By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Sports Writer
DAVIE — Joe Philbin was not overly pleased following a recent preseason game, the coach of the Miami Dolphins somewhat befuddled with how his first-string offense moved the ball well but failed to find the end zone.
It’s a problem, which is the bad news.
The good news is, it’s a football problem – nothing at all like the issues that sunk the Dolphins a year ago.
There’s been no whiff of real scandal around the Dolphins entering this season, which right there suggests the 2014 edition of the team is ahead of last year’s group.
The Dolphins became headline-makers for all the wrong reasons a year ago when a locker-room bullying mess turned into the storyline of the season, and the stigma of all that is something Miami cannot escape from quickly enough.
“You can have all the potential,” Dolphins defensive lineman Jared Odrick said. “But if you’re not putting it to use, there’s no reason to have it.”
And there may be the most accurate mantra for the 2014 Dolphins.
Potential isn’t in question, and the anticipation over what changes new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor will install this season is one of the biggest sources of optimism around the club. The defense could easily be better as well, so it would seem the pieces are in place for Miami to end a playoff drought that goes back to 2008.
“It’s a good group of men,” Philbin said. “It’s a high-character group. I’m excited about what they’re going to be able to accomplish.”
Turning around the locker room atmosphere, that’s one thing.
Turning around fortunes, that’s something else. Over the past 10 seasons, only five of the NFL’s 32 clubs have fewer wins than the Dolphins.
“I think everybody really believes we can make the playoffs this year,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said. “There’s a lot of positive energy right now.”
Miami opens the regular season at home against the New England Patriots on Sept. 7.
Here’s some things to watch about the Dolphins:
TANNEHILL AND WALLACE: Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and wide receiver Mike Wallace hooked up for pass plays of more than 40 yards only four times last season, two of those coming in the same game. The team’s quarterback and best receiver just haven’t seemed to totally click yet in the deep game and both want to see that change. On average, Tannehill’s completions to Wallace went for 8.8 yards last season, with Wallace picking up another 3.9 yards after the catch.
NEED FOR BALANCE: The Dolphins picked up 61 first downs on rushes last season, the lowest total in the NFL, and they got a combined six touchdowns from running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas. Adding Knowshon Moreno obviously should help, and Miller continues to evolve into a solid NFL player. But if all the scoring pressure is on the passing game, the Dolphins could struggle. Another pressure point: The Dolphins have had four kickers in camp during the preseason, all because incumbent Caleb Sturgis isn’t healthy.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Miami’s defensive front – likely some combination of Cameron Wake, Earl Mitchell, Randy Starks, Jared Odrick and Olivier Vernon to start the season – could be one of the best in the NFL, even with Dion Jordan suspended for the season’s first four games. Miami gave up a respectable average of 4.1 yards per carry last season, a figure the Dolphins would like to improve upon nonetheless and better linebacker play should help that cause.
PHILBIN WATCH: More than half the league – 17 of 32 teams – have made the playoffs in the past two seasons, with the Dolphins not among them. So this would figure to be a critical year for Philbin both in terms of the win-loss record and whether the Dolphins have another circuslike mess like they dealt with a year ago. It might not be playoffs-or-bust, but if the Dolphins struggle, Philbin’s seat will get toasty.
SPEAKING OF PLAYOFFS: Since Miami’s last playoff win – Dec. 30, 2000 – only three other teams (Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo) have played in fewer postseason games than Miami. And since Miami’s last Super Bowl appearance, 24 franchises have made at least one trip to football’s biggest game, the Patriots alone doing so seven times.