Dave Hyde: Dolphins can take the AFC East — if these things happen

Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS

The Buffalo Bills got old.

The New England Patriots got nothing.

The New York Jets got Brett Favre 2.0.

Do you see how it can work? See how the Miami Dolphins can win the AFC East and, thereby, the world?

That’s if some of their own unresolved issues don’t turn into simple pimples on their triumphant march into February. Like what? Well …

1. Health

You couldn’t draw up a much worse summer for the Dolphins. Forget how the team looked. Everyone knows it’s a fragile roster and it already limps into the regular season. Jalen Ramsey suffering a knee injury in practice was bad luck. It’s also what happens to veterans with a lot of mileage on them.

Then there’s tackle Terron Armstead. He barely made a cameo in practice this summer. He’s questionable for Sunday’s opener with back, knee and ankle issues. He might play. But he’s certain to be an injury concern all season.

Look, the caveat to the Dolphins winning this year is they stay healthy. But what’s that mean? It wouldn’t be bad luck if they get hurt. It’d be good luck if they don’t. Five of their top 10 players enter the season with regular health questions: Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (concussions), edge rusher Bradley Chubb (has played 63 of 93 games), cornerback Xavien Howard (played 15 gams last year but with constant groin problems that effected his play), Armstead and now Ramsey.

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2. Vic Fangio.

He came. He saw. He said this defense needs help. In Latin: Veni. Vidi. Vic.

Fangio is a star. Fangio’s the biggest addition to any NFL team this offseason outside of the newest Jet, Aaron Rodgers. He has some great talent. The issue is how quickly the defensive coordinator can get everyone in order, especially considering the previous Josh Boyer/Brian Flores defense was opposite of the Fangio Way.

“It’s a 180-degree change,” safety Jevon Holland said just of his role.

What’s that mean? Fangio typically has favored two-deep safeties, zone coverage with man-to-man ideas and minimal blitzing and press coverage. Boyer/Flores liked heavy blitzing — fourth most in the league last year — and press coverage from cornerbacks playing man-to-man.

The Dolphins ranked 24th in heavyweight stats like third-down and red-zone conversions. No way that repeats. But how good do they become this first season?

No stop is similar, but here’s an understandable pattern at Fangio’s defensive improving with time. San Francisco ranked 22nd in scoring defense in his first year in 2011 and No. 8 in his final year in 2014. Chicago progressed from 14th under Fangio in 2015 to third in 2017. Denver rose from 12th in 2019 to eighth in 2010.

Can the Dolphins defense be good right away?

3. Mike McDaniel.

McDaniel was asked to do two formidable things in his first year as head coach: Make the playoffs and show who Tagovailoa is. Check and check. So, his first year was a big-picture success.

The smaller picture matters this second year, too. Getting plays in on time? That’s a start. Also, Don Shula would vomit if his team tied for the most penalties (118) in the league as the Dolphins did last season. That included a league-high 46 pre-snap penalties.

Next: The Dolphins ranked 31st in rushing attempts. Sure, receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are the threats of this offense. But you can’t have glaring numbers like 31st. By running so little the Dolphins never controlled the clock and the defense was on the field more than all but six teams.

The offensive coordinator in McDaniel just thinks of scoring. But the head coach has to manage the game and that’s what needs to improve from a good overall first year.

4. The AFC

Shouldn’t the AFC petition the league to hand over an NFC playoff berth? Ten AFC teams have legitimate ideas of the playoffs right now. My picks: Jacksonville, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Miami, Buffalo, Los Angeles Chargers and Baltimore.

Eliminated: Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the N.Y. Jets. See how tough it is? That’s not even counting a potentially scary team like Tennessee. It plays in the putrid AFC South with weaklings Houston and Indianapolis and has a schedule with rebuilding Tampa Bay and Carolina. That’s six gimmes.

5. Tua Tagovailoa.

He took a good step forward last year. Does he have another one in him? He’s accurate, intuitive, popular and productive. Now, beyond staying healthy, he has to become consistent. His good numbers last year came essentially in four games that he completed (Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and Baltimore).

That’s not enough this year. This is a division where Buffalo’s Josh Allen and the Jets’ Rodgers are expected to win games. Tagovailoa has to take the next step and join them.

5. The schedule.

It’s brutal. The Dolphins have the third-toughest schedule based on Las Vegas win totals. There’s just one gimme on it — a home-in-the-heat October game against Carolina. But the full truth of the schedule’s toughness goes a little deeper.

Take their games against the Jets. The Dolphins have to play in New York on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a marginal disadvantage for the road team on that short week. Now, throw in the rematch in December. The Jets play on Sunday before it and the Dolphins play the Monday Night. So they’re on a short week again.

A little thing? Sure. But as Shula (him again) once said when a ref said a penalty was only five yards — “Five yards is my life!”. This season will come down to little things after the big component of health.

Hold your breath for a healthier fall than summer, Dolphins fans.

And don’t exhale until January.