The Dolphins have been a whirlwind of activity the past dozen offseasons, and this one promises to be as intriguing as any, because, after all the building and rebuilding the franchise has done since last winning a playoff game in 2000, things are still not quite right.
But unlike so many of the past few offseasons, this one won’t include a fateful search to fill one of the top three jobs within the organization.
The Dolphins are not going to be shopping for a general manager this offseason as they did after the 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007 seasons.
The Dolphins are not going to be shopping for a coach this offseason as they did after the 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010 and 2011 seasons.
And the Dolphins are not going to be shopping for a starting quarterback as they did after the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010 and 2011 seasons.
The Dolphins, barring a major change of direction from ownership, will enter this offseason stable at general manager, coach and quarterback.
That’s great if you’re owner Stephen Ross, who is a fan of stability, believes continuity is key to a franchise’s success and was admittedly surprised by how hard a coach search was last season when he had to lead one.
But for all the appearance that Miami has finally filled the club’s three most important football jobs, the truth is we still cannot be absolutely certain about any of the men working those three posts.
Start with general manager Jeff Ireland. Not one word has been breathed within the organization of him being in trouble even if the Dolphins lose Sunday and finish with a losing record for the fourth consecutive season.
Yes, he will be evaluated after the season, as everyone in the organization will. But the man survived a coaching change last year and has set the team up for a great offseason by amassing five picks in the draft’s first three rounds and having about $46.8 million in salary-cap space to fill for 2013.
The coming offseason promises to be a general manager’s dream, and Ireland has done fine work authoring the circumstances for that grand opportunity. So it’s highly unlikely he’ll be going anywhere.
But even as he has set the stage a big offseason, a vast majority of Dolphins fans still have no confidence the Miami GM can make the best of the chance he has created.
On radio shows, blogs, and across the Internet, fans still show no confidence that Ireland will be able to turn the Dolphins into a winner despite all the resources he will have at his disposal this offseason.
In their eyes, indeed, in truth, Ireland must prove himself this offseason to gain the public’s trust and retain Ross’ favor. In their eyes, Ireland must succeed this offseason to be considered a success.
Ireland was a key contributor to last year’s coach search that found Philbin after Jeff Fisher turned the Dolphins down. And the reviews on Philbin are positive so far.
Philbin is singularly focused on winning the next game and rarely strays from that message. No, he wasn’t good enough to get the Dolphins to the playoffs. And outside his simultaneous practice repetitions during training camp, Philbin hasn’t exactly been an innovator.
But this club was considered among the NFL’s worst teams after a winless preseason. And they are not that now.
Philbin said his priority this season was to have the team playing better at the end than in the beginning. And he believes that has been accomplished.
“I think we’re a better football team today than we were in September,” Philbin said. “We haven’t turned the ball over as much as of late. That’s been a big thing. The feel I have for the football team, if you watch them on tape, I think our fundamentals are better. I think our decision making of [our] quarterback has been better. Those are just a couple things, but again, I haven’t really looked at the whole season in a perspective yet. But I would say we’re a better football team.”
That all suggests the Dolphins have a long-term keeper at coach. But no one really knows for sure.
The fact is Philbin doesn’t have a roster full of stars. So he has neither had the chance to raise the team to grand levels nor failed at getting a talented roster to perform to high expectations — something even Don Shula found daunting toward the end of his career.
Philbin has enjoyed a honeymoon season without crisis.
That means we don’t know how he’ll handle crisis when it comes. We don’t know how he’ll deal with stars when the Dolphins have more of them. We don’t know how he’ll compare to counterparts in the playoffs because his team isn’t there yet.
Most fans like Philbin and believe in him now. Those same fans believed in Dave Wannstedt after his first season, believed in Nick Saban after his first season, and believed in Tony Sparano after his first season.
Those three had better records their first seasons than Philbin. And all three eventually washed out in Miami.
So we simply do not know for sure about the man who will continue to be the Dolphins coach.
We don’t know about rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, either.
The Dolphins admit as much. A highly placed source within the organization recently said Tannehill has earned the right to be Miami’s quarterback next year and perhaps even the year after as the Dolphins hope for continued improvement.
But is Tannehill going to be a franchise quarterback?
“I don’t think anybody’s ready to say that yet,” the source said. “We can say he’s our quarterback. What type of quarterback that will be, we’ll have to see.”
Tannehill this year has been excellent (against Oakland, Seattle and last week against Buffalo). He also has been terrible (against Tennessee and at the Bills in November) and he has been inconsistent even from one quarter to another (against Houston and Indianapolis).
But how fair is it to judge him with so little talent around him to help him?
The Dolphins passing game lacks a big-time speed wide receiver and tight end that can attack the defense down the middle of the field or in the red zone. The team’s four-wide formation offers only two legitimate NFL receivers and that’s only when Davone Bess and Brian Hartline are healthy.
Although other rookie quarterbacks have receivers named Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Santana Moss and Sidney Rice helping, Tannehill has thrown to three receivers — Legedu Naanee, Jabar Gaffney and Anthony Armstrong — who played significant snaps just before they were cut.
So what will happen when Tannehill has more experience? What will happen if he is surrounded by more talented pass-catchers?
It’s impossible to answer. No one knows for sure.
And in that regard, he’s just like his coach and general manager.