FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- No one said it out loud, but for free agents — such as Sean Smith, Brian Hartline, and Randy Starks — Sunday’s matchup with the New England Patriots was as much about finishing the season healthy as it was about ending on a win.
Harsh as it might sound, that was the reality for the trio, as well as 17 other players on Miami’s roster whose contracts ran out the same time the game clock did in Sunday’s 28-0 loss at Gillette Stadium.
All three escaped the game without injury, but as anyone playing out the final year of his contract will tell you, the final few games — especially if your team’s out of the playoff hunt — can wreak havoc on a player’s nerves.
“When you have something like that hanging over your head all year and you’re dealing with it personally and it’s always there, you have to be a pro and put it to the side,” said Hartline, who finished the game with five receptions for 69 yards. “You have an opportunity to build something and get back to 8-8. But I think it kind of spoke that maybe some guys might have cared more than others.
“You really want to be a team player and that’s what’s important,” Hartline continued. “But in the end, sometimes, you’re kind of the only person looking out for yourself, so it’s really a mixed bag. I think it says a lot about guys that can put it aside.”
Hartline managed what every free agent-to-be aspires to do, setting career-highs in yards (1,083) and receptions (74). However, he made it clear that he’s happy with the relationship he’s developed with first-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill and that he’d like to stay in Miami.
Sean Smith, who finished with two tackles on the night, likened the final game of the season to writing about your most recent job when composing a résumé.
“It’s like, do I really want to write that last little paragraph?” said the cornerback. “Is that necessary to throw in that I worked at this spot as a manager? Is that relevant or not? That’s how it is for me. That’s my job.
“This is the first game people are going to watch if they are going to sign me or not because it’s the last thing I did, so I can’t just come out here and lay down and get embarrassed because that’s not going to work for me at all.”
The lopsided final score doubled as clear evidence that there were more than a few Dolphins who didn’t exactly show up Sunday, though Randy Starks, like Smith, wasn’t among them.
The veteran defensive tackle managed to play in the final two games of the season while dealing with the loss his mother, Beverly, on Dec. 15.
Starks missed the past two weeks of practice but still managed to play in every game this season.
“It’s difficult to focus,” he said. “It’s not something that’s easy to do, you know. I’m just trying to be a professional about it.”
Smith was there for his teammate.
“We’re like his brothers, and he definitely wanted to be with us during a situation like this,” Smith said. “He said that we helped him through it, and that’s what we’re here for.
“I mean football’s fun — it’s our job — but when something like that happens, I’m definitely going to be there for him, and I’m glad he came out and played with us.”