The Miami Dolphins got off to a rough start to their 2020 campaign, losing the season-opener to the New England Patriots. The loss was a team effort, with the Dolphins struggling to run the ball consistently on offense, and seemingly helpless against New England’s own rushing attack, short-circuiting whenever Cam Newton threatened to run the ball. However, fans will be quick to point to Ryan Fitzpatrick’s three interceptions as a deciding factor.
Now, it would be disingenuous to deny that those turnovers played a significant role in determining the outcome. That said, pinning the blame for Miami’s struggles in the passing game entirely on Fitzpatrick fails to give his receivers the credit they so rightfully deserve. After all, a passing game is a collaborative effort. And against New England, the Dolphins receiving core did their best to make things as difficult as possible for their veteran quarterback.
Using the OVM to evaluate Ryan Fitzpatrick’s performance
Conventional box score statistics often fail to tell the full story of how a player’s performance. Fortunately, PFN’s Offensive Value Metric (OVM) can help us fill in the gaps. It measures how valuable a player was within the context of their offense by determining how responsible they were for the statistics they produced.
In Week 1, Fitzpatrick received an OVM grade of 39.67, making him Miami’s most valuable offensive player. Now, if you watched the game, your most vivid memories are probably of his interceptions, so that might come as something of a surprise to you. I promise I’ll get back to the interceptions later, but for now, let’s look at what Fitzpatrick did well against the Patriots.
Fitzpatrick did the best he could in a difficult situation
To start with, Fitzpatrick’s completion percentage was more impressive than it appears. At 66.7%, it doesn’t exactly jump off the page, but according to the NFL’s advanced calculations, it was actually 6.6% higher than expected. In other words, Fitzpatrick completed significantly more passes than he should have, in large part because he attempted more difficult throws than any other quarterback last week.
40% of his pass attempts were thrown into tight windows, the highest percentage of Week 1. And that statistic isn’t just the result of Fitzpatrick’s gunslinging attitude. His receivers simply could not get open against the New England defense. Tight end Mike Gesicki, averaged just 1.2 yards of separation on his targets, the second-lowest of any tight end last week.
Meanwhile, Preston Williams did only slightly better, at 1.7 yards. Thanks to his injury, DeVante Parker was not targeted enough to have data, but he has historically struggled in this area as well. Across all of 2019, he averaged 2.1 yards of separation on his targets, one of the worst averages in the NFL.
Williams and Gesicki’s failings extend into last season as well, with Williams matching Parker with an average of 2.1 yards, and Gesicki not faring much better, at 2.6. So, while last week was a particularly poor performance, the three players struggling to create separation is not a new problem. All of those difficulties came to a head in Week 1, and Fitzpatrick was forced into an impossible situation because his receivers did nothing to help him.
The departure of Hurns and Wilson hurt the Dolphins immensely
Last season, the issues plaguing Fitzpatrick’s top targets were mitigated by the presence of Allen Hurns and Albert Wilson. They averaged 3.0 and 3.5 yards of separation in 2019, respectively (the latter number was tied for the second-highest among wide receivers).
Unfortunately, both opted out of the 2020 season, leaving Miami in an unfortunate situation. Not only were the team’s two best players at getting open, but their loss also makes it easier for opposing teams to target the remaining players, further decreasing their ability to create separation. As such, it shouldn’t be particularly surprising that, against a Bill Belichick-led defense, the few receivers that were available to Fitzpatrick found themselves tightly covered almost constantly.
The reason I set aside Fitzpatrick’s interceptions earlier is because they are not included when calculating a quarterback’s OVM grade. It is often impossible to determine who is at fault for an interception without knowing what the play design was. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t use what the OVM tells us to gain some insight into what went wrong.
It seems likely that the second interception was indeed Fitzpatrick’s fault. He didn’t spot the defender dropping into coverage and threw the ball right to him. However, the other two were a different story.
On the first, Williams slipped, and Stephon Gilmore was perfectly positioned to intercept the ball. On the second, most Dolphins fans will tell you that that the referees missed a penalty against the defense, one that prevented Gesicki from making a play on the ball, resulting in the interception.
In each case, Miami arguably got unlucky, and the interceptions were caused by factors out of their control. However, both scenarios could have been avoided if Williams and Gesicki had been more open. Their lack of separation forced Fitzpatrick into a dangerous throw, and when something went wrong, the defenders were right there to take advantage. It’s bad luck, sure, but ideally, you avoid finding yourself in situations where drawing the short straw doesn’t result in disaster.
Reinforcements are on the way for Miami’s passing game
If Miami is going to have any success on offense this season, they will need to find ways to get their receivers open. Ideally, their top three pass-catchers would manufacture more separation themselves, but, given their histories, I wouldn’t count on that happening any time soon. As such, the team will need to look elsewhere for easy completions. Jakeem Grant seems like the obvious candidate, but he still needs to prove he can stay on the field for extended periods.
Fortunately, the Dolphins should be getting an influx of talent at wide receiver soon. Rookies Lynn Bowden Jr. and Malcom Perry were both inactive in Week 1, likely due to inexperience with the offense, and recent signing Antonio Callaway is still suspended. Over the next several weeks, we should start seeing them incorporated into the offense.
As I implied in the article I wrote last week, Callaway is something of a mystery, but Bowden and Perry both have explosive potential, in much the same way that Wilson did at his best. Hopefully, one of these additions (or a combination of them) can help fill the void left by Wilson and Hurns.
Ryan Fitzpatrick remains the starter going forward, but he needs more help
If Miami had Aaron Rodgers or a young Dan Marino at quarterback, they might be able to overcome the receiving core’s struggles. However, expecting Fitzpatrick to do the same is overly optimistic. He simply is not at that elite level where he can carry the team to victory without any help. And for those calling for Fitzpatrick to be benched, making Tua Tagovailoa the starter probably won’t fix matters either.
While his accuracy might help him complete more passes into those tight windows, throwing the inexperienced rookie into such a difficult situation doesn’t make much sense unless you are either extremely confident that he will succeed or very desperate.
Given that Fitzpatrick has already been named the starter for Week 2, the Dolphins clearly aren’t at either point just yet. Regardless of who is starting, though, the team will need to start finding a way to get receivers open, or this season might wind up no more successful than the last one.
Lucas Ellinas is a writer for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter @Lucas_Ellinas.