What struck me watching the 1972 Dolphins make their way into the East Room of the White House was time, and how much of it had passed. The combination of age and the career they chose had slowed the gait of these men, or given it a permanent limp. For many, the hair had gone white, or simply gone.
In the gallows humor of journalists a colleague wondered which of the old players might be the first to tumble off the metal riser they had stepped up onto with care. A lawyer friend had jokingly asked if the White House was ADA-compliant (Americans with Disabilities Act), knowing Don Shula is 83 now and uses a motorized scooter.
If the recent ceremony honoring the Perfect Season team verified anything beyond all doubt it was that this franchise’s best days have grown so, so distant. Entire generations of South Floridians know Miami’s back-to-back Super Bowl champions of 1972-73 only from the shared recollections of elders. Younger Dolfans likely associate the club mostly with frustrations, and losing — what they know, what they have seen.
I did some research to try and quantify this, and found that Miami’s drought of success is even worse, more startling, in the context of the NFL at large. Consider:
• The Dolphins last made the playoffs in 2008, which alone doesn’t seem so terrible. But only six teams, of 32, have been absent from the postseason longer.
• The Dolphins last WON a playoff game in the 2000 season. Only five teams — the Bengals, Lions, Chiefs, Browns and Bills — are on a longer waiting list.
• Miami last played in a conference championship game in 1992. Only fans of the Bengals, Browns, Redskins and Lions have waited longer to get back to one.
• The Dolphins last won their conference and got to the Super Bowl in 1984. Only the Jets, Chiefs and Vikings suffer a current longer wait to return to that main stage. Four other teams have yet to play in a Super Bowl, but, of them, only the Browns and Lions exceed Miami’s wait).
• Finally, Miami’s most recent Super Bowl title in ’73 means we’re still up on the 14 teams that have never won an SB. But among franchises to have known that ultimate feeling, only the Jets (1968) and Chiefs (’69) are on a longer drought.
What does all of this historical back-story mean in 2013 as the new Dolphins set out on the club’s 48th season?
Everything. It should mean nothing, ideally. But it means everything.
Mostly, it means pressure and impatience.
There would not be that pressure, in a vacuum, but there is when a team is backed up against so much predecessors’ failure.
There should not be impatience — rarely an attribute of successful clubs — but that is human nature as your fans go gray waiting for their team to be relevant again.
The Dolphins must make the playoffs THIS season, and in doing so must demonstrate major strides toward getting back to the Super Bowl.
The past dictates that must be the mindset now, the culture.
No time for screwball, defeatist thinking, such as believing Miami’s time won’t come until the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era has ended in New England.
No time to waste
No time for the crutch of “rebuilding,” as in some grand blueprint to maybe be good in five years.
No time for gradual progress, as in feeling satisfied about 9-7, about ALMOST being a wild-card team.
This combines to create a climate that might be unfair but deserved all at once. This is the New Reality. And it heaps the greatest pressure on these four men:
• 1. Owner Stephen Ross, mainly because he’s the boss of the three that follow, but not entirely. Ross begins his sixth season of ownership. The training wheels are off. His missteps are past — such as that former infatuation with orange carpets and celebrity part owners. Ross must begin to prove, with playoff success, that he has the acumen and vision to compete at the top with major owners such as the Patriots’ Robert Kraft.
• 2. General manager Jeff Ireland, of course. This is his sixth Dolphins season and third out from under the departed wing of Bill Parcells and flying on his own with personnel decisions. It was Ireland who drafted quarterback Ryan Tannehill, spent big on free-agent receiver Mike Wallace, gambled Jonathan Martin was good enough at left tackle, made the big linebacker switch to Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, and traded up to draft pass rusher Dion Jordan, among other moves. It’s payoff time, and only playoff success will chase away the many Ireland doubters who remain.
• 3. Coach Joe Philbin. He isn’t the rookie head coach he was last year. Hasn’t had the Hard Knocks distraction.
Doesn’t have the excuse of a raw QB. If Philbin is the bright NFL mind the club thinks he is, time to start showing it on the bottom line.
4. Tannehill. He’ll forever be compared to Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson because they shared the same draft class. Miami doesn’t need Tannehill to be those guys or Dan Marino or a superstar, though. They need him to be really good, and really soon. The rookie curve is over. He has a top receiver in Wallace. Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman says Tannehill will be the most improved QB in the league. Let’s see it. Right now, if you wouldn’t mind.
(I could easily have added Wallace at No. 5. Spending $60 million to get him from Pittsburgh suggested they see him as a star, a game-breaker. But I don’t see the pressure being on Wallace as much as it is on Ireland, who signed him, or Tannehill, who is supposed to make huge strides largely because of him.
All of these things must coalesce and now and end up in the playoffs.
Miami was 7-9 last season, with four of the losses by a combined 14 points. Philbin called Miami’s training camp “very, very productive,” which, for him is illuminating. Joe is the opposite of outspoken Rex Ryan, but, whether he publicly assures the playoffs or not (and he hasn’t), he’d better know that anything less is a failure.
This is far from a perfect team. It does not feel like a contender yet because too many questions linger.
The major pieces look in place, though.
The Dolphins have a now-experienced owner, an established GM, a coach they really like, and a young quarterback they invested with a high first-round pick.
So, no more excuses.
Time for a sudden gust to blow all the accumulated dust and rust off the accomplishments of this franchise and thrill a new generation of fans.
The first step? Playoffs. Now.