I'm sure that if you are reading this you have already heard that the Miami Dolphins hired the Green Bay Packers' now-former offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to be their next head coach. In his five years as offensive coordinator, Philbin led the Packers to top 10 finishes in yards per game every year, including two top 5 finishes. He also led the Packers to top 5 scoring offenses four out his five years, including the top scoring offense this year. That means the Packers didn't typically experience the same red zone struggles that have plagued the Dolphins in recent years.
I don't want to get too far off base, because I'm not here to talk about Philbin's credentials. Our focus today is the potential for Philbin to sell the idea of relocating from Green Bay to Miami to one or two of his former players. It just so happens that the Packers have two key players that are hitting free agency this year, both of whom could fill a void on the Dolphins' roster.
Who are those players? They are rising quarterback Matt Flynn and athletic, yet seemingly underachieving, tight end Jermichael Finley.
A lot has been made of Flynn's impending free agency, especially after his record-setting performance against the Detroit Lions in Week 17. Teams in need of a quarterback are certain to do their homework on the guy, which may be difficult considering his limited game experience. The Dolphins have been linked as possible suitors and now with Philbin's hiring, rumors will be flying around more than ever.
But is Flynn an upgrade over incumbent starter Matt Moore? Moore did perform well as the Dolphins' starting quarterback. He didn't set the world on fire, but he produced the best body of work for the team since Chad Pennington. Still, few seem convinced that Moore is the answer at quarterback. Flynn, on the other hand, has only two NFL starts under his belt, but played well during both games.
I did my best to find footage of Flynn's starts. I was able to find all of his dropbacks against the New England Patriots during the 2010 season here and some highlights of his game against the Lions here. In both games, Flynn showed the ability to throw the ball through tight windows, throw on the move, and hit his receivers in stride. If you choose to watch the videos, you will notice that a lot of his throws in the Patriots game were underneath throws, screens, and slants. In other words, all of those plays are short passes. This would be worrisome if not for the fact he was able to show off his ability to throw deep passes in the Lions game. He made three throws in that game that impressed me: the first was his second touchdown to Jordy Nelson in the front corner of the end zone, the second was his third touchdown to Nelson, which was thrown with good velocity, and the final throw was to James Jones that set up Flynn's sixth touchdown of the day. As the announcer points out, the throw to Jones was about as perfect a throw as you can get. Flynn threw the ball forty yards through the air and Jones did not have to break stride to catch the ball at the sideline.
Therein lies what I believe to be the biggest difference between Flynn and Moore. Flynn can throw a better deep ball than Moore. Moore showed terrific touch on some intermediate throws and a couple of deep balls, but Flynn provides that same touch with the ability to get the ball into the receiver's hands faster. That makes a huge difference in the NFL, where tenths of a second typically make the difference between a receiver catching the ball and having the pass tipped or intercepted. Moore's success is sometimes contingent on his ability to place the ball where it is only possible for a receiver to catch it. Flynn has similar ball-placement talents, but has a slightly larger margin for error, because defensive backs have a shorter amount of time to react to throws.
I have briefly addressed Flynn before in my little corner of the internet here. My position on him was rather dismissive, so it may be puzzling that I am now supporting the possibility of him being the next Dolphins quarterback. I will admit that if I felt the Dolphins were in a position to grab one of the top two quarterbacks in this class, I might advocate that option over Flynn. The truth is that I think Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III have more physical upside than Flynn. However, Flynn has shown an ability to run the offense that the Dolphins will likely run under Philbin and Flynn's experience in Philbin's system at least makes him an upgrade over Moore. If Flynn has sufficient physical skills to succeed in Philbin's offense, and is a better overall fit, then it's not necessarily pertinent that either Luck or Griffin have a higher physical upside.
The other player that Dolphins fans need to keep an eye on is Finley. Ever since he entered the league, Finley has been touted as an athletically gifted tight end who is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. Essentially, by now, he was supposed to be what New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is today. Finley has shown flashes of those abilities, but has been somewhat limited by injuries during his career. 2011 was the first season of his career in which he played all 16 games. Finley was productive during his healthy season, catching 55 passes for 767 yards and 8 touchdowns. In years past, those would be close to elite numbers from a tight end, but this year his 55 catches was only 14th-most among tight ends and his 767 receiving yards ranked 12th. He would have had better numbers if not for his tendency to drop passes this year, but he should be able to correct that if he wants. Oh, yeah, did I mention he'll be only 25 years old when the 2012 season starts? He will be entering the prime of his career and can be productive for several more seasons.
Finley also fills a gaping hole in the Dolphins' offense. Tight ends have taken on a larger role in recent years and teams that employ good ones are generally successful. Out of the top 12 tight ends in receiving yards, only one of them was on a losing team (Fred Davis of the Washington Redskins). By comparison, the Dolphins' leading receiver at tight end, Anthony Fasano, ranked 23rd among tight ends in receiving yards. The Dolphins have been too slow to react to this trend. Tight ends are more talented pass catchers now than ever before and teams that are able to properly utilize them create mismatches on defense and open up the rest of the field for wide receivers and running backs. The Dolphins have not had that kind of receiving threat at tight end since Randy McMichael and that needs to be corrected.
The biggest telltale sign of these players' abilities will be how aggressively the Dolphins pursue them once free agency starts. The Packers have expressed interest in signing Finley to an extension, but if that doesn't happen, one of these players is guaranteed to hit the free agent market. After all, the Packers can only slap one with the franchise tag. No matter what the Packers' decision may be, it will be interesting to see how far the Dolphins are willing to go to poach at least one of these players. If they're not aggressive towards one or both of them, it is probably a sign that Philbin doesn't have much confidence in that player. Conversely, if the Dolphins are aggressive in their pursuit, you can be sure that the player has the talent to succeed and someone on staff will be able to maximize the player's abilities.
Both Flynn and Finley would serve as upgrades at their respective positions. Signing or trading for one or both of them will solve one or two of Miami's problems and free up those precious draft picks to address other needs.