AC in the AM: Answers Start Coming On Sunday

Posted Sep 15, 2017

Finally, it begins.

One week later than any of us could have imagined, the curtain will be raised on the 52nd season in franchise history Sunday in Carson, California against the Chargers, a 16-week journey that will tell us, most importantly, whether the right components are in place for a second straight trip to the playoffs.

In so many ways, though, this is a different team than the one that lost to the Steelers in the wild card round last January, a team with 22 new players on its current roster, a team with a new quarterback, a new defensive coordinator and even a pair of new tight ends.

That’s part of the hope for another playoff run. This is a better team, a more complete team and a deeper team than a season ago. How much better? How much more complete? How much deeper? We’re about to embark on what promises to be a wild ride that should help answer those questions and many more.

Despite the loss of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, despite several other significant training camp injuries, despite the unavoidable distraction caused by a relentless gal named Irma, this team and these players have not wavered in their confidence, resolve and resiliency and certainly haven’t tempered what they’re trying to achieve.

“It’s all about making the playoffs,” said wide receiver Jarvis Landry. “That’s our mindset every day we come to work.”

This optimism is fueled by, the way I see it, five important factors:

• A quarterback in Jay Cutler who has embraced this team and this offense and who has given us every reason to believe that, at 34 years old, he’s got plenty left. Some teams could not have overcome the loss of their starting quarterback in training camp. But the Dolphins moved quickly and decisively. Can Cutler prove to be as valuable to this offense as Tannehill was before his injury? That could be the defining question of this season.

• The return of Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey to the starting lineup. You can’t easily quantify the importance of this because Pouncey touches this team in so many different ways. But it’s the offensive line where his impact will truly be felt. He is the leader. He is the glue. Watch how he blocks downfield. Watch how he brings it on every play. The Dolphins implemented a smart plan to get Pouncey ready and healthy for the season. Beginning Sunday, we’ll get to see how it plays out.

• A group of playmakers around Cutler who may be as potent and as deep as any this franchise has had in a long time. Think about it. You’ve got DeVante Parker who truthfully looks like a different player in his third season. You’ve got Jarvis Landry with a remarkable 288 catches over his first three seasons. You’ve got Kenny Stills and his big play resume. And then you’ve got tight end Julius Thomas, who could be the final piece this offense needed. Did I mention Jakeem Grant and some intriguing long ball possibilities? San Diego’s defense figures to get a full dose of all of that on Sunday.

• A defense with a healthy Reshad Jones: Think what Pouncey means to this offense. That’s what Jones means to this defense. When he went down last season in the sixth game against Pittsburgh, so much changed for this defense. Each game I saw examples where Jones would have made a difference. But now he his back, guarding the deep end of the secondary and using his play-making skills both against the run and the pass. He alone will make this defense better.

• An improved rushing defense: This was a major topic after the Dolphins fell to 30th against the run a season ago. Bringing in a couple of veterans this offseason, linebacker Lawrence Timmons and defensive end William Hayes, will certainly help as should the recent signing of veteran linebacker Rey Maualuga. But it’s got to be a collective effort beginning with a defensive line that could be the strength of this team. The preseason gave us hope, but no real firm indications. A large dosage of Melvin Gordon on Sunday should tell us plenty.

Now the issue is seeing how it all fits together, whether the individual parts are improved enough to make a difference in the collective whole. We saw glimpses in the preseason, real positives. But now it’s about doing it for four quarters with your best against their best.

The Los Angeles Chargers pose several significant challenges. On defense, the Dolphins must contend with the passing and experience of quarterback Philip Rivers, the explosive running of Gordon and the big play alternatives provided by Keenan Allen, just to name a few. On offense, they must first figure out a way to block Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, two of the league’s best edge pass rushers.

These Dolphins already have had to overcome so much. The loss of Tannehill. A season ending injury to rookie inside linebacker Raekwon McMillan. The same fate for promising young cornerback Tony Lippett. A fierce hurricane that forced this team to head to California nine days before the game.

“Everything hasn’t always been smooth,” said Adam Gase, starting his second season. “But these guys, they battle and they fight and they handle adversity as good as anybody I’ve been around.”

The real test, though, begins on Sunday.

The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed by our columnists and bloggers represent those of individual writers, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions, policies or desires of the Miami Dolphins organization, front office, coaches and executives. Writers' views are formulated independently from any inside information and/or conversation with Dolphins officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.