As obscure and rather surprising statistics go, one supplied by Bryant McKinnie this week has to rank.
“I’ve played next to five different guards since I’ve been here,” McKinnie said, nodding to reinforce the point. “Five.”
That’s five in only six games McKinnie has played as the Dolphins’ left tackle since being acquired by trade with Baltimore on Oct. 21.
Such turmoil is a recipe for disaster on an offensive line, where cohesiveness and understanding of one another is … overrated?
The Dolphins are making that case. Against the New York Jets last weekend, Miami’s line put together its finest performance of the season.
The major shuffling on the line began in late October when tackle Tyson Clabo was benched for what turned out to be one game. On Oct. 28, tackle Jonathan Martin quit the team. Six days later, guard Richie Incognito was suspended indefinitely for his harassment of Martin. And center Mike Pouncey fell ill and missed two games in November.
“This offensive line has gotten a lot of attention,” McKinnie was saying just a couple of weeks ago, when roughly 100 reporters were showing up daily to training camp and zeroing in on the blockers. “I’m pretty sure they know who everybody is on the offensive line because that’s been the focal point since I’ve been here.”
In that regard, nothing has changed. Except that the most infamous offensive line in the league now is getting attention for the right reasons: for allowing the Dolphins to rush for 125 yards against the league’s No. 1 run defense, the Jets’. For the first game this season in which Ryan Tannehill did not suffer multiple sacks.
“They’re doing a great job,” said Tannehill, who was on league-record pace early this season for sacks suffered in a season. “This past game was great. … They’ve been through some things. Everyone knows what they’ve been through over the past month, but they really stuck together and they’re playing well right now.”
Ho-hum, say the guys up front, who know how attention can run hot and cold.
“We understand that when times are good, everybody talks up the O-line and when times aren’t so good, it’s always the O-line’s fault,” Clabo said. “So it’s just a cycle.”
But early this season, it appeared the cycle was stuck on the negative side. In two of the first five games, Miami couldn’t even manage 25 rushing yards. In all five of those games, Tannehill was sacked four or more times. NFL teams don’t trade for a starting left tackle mid-season unless circumstances are dire, and things turned even more desperate as McKinnie arrived and the Incognito-Martin controversy blew up.
“It’s been a challenge for Jim Turner,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said of the offensive line coach.
It also has been a test for McKinnie, who has played alongside guards Incognito, Nate Garner, Sam Brenner, Dallas Thomas and Danny Watkins — all free-agent castoffs except for Thomas, a rookie third-round pick.
So why, at this critical point of the season, is the line showing signs of respectability?
“You have guys who are finally getting a chance to consistently play next to each other,” McKinnie said.
Versatility never hurts. When Mike was out, Garner capably filled in. This week, right guard John Jerry is a concern because of a concussion, which could press Brenner back into the starting lineup since Garner now is at left guard next to McKinnie.
“That’s my role,” Garner said. “I go into every game thinking I could play any position.”
Clabo, who has found a comfort zone at right tackle after starting the year on the left, said another element of the success is the most obvious.
“We’ve put a lot of work into putting it together with the anticipation that it’s going to pay off,” Clabo said. “So no, it’s not a surprise.”
Asked if there was a moment when he felt the line turned the corner, Clabo, ever cautious, said, “It’s hard to say if we’ve turned the corner.”
But as McKinnie said of the performance against New York, “Being able to run on the No. 1 run defense does make you feel good because nobody else was able to do it.” And Clabo acknowledged that it seemed like the first time the line was equally effective at pass protection and run blocking.
Now comes the aggressive Pittsburgh defense coached by Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau. One way or another, Clabo figures, people will still be talking about Miami’s offensive line after Sunday’s game.
“If things don’t go so well, they’re going to blame us,” Clabo said. “We know that.”