The Miami Dolphins entered the 2021 NFL season expecting to be competitive. They were coming off an inspiring 10-win season the year prior and had multiple first-round draft picks to play around with during the offseason.
Even with the Buffalo Bills firmly positioned atop the AFC East and the New York Jets and New England Patriots landing their own respective franchise quarterbacks in the draft, the expectation was that Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins would compete for a playoff spot.
Five games into the season, and such a reality hasn’t even come close to materializing.
The Miami Dolphins are off to an ugly 1-4 start
With a London game against the Jacksonville Jaguars looming in the distance, the Dolphins sit at a measly 1-4 on the year.
They’ve been victims of two massive blowout losses at the hands of Buffalo and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tagovailoa has missed most of the season due to a rib injury. Marquee free-agent signing Will Fuller is also out with an injury. The defense appears to be regressing.
The list goes on and on. The Dolphins’ record accurately reflects the style of football they’ve played through the first five games of the season. The offense is anemic, and the defense is a shell of its former self. While there’s optimism that a returning Tagovailoa will “save the season” and rattle off a string of big-time wins, the Dolphins’ issues run far deeper than just the quarterback position.
The Miami Dolphins’ defense is regressing
The biggest reason the Dolphins had so much success in 2020 was their defense. They finished the year first in turnover percentage and seventh in expected points contributed by the defense.
Cornerback Xavien Howard led the league in turnovers forced and was a top “Defensive Player of the Year” candidate all season long. Linebacker Jerome Baker had a career year, and pass-rusher Emmanuel Ogbah recorded a career-high 9.0 sacks.
It was an all-around exceptional year for Brian Flores’ defense. It made life extremely easy on Tagovailoa as he learned the ropes of running an NFL offense.
Flash forward to 2021, and the Dolphins’ defense looks like a completely different unit. They rank third-worst in total yards allowed and third-worst in expected points contributed by the defense.
The lack of a functional offense the past few games (due to Jacoby Brissett being under center) plays a huge role in assessing Miami’s defensive flaws. However, such a drastic drop-off can’t just be pinned on the offense. Flores’ defense has undoubtedly regressed.
Tua Tagovailoa can’t fix this defense
A returning Tagovailoa is good news for the Dolphins. There’s no debating that. However, the idea that he can come in and magically save the mess that is Miami football at the moment is far-fetched.
For starters, Tagovailoa doesn’t play defense. Until Flores figures out a way to get his defense back under control, the Dolphins will continue playing losing football.
Second, Tagovailoa didn’t look all that special during the Dolphins’ season-opening win over the Patriots. He threw for 202 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and only completed 59.3% of his passes. Those aren’t exactly awe-inspiring numbers.
The Dolphins’ issues are deeper than just the offense, and they’re deeper than just the defense. The whole team needs to collectively perform better if they want to salvage their 2021 campaign.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.