Lamar Miller is the Star of the 2016 Free Agent Class
Joe Philbin was a spectacular failure in Miami. It wasn’t just the results, the Dolphins went 24-28 in 52 games under the former Packers quarterbacks coach. It was how Philbin managed situations that developed in front of him.
Whether it was creating friction with his key players early on, being non-committal with his starting quarterback when the answer was obvious or showing too much commitment to a defensive coordinator who was clearly inadequate.
Philbin crippled the Dolphins.
The Dolphins roster wasn’t overwhelmingly talented, but it did have enough talent to create a quality team. One of the franchise’s most talented players was running back Lamar Miller, someone who Philbin repeatedly undermined with his decisions.
Philbin and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor should have recognized that Miller was a key cog in their offense. They should have understood that the Dolphins needed to be a run-based unit to be competent because their offensive line was so problematic in pass protection that they couldn’t be imbalanced. Instead, the duo combined to ignore Miller all too often.
Setting up their offense with the run should have been the Dolphins priority last year. While Lazor was still running the offense, Miller averaged 6.44 yards per carry on first down runs during the first quarters of games. 25 backs had more carries under that criteria than him even though only one averaged more yards per carry than him.
If you extend that measurement out to the first halves of games, 20 backs had more carries than Miller and once again only one averaged more than his 5.62 yards per carry.
Reporters around the Dolphins suggested that Philbin didn’t trust Miller enough to rely on him heavily for four quarters of a game. That was 12 months ago, after Miller had rushed for 1,099 yards despite never carrying the ball 20 times in a game. Before the 2015 season, Miller made a point of saying that he was ready to be a feature back.
Miller averaged 4.5 yards per carry for the 2015 season, but only carried the ball 194 times, getting 10 or fewer carries in seven games.
The Dolphins’ futility has put Miller in a better position to cash in as a free agent, cash in being a relative term when it comes to any running back. Miller is just about to turn 25 years of age and has only 755 total touches from his four-year career in Miami.
Miller is a great talent. He’s a home-run hitting back with the intelligence and decisiveness to run between the tackles, while being a versatile receiving option on third downs. It’s easy to see Miller’s explosiveness and you don’t need diagrams to understand his value in the passing game. What’s tougher to recognize is Miller’s intelligence as a runner.
That intelligence is something that Philbin and/or Lazor didn’t believe Miller had. Instead of setting him up to make reads at the line of scrimmage and set up his own runs, they too often forced him to catch the ball on toss plays or take the ball while directed towards the sideline. Those plays need to be executed and can create big plays, but they limit how much the running back can help his offensive linemen while simultaneously putting them in tougher positions to be creative from.
All too often Miller was being used on this type of play. It’s a toss outside from the Dolphins’ Week 2 matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s not a play that puts Miller in position to be creative, it’s a play that asks him to follow his blockers before hopefully accelerating to space.
This type of play typically requires impressive blocking to be effective, unless the defense completely misplays it and gives up an easy cutback lane.
On this occasion, Miller’s running lanes are all closed. He is forced to the outside as defenders crash toward the line of scrimmage. The Dolphins blockers regularly put him in this situation, forcing him to be more patient than he wants to be and eventually squeezing him over the sideline for no gain.
It wasn’t just on toss plays when Miller found himself in these situations. The Dolphins regularly lined him up in shotgun alongside Tannehill to carry out the same run design.
Miller finished that game with 10 carries for just 14 yards, an incredible 1.4 yards per carry. It was one of six games during the year when Miller averaged below 3.0 yards per carry in a game. While Philbin was the head coach, Miller carried the ball 37 times (9.25 per game) and he averaged 3.5 yards per carry. After that point, he carried the ball 157 times (13.1) and averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
Dan Campbell focused on changing how often Miller carried the ball, but the interim coach also appeared to push the Dolphins towards using him smartly.
Miller isn’t a big back. He is officially listed at 5’10” and 225 lbs, so while relatively short he does have some weight. Being big as a running back isn’t hugely valuable. Being powerful is. Being powerful with a compact frame and low center of gravity is extremely valuable.
Even though the foundation of Miller’s success isn’t his ability to break tackles, he can do so because of his physical traits and compact frame.
Breaking tackles is less important for Miller than being able to run hard against linebackers and defensive linemen. When directed between the tackles, he doesn’t show any hesitancy. He only pauses and waits when he is required to, showing patience rather than fear. In the above play from the Tennessee Titans game, Miller shows off his willingness to attack space between two bigger bodies.
His very next carry highlighted the foundation of his skill set.
On this play Miller escapes outside but doesn’t force the play there. He is patient in the initial stages of the play, chopping his feet so that he is almost sidestepping as he approaches the line of scrimmage. This allows his blocking to develop in front of him while holding the linebackers on the second level.
Had Miller immediately planted his foot and accelerated towards the outside, the defenders would have been able to follow him unopposed. He would have destroyed the leverage advantages his blockers needed to set up the play.
Instead of destroying his linemen’s leverage, he betters it by being so patient and threatening the inside for the perfect amount of time.
He initially follows his pulling guard, forcing the inside linebacker to isolate against the guard to create a one-on-one on the edge against the outside linebacker. This is a manageable situation for most outside linebackers against most running backs. Against Miller, it’s an unenviable position to be in no matter who you are.
Miller’s cut is phenomenal. He accelerates and transitions past the outside linebacker so quickly that he is essentially untouched. From there he finishes the run hard to push forward for three more yards through contact.
The movement skills that Miller possesses are phenomenal and his understanding of how to maximize their impact is what makes him such a dangerous player.
Campbell’s first game was that one against the Titans. They gave Miller the ball 19 times and he rewarded them with 113 yards. Against the Houston Texans the following week, he touched the ball just 14 times but only because he had already racked up 175 yards to help the Dolphins secure an overwhelming victory.
On this play, you can once again see how Miller presses a hole to set up another one. Miller tempts the defensive tackle who is working against his center to crash down on the left side of the defense, cutting back across the formation at the perfect time to exploit the space he had vacated.
Miller is able to read defenses and make good decisions without slowing his feet. He transitions from setting plays up to aggressively attacking space as quickly as any other back in the league.
The Dolphins couldn’t consistently give Miller space to work in, but he consistently took advantage of it when they did. It was easier for him to create space when they directed him between the tackles, offering him opportunities to make these kinds of moves at speed, without working about slow-developing blocking concepts.
From the same game, Miller was able to break off another huge gain by taking advantage of the initial space his offensive line gave him. Once more, how Miller set this run up was hugely important. He followed his pulling guard until he was certain that the linebacker was committed to engaging with him.
This timing negated the linebacker’s ability to recover but it also drew the safety to that side of the field further towards the line of scrimmage.
Miller is a home-run threat, but he’s also very explosive and controlled in tight spaces. He shows this off on this play by combining small jump cuts that allow him to slice his way through the Texans front seven.
The first safety can’t recover to catch him from behind, the second can only fall past him as Miller cuts back against the grain of his momentum. Miller is first contacted by the final tackler on the play at the Texans 21-yard line, but his momentum and balance allows him to fall forward to the 15-yard line.
All Joe Phillbin and Bill Lazor saw in Lamar Miller was speed. Their ignorance only served as another in the long line of examples to highlight their incompetence.
Miller will immediately improve any team that he signs with as a free agent. He was playing behind a limited offensive line in an unfavorable scheme last year and still averaged 4.5 yards per attempt. There aren’t any places where Miller can go to find a worse situation than the one he is coming from.
Even if he re-signs with the Dolphins, Adam Gase should at least understand that Miller is the star of his offense and should be used accordingly.