The job of an interim head coach is incredibly difficult. You’re taking over a group of players in which you had minimal say selecting and things have obviously gone poorly enough to that point to necessitate a major, franchise-altering change at one of the organization’s most important positions.
Dan Campbell takes over as the interim leader of the Miami Dolphins after a 1-3 start cost Joe Philbin his job. For all of Philbin’s faults, and he had several, Miami’s issues run much deeper than motivational tactics and practice habits. In order to correct course, Campbell will have to change the Dolphins’ identity on both sides of the ball.
It starts on offense, where quarterback Ryan Tannehill has regressed in a one-dimensional attack under offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Praised for his ability to apply Chip Kelly’s offensive principles to Miami’s personnel last season, Lazor’s play-calling this year has been scattershot at best and braindead at worst. Running back Lamar Miller, one of the most effective and efficient backs last season, has been an afterthought through four games. Miller has just 37 rushing attempts, four fewer than Le’Veon Bell has in two games and only eight more than Chris Ivory received in New York’s win over Miami on Sunday.
As evidenced in Philadelphia, a consistent running game is crucial to success in Kelly and Lazor’s offense, which relies on pace but also the air of unpredictability. In this scheme, the offense is supposed to be able to run or pass out of almost every formation, keeping the defense in the dark before the snap and limiting the type of personnel it can play. With no ground game to speak of, defenses are keying on the Dolphins’ passing game and preying on a suspect offensive line, which has allowed a whopping 68 pressures thus far, according to Pro Football Focus. The added pressure has turned Tannehill into even more a one-read, short passing machine. Through four games, Tannehill’s 4.96 adjusted net yards per attempt ranks 27th with 65 of his 97 completions coming either within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage or behind it.
In order to fix Miami’s offense, Lazor, and by extension Campbell, must find a way to make Tannehill more comfortable in the pocket while keeping defenses from blitzing without regard. That means re-establishing Miller and shifting the run-pass balance closer to last year’s 40-60 split from the current 27-63 ratio. It would also be wise for Lazor to re-install some of the zone read concepts and designed quarterback runs the Dolphins used after the bye week last season, an added wrinkle that created personnel mismatches and made use of Tannehill’s full skill set.
On defense, the problem is simpler at first, yet eventually more complex. Following their loss to the Jets on Sunday, the unit is dismal in almost every metric – 30th in yards allowed per game and 27th as graded cumulatively by Pro Football Focus. Despite signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a six-year, $114 million contract and devoting a staggering $32.4 million to their defense line this season, the Dolphins have just one sack. For comparison’s sake, the league-leading Broncos have 11 players with at least one sack.
The easiest solution is to fire defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, whose read-and-react passive scheme negates the best, and most expensive, assets on Miami’s defense. Coyle has also come under fire from within his own locker room, with Suh reportedly outright disregarding Coyle following a closed-door meeting with the coordinator. Even if Coyle remains, the Dolphins must become a more aggressive, attacking unit up front to account for a thin and undersized secondary. That means abandoning Coyle’s preferred two-gapping method on the defensive line, where players are responsible for the holes on each side, and installing a one-gap system where Suh, Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon and Earl Mitchell are allowed to run upfield and attack the offensive backfield.
The concern with playing more aggressively up front is it could leave the Dolphins exposed against screens, delays and cut-back lanes. If Suh or one of his fellow linemen were to blow an assignment or over-pursue up front, the entire defense could be exposed for a big play, particularly a secondary that struggles in man coverage. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, it’s a risk they have to take. Without a man corner like Darrelle Revis in tow, the Dolphins’ best bet to defensive success is to push the pocket and hopefully disrupt the timing between quarterback and wide receiver or tight end.
It’s not an ideal fix, but then neither is trying to establish a run game behind a struggling offensive line missing its best player in left tackle Brandon Albert. Teams don’t stumble upon firing a head coach midseason. It’s the end result of bad drafting, poor roster management and a misunderstanding of the personnel available. The Dolphins check all three boxes, in addition to a head coach nearly the entire team had turned against.
These are problems an interim coach probably can’t fix.