The 2012 Miami Dolphins took a lot of people by surprise. New head coach Joe Philbin gave the reins to a rookie quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, and the team finished with a surprising 7-9 record, well above expectations. Neither among the league's elite or among its cellar dwellers, Miami needs to continue improving in order to challenge for the playoffs.
There have been some major changes, though. Left tackle Jake Long left for the St. Louis Rams in free agency, and running back Reggie Bush and linebacker Karlos Dansby, who were both major contributors, are now plying their trade in Detroit and Arizona, respectively. Not everyone was leaving Miami, though, as they signed wide receiver Mike Wallace and tight end Dustin Keller to help out the young Tannehill.
So what exactly would be considered a successful season for the Miami Dolphins in 2013? Let's take a look.
Three steps to success
1. Ryan Tannehill continues to progress
Tannehill put together a better rookie campaign than most expected in 2012, completing over 58% of his passes and throwing for just under 3,300 yards. He did have some turnover issues (13 interceptions and nine fumbles compared to 12 touchdown passes), but that's not that out of the ordinary for a rookie with a raw skill set. If he can cut down on the mistakes, the Dolphins offense will get much better in a hurry.
2. Jonathan Martin makes everyone forget about Jake Long
Letting a franchise left tackle walk in free agency is a bold move, but the Dolphins did just that because they think Jonathan Martin can handle moving to left tackle. A second-round pick in 2012, Martin started all 16 games for Miami at right tackle this past year, but how he handles moving to the left side remains to be seen. He's a tough, smart, and nasty blocker, so he has the tools to get the job done, but he may not have Long's consistency at first.
That may not sound like much, but the Dolphins can put themselves in a good position for a playoff push simply by taking care of business against divisional teams not named New England. That's not to say they shouldn't try to beat New England too, but establishing themselves as the second-best team in the division is a reasonable goal.
Three signs of failure
1. The offensive line struggles without Long
It's entirely possible that Martin isn't up to the task of replacing Long, and the offensive line as a whole struggles. If the line can't keep Tannehill off his back, it could be extremely damaging for his development, which would be an even worse turn of events for the franchise.
2. Tannehill and the offense take a step back
Despite the encouraging signs last year, Tannehill is far from a sure thing at this point. Sophomore slumps have claimed young quarterbacks before, and despite all his athletic gifts, a few bad decisions could get him stuck in a rut that not only hurts himself as a player, but the offense as a whole. Turnovers were of particular issue for him as a rookie, and he'll need to cut those down if the team wants to make progress.
3. The expensive crop of free agents don't make significant impacts
The Dolphins spent big money to bring in a number of high profile players, from Wallace to Keller to defensive back Brent Grimes. These players obviously make the team better on paper, but it's possible that they don't make the impacts that everyone thinks they will. Wallace, for all his speed, is a somewhat one-dimensional threat, and Keller needs to overcome injury issues so he can just stay on the field. If these players don't have the major impact that many think they will, there could be a lot of grumbling coming from South Florida.
7-9 was a pleasant surprise for Dolphin fans last year, but treading water and maintaining that record won't be seen as such a good result for 2013. For this season to be considered a success for Miami, they need to put some space between themselves and the bottom half of the AFC East, and get into the playoffs as a Wild Card. Winning the division is probably still too much to ask, but they need to show signs that they can do it within a year or two.