In five seasons as Green Bay’s offensive coordinator, Joe Philbin’s unit was always ranked in the NFL’s top 10.
In his first season as Dolphins head coach, his offense finished 27th out of 32 teams.
But after bringing in Pro Bowl receiver Mike Wallace, and with quarterback Ryan Tannehill considered a potential breakout player in 2013, Miami’s offense this season could ever-so-slightly resemble Philbin’s old Packers offense.
“We’re 10 steps ahead of where we were last year,” Miami return man Marcus Thigpen said. “Last year was new to all of us, the whole offense, new coaching staff and everything. This year we’re way more comfortable with it.”
The Dolphins, who open training camp at 8 a.m. Sunday, averaged just 18 points per game last year, sixth-worst in the NFL. Tannehill, the eighth pick in the 2012 draft, saw limited time at quarterback at Texas A&M and was expected to sit as a rookie.
Instead, the Dolphins thrust Tannehill into the starting lineup without the benefit of a true offensive playmaker outside of tailback Reggie Bush, who signed with Detroit in the offseason.
Tannehill showed promise, including throwing for 431 yards in a Week 4 loss at Arizona, but finished with just 12 TD passes and 13 interceptions.
“Going into the second year it’s a lot more comfortable, just because not going into a quarterback competition, I kind of know what I’m getting into and I can focus on small details of playing the game — getting to know the guys and just getting to know the offense,” Tannehill said.
Former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, the 2002 league MVP and current host of SiriusXM Blitz, said Tannehill should see his biggest improvement between years one and two. Gannon expects him to at least double his touchdown total this season.
Tannehill, he said, could do only so much last season because “the lack of production at the receiver position and the tight end position was alarming.” Miami wideouts combined for three touchdown catches in 2012.
“The biggest issue they had a season ago was trying to find explosive plays,” said Gannon, who believes that the addition of Wallace was critical. “It’s hard to go 80 yards in the NFL on a 12- to 15-play drive by running the ball and having 6-, 8-yard completions. You’ve got to be able to make some big plays through the air and the ground.”
Philbin said the team couldn’t develop any rhythm with so many three-and-outs last year. When the Dolphins did get to the red zone they struggled, but Philbin said the two-minute offense has improved and that Tannehill is throwing better in practice.
“Obviously, one of the things we want to do is run more plays and create a high tempo, be a better third-down team,” Philbin said.
Brian Hartline, Miami’s No. 1 receiver by default last season, had 74 receptions for 1,083 yards but just one touchdown.
Despite signing Wallace to a five-year $60 million deal, the Dolphins this offseason rewarded Hartline with a 5-year $30.8 million contract.
“Hartline, in my opinion, is very much underrated,” said former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann. “He’s been very consistent. I think he’s the kind of guy that if people want to try to double Mike, he should have himself one heck of a great year.”
Despite some buzz, the offense is loaded with questions, too. With Bush gone, the Dolphins will rely on second-year tailback Lamar Miller, a former University of Miami star who didn’t play significant snaps until the end of last season. He averaged 4.9 yards on 51 attempts but now will be expected to carry the load and improve his blocking and pass-catching ability.
Oft-injured third-year back Daniel Thomas and rookie Mike Gillislee of Florida will compete with Miller for playing time.
Theismann doesn’t believe the offense will suffer because it lacks an established running back.
“If you think of the Green Bay Packers offense you had (running backs) that were off the street coming in and doing well, low-round draft choices coming in and doing very well,” Theismann said.
Dustin Keller, who was one of the league’s bright young tight ends for the New York Jets before an injury-plagued 2012 season, joined Miami on a one-year deal. The Dolphins traded slot receiver Davone Bess to Cleveland and replaced him with former St. Louis receiver Brandon Gibson.
“We have a fast offense, man,” new Dolphins linebacker Philip Wheeler said. “We have playmakers at receiver. Any one of those guys can break it open at any time.”
It won’t take long for Miami to get a good gauge of its revamped offense. After opening at Cleveland, the Dolphins in consecutive weeks will face Indianapolis, Atlanta, New Orleans and Baltimore.
And they will play the season’s first exhibition game, Aug. 4 against Dallas in Canton, Ohio.
“The preseason will be really important for the Dolphins’ offense, particularly their starters,” Gannon said. “These guys need to play together.”