It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Dolphins, after limping to a 1-4 start a season ago, caught fire over the final 10 weeks, finished 10-6 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2008. A big reason for that success: the maturation of franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who had stumbled his way through much of his first four seasons but finally put things together under first-year coach Adam Gase, who had success getting the most out of quarterbacks young and old during stints as offensive coordinator with the Broncos and Bears.
That included no-brainer results with Peyton Manning in Denver, but Gase was also the quarterbacks coach in Denver when Tim Tebow was elevated to starter in 2011 and helped the team to a division title and a playoff win. Arguably more impressive than that: what Gase did for Jay Cutler's career during their one year together in Chicago in 2015.
Before looking ahead, it's instructive to look back.
At one point during the 2014 season, a year before Gase's arrival, Cutler was benched for Jimmy Clausen. Let that sink in for a moment. And from 2012-14, Cutler never finished higher than 16th in total QB value, according to Football Outsiders' metrics. In 2015 under Gase, Cutler finished 10th, just behind Kirk Cousins, Philip Rivers and Matthew Stafford. He threw for 3,659 yards with 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, a completion percentage of 64.4 and a passer rating of 92.3.
Cutler set career bests in passer rating and career lows in interceptions, and his 244 passing yards per game was No. 2 behind only his 2008 season in Denver. And Cutler's one year with Gase shares a lot of similarities with what Tannehill and Gase accomplished in their first year together in 2016.
Consider Tannehill's final stat line: 67.1 completion percentage, 230.4 pass yards per game, 19 TDs, 12 INTs, 93.5 passer rating. So when Tannehill, it made sense that Gase would turn to what he knew -- and had success with -- in Cutler.
But through three games the Dolphins are 1-2, the offense has no identity, and Cutler looks a lot like the guy the Bears cut in the offseason. Even before Sunday's 20-0 shellacking in London by the Saints, the Dolphins had the 22nd-ranked passing offense (and 30th ranked rushing offense), according to FO, and Cutler ranked 23rd in total value among all quarterbacks, just behind Eli Manning, Jacoby Brissett and Trevor Siemian.
In terms of conventional stats, Cutler's numbers aren't terrible; he's completing 66.7 percent of his throws with two touchdowns and two interceptions and he hasn't lost a fumble. And while it's easy to mock him for impersonating a statue when lined up at wide receiver in the wildcat formation ...
... the real issues are throws like this, which bring back a rush of bad memories for Bears fans who were subjected to those sorts of poor decisions on a weekly basis -- save the one year Gase was in Chicago:
Maddening. And familiar. That's probably the best way to describe that off-balanced, ill-conceived throw that was destined to be intercepted even before the ball was snapped.
It's not all Cutler's fault
Gase's ability to get the most out of Cutler is why bringing him out of retirement made some sense. (You knew that Cutler had, right? That until he signed with the Dolphins.)
The 2015 Bears had the 10th-best offense in the league, according to FO, just ahead of the Packers. Cutler was a big part of that but so too were the players around him, starting with Alshon Jeffery (807 receiving yards, four TDs), Martellus Bennett (439 receiving yards, three TDs) and Matt Forte (898 rushing yards, 4 rushing TDs; 389 receiving yards, three TDs). And while the Dolphins' offense finished 14th last season, they have younger, more athletic playmakers up and down the roster. Jarvis Landry (1,136 yards, 4 TDs), DeVante Parker (744/4) and Kenny Stills (726/9) can all be game-changers. And Jay Ajayi, whose 1,272 rushing yards last season included three games of more than 200 yards, ranked seventh among all backs last season.
Unfortunately, there have been no dominant performances in 2017. Parker's eight-catch, 76-yard effort in a Week 3 loss to the Jets is as close as it gets. Meanwhile, Landry is averaging an anemic 6.6 yards per reception, Stills has just nine catches in three games and Ajayi is averaging 3.6 yards per carry.
Against the Saints, Ajayi ran for 46 yards on 12 carries. According to Pro Football Focus, 44 of those 46 yards came after initial contact. And for the season, 148 of Ajayi's 184 total yards have come after contact. This goes a long way in explaining a running game that ranks 30th behind an offensive line that is 29th in run blocking.
But there's more! The Dolphins defense, which was supposed to be a strength this season, has regressed. The unit ranked 19th last season, sandwiched between the Cowboys and Packers. This is nothing to draw attention to until you learn that the 2015 Bears defense ranked 31st. It's hard to win football games when your defense can't stop anybody.
It helps explain why the Bears were 6-10 in '15, the Dolphins improved to 10-6 last season, and why Miami spent much of the offseason solidifying its defense. The team re-signed defensive end Andre Branch and safety Reshad Jones, signed free-agent safeties Nate Allen and T.J. McDonald and inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, and then used their first three draft picks on defenders: pass rusher Charles Harris in Round 1, linebacker Raekwon McMillan in Round 2, and defensive back Cordrea Tankersley in Round 3.
But McDonald is suspended for the first eight games (which the team knew when it signed him) and Timmons went AWOL for several days before the season opener. McMillian is on injured reserve after tearing his ACL, and Harris has been used sparingly and is still looking for his first sack.
This is bigger than Cutler, a reality not lost on Gase.
"It's not time to panic," he said after the latest loss. "We've been through way worse than this. So we want to figure out what's going on and then fix the problem. That's really the only thing we're concerned about. ... We've got the guys here, we're just trying out what's going on, why are we stumbling?"
For comparison's sake, Cutler ranks 25th this season in passer rating (92.5) when facing no pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. When under pressure, Cutler ranks 20th though his passer rating drops to 56.0. Against the Saints, Cutler was pressured on half of his dropbacks and he was sacked four times and tossed the aforementioned interception. He ended the day with a passer rating of only 43.1 when facing pressure.
During his three starts a season ago, Moore ranked sixth among all quarterbacks in passer rating when kept clean (111.9) and fourth when facing pressure (93.0). So, yes, there is an argument for why he should play. But it's worth remembering that the Dolphins started 1-4 last season before everything came together. And that the 2017 season started with Hurricane Irma forcing the team to relocate to California after their Week 1 opener against the Buccaneers was rescheduled.
And the hectic-even-by-NFL-standards travel schedule will remain an issue. :
Miami's schedule is going to continue to do them no favors. They finally head home, back from a drubbing in London, to face a wounded Titans team, which is no easy assignment. The Dolphins still haven't played a real home game yet. And Jay Cutler isn't getting any younger or better.
A week ago, after the Dolphins managed just six points against the Jets (Miami is averaging 8.3 points a game this season), Gase correctly called the offense "garbage."
"A lot of bad football," he said at the time. "More mental errors than we've had the last two years. I'll find the guys that want to do it right, and those are the guys that will play. I'm upset about the way our offense played. I'm just tired of watching it for two years. Just garbage. So, we're going to figure something out."
Fans are tired of watching it too. But Gase isn't yet ready to blame Cutler to the point of replacing him with Moore, though that may change. After hosting the Titans, the Dolphins travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons.