" isn't good enough for a Super Bowl contender, right? Well, let's compare the Dolphins in this statistic to the four teams left this season:

Raiders 3rd
Titans 9th
DOLPHINS 13th
Eagles 19th
Buccaneers 21st.

Wow, right in the middle. If one expands it to the 8 division winners, the Jets (4th) and Steelers (7th) rank ahead of the 'Fins, while the Packers (15th) and 49ers (17th) rank behind.

The passing game was NOT a weak enough link to keep this team from Super Bowl contention, and certainly not weak enough to keep it from a division title. This ranking looks even more impressive when one considers that Lucas (who dragged the ranking down some, more on that next month) started 6 of the 16 games. In other words, even with all the injuries, the Dolphins still had a passing attack good enough to contend for a Super Bowl.

The talent in general needs upgrading

"It's difficult to win in this league. You don't know which play at which point is going to be the difference."

Well, how many games are truly decided by "one play"? I would guess that the Dolphins, because their coach believes the talent in this league is so evenly distributed, simply had a run of bad luck in close games. At least I would believe that until looking at the numbers again:

Dolphins record in games decided by 1-8 points: 4-3
Dolphins record in games decided by more than 8 points: 5-4

Wow, this team was blown out 4 times; by the likes of Buffalo (twice) and Kansas City, who combined for a 13-16 record in their other games this year. One play wouldn't have made much difference in those games. Unless, of course, the Dolphins statistically had a weak link that such average teams could exploit again and again (which would again be an indictment of the coaching, but I digress); a closer statistical look indicates that this is NOT the case.

Let's take a closer statistical look at the Dolphins:

Yards per Offensive Rushing Play: 4th
Yards per Offensive Passing Play: 13th
Yards Allowed per Rushing Play: 6th
Yards Allowed per Passing Play: 7th

None is a "weak link" ranking in the bottom half of the NFL, huh? How can a team this balanced and talented lose blowout games to the likes of the Chiefs and Bills (twice)? Not to mention losing at all to the Vikings or Jets (see below for their rankings; pretty clear that Edwards had a lot less to work with than Wannstedt).

Now let's check out our Championship Game participants: rankings in the bottom half of the NFL only:

Titans: 26th in average gain per rush; 18th in yards allowed per pass play
Raiders: None. (They rank 13th, 3rd, 4th and 12th respectively. In other words, very comparable to the Dolphins, but they managed to finish 11-5 with a rookie head coach somehow.)
Eagles: 19th in average gain per pass; 20th in yards allowed per rushing play
Bucs: 28th in average gain per rush; 21st in average gain per pass play (26th overall in average gain per offensive play; yikes!)

So we have 3 teams that truly did have 2 weak areas apiece, ranking in the lower half of the NFL in key areas, yet their coaches found a way to keep winning. 3 of these 4 teams appear to have less talent to work with than the Dolphins do, and the fourth (Oakland) outranks the 'Fins in 2 areas and is outranked in 2.

If one expands it to include the other 4 division winners, you find incredibly weak links in Green Bay (31st in yards allowed per rush!), San Francisco (21st in yards allowed per pass) and then there's the Jets. The Jets ranked in the bottom 10 in the NFL in both yards allowed per pass AND per rush AND in yards per rushing play! Yes, they were 22nd or worse in 3 of 4 categories, yet Herman Edwards found a way to win the division. Wanny, Herman Edwards coached circles around you this year. 'Nuff said.

When 7 of the 8 division winners are less balanced and have clear weak links, and your team ranks in the top 7 of the league in 3 of 4 categories and 13th in the 4th, there's no excuse for not finishing AT LEAST 11-5. None. Ah, but there's one left, isn't there?

Injuries

"The Denver game was a hit for us. Chambers gets a concussion, and we lose Oronde and Jay. It took a while to get in sync after that."

It took a MONTH, coach. But I digress. Let's look, again, at the teams that are left: the Titans played 12 games without Jevon Kearse (what would the 'Fins' record have been like without Taylor for 12?) and also lost a game to 5-11 Dallas when McNair was knocked out with a concussion. Also, Eddie George was banged up all year with assorted aches and pains and gave them only 3.4 yards per carry. The Eagles? We all know about the 6 games they had to start their 3rd stringer at QB (imagine...oh wait, we probably would have done better with Rosenfels for 6 instead of Ray, but more on that later) but they also had to put Hollis Thomas (best DT going in) on IR before the season even started. The Raiders had to place Phillip Buchanan on IR and also missed Charles Woodson for 9 games with a fractured clavicle. (Picture the Dolphins doing without Surtain and Madison for the same length of time). The Bucs also had to deal with an injured QB, losing Brad Johnson for 3 games, and their offense ranked 26th in the NFL in yards per offensive play to begin with.

There's no evidence that the Dolphins had to deal with any more in terms of injuries than any of the four teams remaining. Those teams simply found solutions to their problems and made it to their respective conference championship games. Fisher, Reid, Callahan and Gruden all found ways to mask their weaknesses; Wanny had NO glaring weaknesses, based on the numbers, and still lost 7 games.

Further, the comment on taking a while to get in sync: why, then, did Andy Reid's Eagles hit the ground running after losing not one, but TWO QB's? And having a passing offense worse than Miami's to begin with? Further, they did it without a home game to start with, or a bye week following that first game. Miami had both advantages that Philly didn't have, and still fumbled around for a month after the Denver game.

To sum it up:

There's no evidence to suggest that any team remaining has more talent available than the Miami Dolphins.

There is evidence to suggest that each one of the 8 division champions were simply better coached than the Miami Dolphins when one looks objectively at the statistics.

Sadly, no change is coming in the coaching area for at least another year.

Next time, I plan to look further at the passing game, the supposed "weak link". Adios until next time!

--Hal Horn

Let Hal know what you think on The Fin Forum