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Andy Cohen: Let The Subplots Unfold

Posted Jul 26, 2012

It is noon on Monday. Training camp is rapidly approaching. Joe Philbin is sitting in his office, looking relaxed, almost at peace. Even with camp a few days off, you could sense that Philbin felt good about the team he and General Manager Jeff Ireland have put together.

There were no predictions. That’s just not Joe Philbin’s way.

“What did Yogi Berra say?” Philbin said. “It’s tough making predictions, especially about the future. That’s how I feel.”

Instead of predictions, there was a real sense of anticipation. This is Philbin’s first camp as a head coach. He has spent a lifetime preparing for this. He is clearly ready.

Ready for the tough decisions that he knows he must make.

Ready for the challenge of taking a group of 90 players and turning them into the best 53.

Ready to see if his cautious optimism about this team can blossom into something even greater.

Ready to look his players square in the eyes and feel their hunger, their desire to make the Dolphins really matter once again.

“I’ve spent a lot of years getting ready for this,” he said. “I really like the chemistry of this football team.”

This Dolphins training camp, set to begin Friday, will offer a smorgasbord of intriguing subplots, so many that you’ve got to wonder how Hard Knocks is going to try to make sense of it all.

Philbin knows all about that. He knows there is little time and so much to learn, so many evaluations to make, so many of those subplots to see play out.

“This training camp,” said Philbin, “is all about defining our identity as a football team.”

Here’s what I see as the Top Five of those subplots.

1. Who is going to start at quarterback?

There can’t be a more significant question that needs answering. After the mini camps were over, it was too close to call.

On one hand you’ve got returning starter Matt Moore who showed late last season that he is capable of being a solid NFL quarterback.

Then you’ve got veteran David Garrard, trying to come back after missing all of last season with a bad back. Garrard has experience running this type of offense and has impressed the coaches with his ability to make quick, accurate decisions. But can he hold up physically?

Finally, there is rookie Ryan Tannehill. So much is expected of him, but nobody really knows how long it will take. To his advantage, Tannehill knows this offense. But he doesn’t know the pro game. Not yet, anyway.

It’ll be interesting to see how Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman handles this competition and how long it takes to make a very important decision.

2. Where’s the Catch?

The Dolphins have some talented receivers, but they traded away last year’s No. 1 receiver (Brandon Marshall) to Chicago. They brought in Chad Johnson, who brings with him some excellent credentials, yet with the uncertainty of an unproductive season in New England coupled with the fact that he’s 34 years old. Can Johnson be the Ochocinco of old? Training camp will help answer that.

There is clearly some good depth at wide receiver – you can list Davone Bess as one of the top slot receivers in the league --  but this offense needs plenty of playmakers and they will all be under the microscope at camp unfolds.

3. The bottom line on the line.

Who is going to be the starting five on the offensive line? We know about Jake Long at left tackle and Mike Pouncey at center. Two pillars. We know that Richie Incognito will do a solid job playing next to Long.

But what about the right side? Will second-round pick Jonathan Martin show that he deserves to play right away? How will veterans like Artis Hicks, Nate Garner and Lydon Murtha fit into the picture? Who else will surface as camp progresses?

Philbin is an offensive line coach by trade. He knows the importance of the right mix. He understands what a proficient line can mean to a quarterback. I’m expecting the starting five to step forward in a hurry because repetition is so important as an offensive line grows together.

4. Who’s going to rush the passer?

The Dolphins will dabble with several different defensive formations, but look for the 4-3 to replace the 3-4 as the team’s bread-and-butter defense. This means a different look for a large group of veterans, players like Paul Soliai and Jared Odrick on the defensive line and Karlos Dansby, Kevin Burnett and Koa Misi at linebacker.

Then there’s Cameron Wake, the most accomplished veteran pass rusher on the team. You just know that Wake will line up in a variety of ways to confuse the offense. But who will provide the pass rushing support from the other side now that Jason Taylor has retired? The coaches seem to like Odrick a lot. You also know that rookie Olivier Vernon will get a long look. There is a potential there for others, but training camp is when potential must turn into results and this defense desperately needs several first-rate pass rushers.

5. Everything is new.

With a new head coach, a new coaching staff, a new-look offense, a new defensive scheme, so many new players and even a new-look practice facility, this training camp won’t have enough hours in the day.

How will all of this come together? Can the final 53 players feel comfortable enough to start quickly against such an imposing opening day opponent as the Houston Texans, who the Dolphins have never beaten?

This is the challenge that Philbin and his staff now faces. Having a productive offseason certainly helped in this learning process. But now they must take it to another level in training camp. Now, the players must not only understand the system, but feel comfortable in implementing it.

One missed assignment, one incorrect pass route, one mental error in the defensive backfield can prove so costly for a team in transition. To his credit, Philbin clearly understands the enormity of this challenge, yet feels confident that it can be done.

Training Camp 2012. Get out those high-powered binoculars. There’s a lot to focus on.

Follow Andy Cohen on twitter @acohenfins
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