Is it a coincidence that the Miami Dolphins were selected for HBO's "Hard Knocks" series in the offseason?
That would make sense, because all signs point to a difficult season for the 2012 version of the team, which begins a new era with Sunday's game against a heavily-favored Houston Texans team from Reliant Stadium.
The Dolphins have a new head coach in Joe Philbin and rookie Ryan Tannehill won the starting quarterback job with an impressive preseason. Tannehill gained the edge when recently-released veteran David Garrard suffered a knee injury during training camp, and Miami fans are counting on the youngster to be the franchise's next great quarterback since Dan Marino.
Talk about pressure.
"It was a close competition," Philbin said of his choice of Tannehill over Garrard and returning starter Matt Moore. "You're trusting your instincts in terms of what's in the best interests of the team. We like a lot of things about Ryan. He has a chance to be a very good player."
Tannehill beat out Moore after throwing for 414 yards on 41-of-78 passing with a touchdown and an interception during preseason play. He was sacked four times, and that total could get even worse with starting left tackle Jake Long's status in question because of a knee injury suffered during camp. Though indications are that Long will play, the Dolphins would likely be forced to start rookie Jonathan Martin on the left side if he can't go.
Miami needed to make some changes after the Tony Sparano experiment failed to produce any sustained results. Sparano was replaced after 13 games during a 2011 season which resulted in a 6-10 finish. The Dolphins haven't enjoyed a winning record since their last playoff appearance in 2008, when they went 11-5, and have missed the postseason in three straight and nine of the last 10 seasons.
That's why owner Stephen Ross sought out Philbin for the vacant coaching position and onetime Green Bay head coach Mike Sherman to be the offensive coordinator. Philbin was the offensive coordinator of the Packers from 2007-2011, where he helped Aaron Rodgers become a Super Bowl champion and one of the most potent quarterbacks in the league.
Look for Tannehill spreading the ball around much like the Packers do during the coming season.
The Dolphins' defense will have a new look, too. First-time coordinator Kevin Coyle has implemented his 4-3 scheme in South Beach, and star defensive end Cameron Wake appears ready to go.
"You enjoy your job, you love what you do and this where it's real bullets," Wake said of the regular season looming. "It's game week, you've got a real opponent and all of the excuses are over with from the preseason. Now is the time when the real men step up and play."
Miami has lost five of its last six season openers and is a popular pick for last place in the AFC East.
The Texans are in a much better situation than Miami, as they enter the season as the favorite to win the AFC South for a second straight year.
A staunch defense and two healthy members of what could be a dangerous offense are back in the fold for tenured head coach Gary Kubiak. Along with general manager Rick Smith, he signed a contract extension in the offseason, proving that what the pair has accomplished so far is raising eyebrows.
The new deals for the men in charge wouldn't be possible without quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson, however. Schaub appeared in just 10 games last year and led the Texans to a 7-3 start until a Lisfranc injury ended his season. Then-rookie T.J. Yates immediately fit in when both Schaub and now former backup Matt Leinart both went down, and gives the team a reliable fill-in just in case Schaub can't stay healthy.
Johnson was limited to seven games because of hamstring problems last season and missed time this summer with a groin injury, though he's expected to be ready for the Dolphins.
The Texans, who have won their last two season openers, are coming off their first playoff appearance. Houston lost to Baltimore in last year's AFC Divisional Round and have set the bar higher for 2012.
Running back Arian Foster is perhaps the most important ingredient to Houston's offense, and has emerged as one of the league's most dangerous players. Foster is coming off his second straight 1,000-yard season despite missing three games because of hamstring issues. He averaged a league-high 141.6 scrimmage yards per game for the year.
Foster is at full strength, and tenacious linebacker Brian Cushing will be ready for the opener even after having played in only one game during the preseason. Last year's team defensive MVP also is taking over the leadership void left vacant when linebacker DeMeco Ryans was traded to Philadelphia in the offseason, and already has earned the respect and admiration of his teammates.
"I think they all look to Cush as a leader," Kubiak said. "Is Brian being asked to be more of a leader since DeMeco is not here? I think that's obvious, yeah."
Texans lead 6-0
Streak: Texans have won last six meetings Last Meeting: Texans 23, Dolphins 13 (Sept. 18, 2011) Last Meeting at Site: Texans 29, Dolphins 28 (Oct. 12, 2008)
Dolphins HC Joe Philbin vs. Texans: 0-0 Texans HC Gary Kubiak vs. Dolphins: 5-0 Philbin vs. Kubiak Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: Prior to Houston's 10-point victory in Week 2 of last season, every game in this series had been decided by seven points or less. Miami is 0-3 all-time against the Texans on the road and last won a game in the city of Houston on Nov. 17, 1996, a 23-20 decision over the Oilers at the Astrodome.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
Miami: 22nd overall (317.4 ypg), 11th rushing (124.2 ypg), 23rd passing (193.2 ypg), 21st scoring (20.3 ppg)
Houston: 13th overall (372.1 ypg), 2nd rushing (153.0 ypg), 18th passing (219.1 ypg), tied 10th scoring (23.8 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
Miami: 15th overall (345.1 ypg), 3rd rushing (95.6 ypg), 25th passing (249.5 ypg), 6th scoring (19.6 ppg)
Houston: 2nd overall (285.7 ypg), 4th rushing (96.0 ypg), 3rd passing (189.7 ypg), 4th scoring (17.4 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
Miami: -6 (19 takeaways, 25 giveaways) Houston: +7 (27 takeaways, 20 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Miami: 47.2 percent (53 possessions, 25 TD, 20 FG) -- 24th overall Houston: 46.7 percent (60 possessions, 28 TD, 24 FG) -- 25th overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Miami: 44.2 percent (52 possessions, 23 TD, 19 FG) -- 6th overall Houston: 47.7 percent (44 possessions, 21 TD, 15 FG) -- 9th overall
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
The Dolphins have a proven offensive philosophy in place, but do they have the manpower to operate it? Many have speculated not quite yet with a rookie quarterback taking center stage. Tannehill has shown flashes for optimism during the preseason, and played under Sherman at Texas A&M when the latter was the Aggies' head coach. Knowing the language, formations and personnel packages of Sherman's system should come with ease for Tannehill, who has great pocket awareness but will need to read defenses at the pro level. Moore, however, will be ready to earn his job back if Tannehill struggles early on. Tannehill has Brian Hartline (35 receptions, 1 TD) and Davone Bess (51 receptions, 3 TD in 2011) as his main targets after Brandon Marshall, who led the Dolphins with 81 catches in 2011, was traded to Chicago in the spring. Hartline was bothered by a calf issue in the preseason, but has been practicing this week. Running back Reggie Bush (1086 yards, 6 TD in 2011) had his best season as a pro last season, and is aiming to prove it wasn't a fluke. He also caught 43 passes for 296 yards and a score in addition to reaching the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time. Tannehill will be in a world of hurt against the Texans if the offensive line doesn't protect well, and right tackle Martin and second-year center Mike Pouncey have to show they've made big strides.
The Texans had the No. 4 rushing defense in the league last season, allowing 96.4 yards per game on the ground, and were second in overall defense. Coordinator Wade Phillips expects to have end J.J. Watt (56 tackles, 5.5 sacks) in the starting lineup after he sustained a dislocated left elbow in training camp. Indications are that the second-year standout will be ready to go for Week 1. Fellow end Antonio Smith (25 tackles, 6.5 sacks) got to the quarterback the most among the defensive linemen, setting a career-best in sacks last year, and is also a captain valued for his leadership. Nose tackle Shaun Cody (23 tackles, 1 sack), a pure run stuffer who started every game in 2011, is another valuable piece to the front line of the 3-4 scheme. Cushing (114 tackles, 4 sacks) and pass rusher Connor Barwin (47 tackles, 11.5 sacks) are the main cogs of arguably the top linebacker tandem in the AFC, while former Cowboy Bradie James (44 tackles) was signed to start next to Cushing on the inside. The Dolphins don't have much of an aerial attack and will be hard- pressed to challenge a Houston pass defense that finished third overall in that category.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
The Texans seem to be everyone's favorite to make a deep playoff run and challenge the likes of New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh for conference supremacy. It makes sense with Foster (1224 rushing yards, 10 TD) coming off a productive year, and both Schaub (2479 passing yards, 15 TD, 6 INT) and Johnson (33 receptions, 2 TD) back at full strength. Schaub has looked every bit of his former self in the preseason, making precise and accurate passes, and there's no reason why he can't lead Houston back to the playoffs and record a perfect mark in division play. Johnson, who played in just seven games in 2011, also appeared to be back to his dominant form in the preseason. Houston's hoping the two can last a full 16-game slate, something they haven't done since 2009. Tight end Owen Daniels (54 receptions, 3 TD) led the Texans last season in catches and receiving yards (677), but won't be the top target anymore with Johnson in the fold. The Texans lost two starting offensive linemen in right tackle Eric Winston and right guard Mike Brisiel during the offseason, leaving training camp and preseason games as competition for the open spots. Right now Derek Newton and Antoine Caldwell are penciled in to start at tackle and guard, respectively.
The Dolphins were no pushovers against opposing running backs in 2011, finishing third in the NFL in rushing defense (95.6 ypg). Coyle's 4-3 approach will be tested right away with Foster across the line of scrimmage, but defensive tackles Randy Starks (34 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Paul Soliai (27 tackles) have plenty of bulk up front to clog some holes. End Jason Taylor retired in the offseason and the Dolphins will miss his leadership ability. However, Wake (42 tackles, 8 1/2 sacks) has emerged as one of the more talented players at his position in the conference and can make life difficult for offensive linemen. He'll be looking to apply as much pressure as possible on Schaub. Jared Odrick (22 tackles, 6 sacks) isn't as athletic as Wake, but has the quickness and strength to garner double-teams on the opposite side. Karlos Dansby (102 tackles, 2 sacks) is a veteran middle linebacker who can still cover in certain packages, and when he's not keeping up with opposing tight ends or running backs, he's keying the run defense at the line of scrimmage. Cornerback Vontae Davis was traded to Indianapolis in the offseason and leaves a unit that was 25th against the pass (249.5 ypg) last season. Miami's secondary will be now led by cornerback Sean Smith (62 tackles, 2 INT) and safety Rashad Jones (67 tackles, 1 INT) and will be tested often Sunday.
The Texans must get off to a hot start if they intend on living up to preseason expectations. That of course, means Foster, Schaub and the offense must carry over their productive preseasons into the real games, since this is when it counts. Good health will be a major factor as well. Houston has an edge on the Dolphins not only because of a more talented roster, but it owns a 6-0 record lifetime against Miami. The Dolphins will ignore that tidbit of information and try to get Tannehill off to a good start, but a poor showing by the first rookie to start a season at quarterback in team history could be detrimental and will test the youngster's mettle. Miami's defense looks good on paper, but a deprived passing game is what will lead to another season- opening loss.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 27, Dolphins 13