It was a long, quiet ride back from Arizona last weekend and for a few Dolphins veterans the feeling was a familiar one. Four years ago, another Dolphins team with a new roster and new coaching staff also left Arizona with a disappointing loss and the season hanging by a thread.
Funny how the NFL schedule and fate has brought this franchise full circle.
Joe Philbin’s team is just about where Tony Sparano’s first team was after its early season debacle in Arizona.
Like Sparano’s first team, today’s Dolphins went west with high hopes and expectations, but returned deflated as well as defeated.
“The difference then was we knew we were going to lose that game already in the fourth quarter, and this one, we had the game won and at the last second it was taken away from us,” said Randy Starks, a defensive line stalwart since 2008. “This loss this year was harder.
“This ride home was much longer.”
The challenge that faces these Dolphins is identical to the one the 2008 club faced. That team, lacking championship talent, could have folded and accepted losing as a weekly fact. It didn’t.
Those Dolphins salvaged their season.
So can Philbin’s 1-3 team also salvage their season?
“Yes, definitely,” running back and optimist Reggie Bush said this week. “… This is not a time for panicking at all. I think the vibe that I get from the guys on the team and the coaches is nobody’s panicking.
“We know that we have a physical tough team here and nobody’s questioning that at all. We’ve just got to learn how to play together as a team for four quarters. We’re working on that one day at a time.”
This is where fans and their team part ways.
Yes, Philbin is asking for improvement week to week and is encouraged when he sees it. Yes, everyone on the roster is watching hopefully for signs that quarterback Ryan Tannehill will stop suffering so many turnovers and start supplying more touchdowns.
But, unlike their fans, the Dolphins see only one honest standard by which this season can be salvaged, and that is by winning more games.
“I think, at the end of the day, that’s how we’re all measured is wins and losses, no matter what,” Bush said. “No matter how young or old you are, that’s how you’re measured in this league and there’s no other way around it. We’re measured by wins and losses and you can easily sit here and say we should be 3-1 right now, but we’re not
“We’re 1-3 and there’s a big difference. The margin for error in this league is that much. If you look at those last two losses that we’ve had, it’s been close, but still a loss is a loss. We have to measure ourselves by wins and losses because, at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters — winning and losing.”
That is true and fair. But the view applies only to the team.
Fans have the luxury of judging this team by other data. Are the Dolphins entertaining? Are the Dolphins showing overall improvement? Are they not giving up? And mostly, is Tannehill showing consistent signs he’s on the path to being a top-tier quarterback?
The kind of standard Miami fans are applying to their team now isn’t unique. The Texans, Falcons and Lions were judged this way for much of the past few years. Washington and Indianapolis are there now.
Fans are sometimes content if their team is merely showing signs the future will be better than the present. And sometimes that works.
But sometimes that leads to disappointment
The NFL is filled with disappointed fans who mistook promised success for actual success and got disappointed in the exchange.
Last year, the Carolina Panthers lost much more than they won, but fans were heartened that Cam Newton was a budding superstar and the team won four of its final six games.
The team’s final month suggested it was on the right path but, more importantly, Newton’s final month suggested the future would be secure.
Well, the future obviously hasn’t arrived because the Panthers are 1-3 this season and Newton is the league’s 17th-rated passer. A season after he threw 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, he is struggling with four touchdowns and five interceptions.
The story is similar in St. Louis with Sam Bradford. He played very well his rookie year (18 TDs and 15 INTs) and suggested steady improvement going forward. Two years later, he is still trying to take the next step to being a consistent quarterback.
Josh Freeman was outstanding in his first full season as Tampa Bay’s starter — with 25 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. Tampa Bay was 10-6 that season.
But two seasons later, the Bucs have fired their coach, hired a new one and Freeman has failed to improve.
Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer and even Tony Romo all showed great potential earlier in their careers and their teams enjoyed some success because of it. But as the years have passed, the sheen has faded on that promise.
Both Cutler and Palmer have been traded and there have actually been calls in Dallas lately to replace Romo with Kyle Orton.
Not everyone is Peyton Manning. Not everyone suffers indignity as a rookie and then avenges that early struggle by dismantling defenses for the next decade.
The Dolphins have seen this in their own locker room. Left tackle Jake Long played better his first two seasons than he’s playing now in his fifth season. Vontae Davis was better at the end of his rookie season than he was this past training camp when his play deteriorated to the point the team traded him.
The point is, it’s impossible to know with certainty what Tannehill will be in three years based on what we’re seeing today, or will see in December.
And we can have no idea what the Dolphins will look like even next year because players such as Bush, Starks, Brian Hartline, Long, Anthony Fasano and cornerback Sean Smith are unsigned after this season.
And that should bring you back to this team. That is really all anyone can judge with certainty.
“Right now we’re in a slump,” Starks said. “And we have to fight to get out of it. But one win can turn this thing around. I’ve been on teams on teams where you start out bad but then you get on a roll and you end up making the playoffs.
“That’s the only thing we can focus on. We’re trying to win one game and see if that snowballs. Nothing else matters.”