The potential for the Miami Dolphins passing game has dominated the discussion around the team, but the competition at running back has been the most perplexing storyline of training camp.
The coaching staff had pushed the idea that the competition is wide open. The practice reps seem to indicate it's not lying, but the backs' respective game performances and upside suggest the decision is easier than the Dolphins are making it out to be.
Second-year running back Lamar Miller has outperformed third-year running back Daniel Thomas carrying the ball, and it's not close.
Thomas has had two years to prove himself as an NFL back, but has averaged just 3.54 yards per attempt—according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, that's the lowest for any back with at least 250 carries over the past two seasons.
Yet we're still fed the idea of a competition by the Dolphins' coaching staff, including both head coach Joe Philbin—who has interrupted reporters mid-question to say "absolutely" when asked if the starting job is open—and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman.
Could it all just be coach-speak? Of course.
That became part of the discussion when Philbin said Thomas had a "good game" after rushing for three yards on seven carries (two of which lost yardage) and catching two passes for 12 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Miller, on the other hand, took his eight carries for 35 yards and added a two-yard reception.
Most of the stats are in Miller's favor—more yards on fewer carries, an average nearly 50 percent higher and the only rushing touchdown between the two.
There are two areas where Thomas has the edge, though: receiving and fumbles. Miller's first carry of the preseason was a fumble, and while it shouldn't be completely forgotten, Miller has run hard since then and made up for his mistake.
Also, although Miller is considered the better receiving back, he's not showing it in the preseason thus far—at least not statistically.
He didn't do himself any favors by dropping a pass on 3rd-and-2 against the Texans.
With regards to the competition, it's hard to penalize Miller for dropping that pass—that's a bigger contribution than Thomas will make in the receiving game.
All that being said, Thomas is not without his merits.
"I like what he's doing this camp," Philbin said of Thomas two weeks into camp. "I'm very happy with the way he's practicing. He's running the ball hard. He's been doing a good job in pass protection."
In addition to his pass protection, Thomas is considered to be the better back on the goal line. He's been effective in that role and has carried the ball 15 times inside the opponent's 3-yard line, with four touchdowns to show for it.
He hasn't been that effective in the goal-line role in the preseason and was stuffed for a three-yard loss on 1st-and-goal against the Buccaneers, but he's done it for the Dolphins in the past and could get the call to do it again.
Talk of goal-line duty and pass protection for Thomas puts Miller in the spotlight for the bulk of the touches.
Given the West Coast offensive tendencies of Mike Sherman, you wouldn't think he'd be known for having a bell cow in the backfield.
However, he helped Ahman Green to the most productive years of his career, with five consecutive seasons over 1,000 rushing yards from 2000-2004 and a whopping 1,833 yards in 2003. Cyrus Gray rushed for 1,000 yards for Texas A&M in both 2010 (200 carries) and 2011 (198 carries), with Sherman as the head coach. He averaged 5.5 YPA and totaled 12 touchdowns each year.
The Dolphins' offensive coordinator has not been reluctant to give one of his backs a large majority of the carries.
The question is whether Miller can carry that burden. He had just 119 scrimmage plays as a freshmen at Miami in 2010 before earning 244 touches in his sophomore year of 2011. On one hand, he's not used to taking a pounding 200-plus times a season. On the other hand, he has fresh legs and a ton of tread left on the tires.
Strangely, the Dolphins failed to capitalize on an opportunity in 2012 to get a longer look at Miller and find out what he brings to the table at the NFL level. He finished the season with just 146 snaps compared to Thomas' 332.
Now that the Dolphins have carved out clear roles for both backs, it's time to put the plan into action and find out once and for all what the Dolphins really have in Miller.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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