The Miami Dolphins' 2012 finale dispelled any illusion they could compete with the AFC's best. Joe Philbin's first year as coach ended with a 28-0 loss at New England, an ugly exclamation point to Miami's fourth consecutive losing season.
Philbin, though, won mostly favorable reviews despite going 7-9, and rookie Ryan Tannehill's promising play was a plus, so for a change Miami went into the offseason with stability at coach and quarterback. But the need for significant shakeups elsewhere was clear, and general manager Jeff Ireland spent the offseason revamping the receiving, linebacker and cornerback corps.
As a result, the Dolphins could have 10 new starters this season. Their roster appears faster and deeper, and it's definitely younger.
"Everybody has the college mentality around here," said former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, the most heralded free-agent acquisition. "It's a lot different coming from where I come from with the older guys. I think everybody is hungry, everybody wants to get better, and everybody wants to be what we need to be to have a winning record."
Five things to watch as the Dolphins try to finish above .500 — and perhaps even win a playoff game for the first time since 2000.
1. DOLPHINS WILL IMPROVE IF TANNEHILL DOES: The first-round draft choice became the Dolphins' 17th starting quarterback since 2000, then became their first rookie QB to start all 16 games. His passer rating was 27th in the NFL, and touchdowns were tough to come by. But he threw for 3,294 yards — more than fellow rookies Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson — and the Dolphins believe a better supporting cast will allow Tannehill to improve dramatically in 2013.
2. JEFF IRELAND NEEDS GOOD SEASON: The general manager has been much-maligned due to their 27-37 record over the past four years, and may need a breakthrough by the team in 2013 to keep his job. A stockpile of draft picks and considerable salary cap space allowed Ireland to be aggressive during the offseason, and in free agency he signed Wallace, the top available receiver, and six other likely starters. He also traded up nine spots in the draft to select linebacker-end Dion Jordan of Oregon with the No. 3 overall choice. Dolphins fans, including team owner Stephen Ross, are certain to grade Ireland on how the newcomers perform.
3. BIG PLAYS MAY BE ONLY A SNAP AWAY: The Dolphins ranked 27th in yards last season, when the wideouts totaled three touchdowns, and Philbin lost his biggest playmaker via free agency when Reggie Bush signed with Detroit. But the coach believes speedy second-year pro Lamar Miller will provide a breakaway threat to rival Bush, and a revamped receiving corps might be Miami's best group of pass catchers in 20 years. Wallace gives Tannehill the deep threat he lacked last year, and Ireland also acquired tight end Dustin Keller and slot receiver Brandon Gibson to team with Brian Hartline, who had a career-high 74 catches in 2012 and will now benefit from single coverage.
4. BALL-HAWKING A PRIORITY: Miami forced only 10 interceptions and recovered just six opposing fumbles last year to tie for fourth worst in the NFL in takeaways. That was the biggest deficiency in an otherwise solid defense, and to address the problem Ireland went shopping. Jordan is expected to help as a pass rusher to complement veteran Cameron Wake. Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, the team's top tacklers, have been replaced by two younger, faster free agent acquisitions, Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. Miami also signed veteran cornerback Brent Grimes, who won raves in offseason practices, and added cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis in the second and third rounds of the draft.
5. DOLPHINS CHASE LEBRON: From the Don Shula Expressway to Dan Marino Boulevard, Miami has always been a football town in a football state. But LeBron James and the two-time NBA champion Miami Heat gave South Florida a serious case of hoops fever. Now it's the Heat who are the talk of the town, even in July, while the Dolphins have lately played home games in a half-empty stadium. Everyone agrees about what would bring fans back to the Dolphins: winning.
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