This one hurts. It stings. And most importantly, this one matters much more than anyone on the Dolphins would admit a midseason game could for a team that no one expected to contend.
The Tennessee Titans utterly embarrassed the Dolphins 37-3 and, indeed, the second-worst home loss in team history felt every bit as terrible as the score. There’s simply no arguing that.
The Dolphins looked flat and got flattened.
Karlos Dansby called it “the worst game by far we have ever played as a defense and as a team.”
Reggie Bush admitted he had been benched for fumbling. He said he would have benched himself if he were the coach. And then he went on Twitter with the following:
“I have to apologize to Dolphins Nation my performance these past few weeks has been poor and I’m embarrassed right now,” Bush wrote. ”You guys deserve better.”
Yes, it was a bad day.
But it the game itself was only the surface wound. The Dolphins should be much more concerned with the more injury that showed itself Sunday and is starting to nag.
This organization, you see, is still bleeding from within. Despite everything you’ve heard and want to believe that is good and of good report, this club is still hemorrhaging from a trust deficit with its fans.
Oh, many folks are eagerly watching on television and hoping the problems of the past few years are getting fixed. Some fans are so sufficiently convinced the team is headed in the right direction that they’re faithfully showing up every week.
But a seemingly large number of people are still not believers. And that’s a much more enduring issue than the struggling run defense or inconsistent running game.
To see how much the Dolphins are hurting one had only to look out into the stands on Sunday. There were wide swaths of empty chairs on a perfect day for football at SunLife Stadium.
This, by the way, wasn’t a surprise to anyone. The club expected between 15,000 and 18,000 empty seats for this game and the projections were troubling in their accuracy.
The empty chairs are proof many folks still aren’t moved by the club’s recent direction. Those people are keeping their distance despite a 4-4 record when Sunday dawned. Those people are simply refusing to believe in the Dolphins before the Dolphins give them a proven winner to believe in.
That doesn’t make those people bad fans. Many acted in good faith and believed in the Dolphins when Jimmy Johnson and Nick Saban and Bill Parcells first came to town. Many were in those same stands when Cam Cameron was coach or when the Dolphins were 1-7 at home under Tony Sparano.
But those bitter disappointments took a toll. And now those same people are guarding their hearts and their wallets until the Dolphins put a 100 percent guaranteed winner on the field.
And, in a case of bad timing, the Dolphins strengthened the resolve of those fans by losing to an underdog that was whipped 51-20 a week ago by Chicago. By playing so poorly against the embattled Titans, the Dolphins reminded everyone they’re not quite good enough yet.
The Dolphins, trying to win fans back, hurt their cause with those fans.
Perhaps that doesn’t sound fair. But it’s the truth. So the Dolphins now find themselves in the position of having to recover Sunday’s lost ground.
Before this game fans were taking a liking to quarterback Ryan Tannehill and coach Joe Philbin — the franchise’s newest faces who have been most responsible for the warming feelings of the past nine weeks.
The coach has put a team on the field that plays hard and plays fast. Philbin’s Dolphins typically play with discipline. Philbin’s Dolphins don’t always win but have always competed.
Problem is, against the Titans, the Dolphins didn’t play particularly hard or fast. It was the Titans causing fumbles and taking that 14-0 first-quarter lead.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, seemed to be unable to open run lanes against a defense that offered a highway of such lanes in six previous losses. The Dolphins committed dumb penalties, including multiple blocks in the back on special teams and a 15-yard drive-killing personal foul on Richie Incognito that earned him a timeout next to Philbin on the sideline.
Tannehill, meanwhile, played his worst game since the regular-season opener. His three interceptions and 42.4 quarterback rating were a step backward. After four weeks without an interception and constant improvement over the past two months, the kid played like, well, a rookie.
All that is bad news. But it presents the Dolphins with a grand opportunity.
Now Philbin has a chance to show how he gets his team to recover. He can find show he has answers in the face of a two-game losing skid. And he can do it with less preparation time than usual.
Tannehill, meanwhile, gets a chance to show his mettle when questions about what he is have returned. He can show himself a leader. He can prove one bad game can delay his development but not deny it.
If Miami’s coach and quarterback and everyone else on the roster can overcome this loss, they’ll get back on course to convincing fans good days are on the way.
And the sooner that happens, the sooner the bleeding of 18,000 empty seats will cease.