IN MY OPINION

Greg Cote: Miami Dolphins’ big picture reveals progress despite loss

 

gcote@MiamiHerald.com

All of the noise was wrong here Sunday. The sounds suggested a Dolphins victory that wasn’t there. The stadium PA system very briefly played the team’s celebratory fight song as Miami’s late 57-yard field goal knuckled wide left, mistakenly thinking it was good. Moments later fans were cheering as they filed out, but they wore purple; they were among an estimated 20,000 there for the Baltimore Ravens.

Most of the noise still to come in the wake of this 26-23 loss will also be wrong, if it is too loud or panic-stricken. If it reflects an inability to step back from this loss, and from the past two games, and see the fuller picture as the Dolphins head into their bye week at 3-2.

This team has a better record than you thought it might right now looking at the schedule before the season (admit it).

And this team is precisely what we thought it was even before these consecutive losses. It is improved, and competitive, but also deeply flawed — those flaws revealing themselves Sunday like untreated wounds. It can be exciting and exasperating. It might be playoff-bound, or it might break hearts.

You know what, though? We plow into the midsection of an NFL schedule talking and thinking about the postseason, wondering about the division race and the wild-card picture, and that alone is a small revelation. It hasn’t happened much around here the past dozen years or so.

AFC East-leading New England also lost Sunday. Miami at 3-2 remains a player in the league-wide picture, with all six division game yet to play.

“We’re still in a good position,” as receiver Mike Wallace noted, “going into the bye week up [relative to .500] instead of down.”

Two losses in a row to very good teams — one the Drew Brees-led Saints, in New Orleans, and the other to the defending Super Bowl champions — amount to neither a shock nor a shame. There was no mistaking Miami for an elite team even at 3-0. The flaws then are the flaws now, it’s just that victories tend to dress the wounds and cover them, while losses expose them, raking the scabs until they bleed.

Sunday didn’t create wounds that weren’t there before. It just ripped the Band-Aids off. And that is not entirely a bad thing entering your bye week, when the time off must be spent not only to heal the team’s overall health (a problem particularly on defense) but also to face problems and fix them.

“We’re going to identity them and find a way to improve,” coach Joe Philbin said.

Allow me to help Joe by pointing out the main problems. Not a lot of investigating should be needed. They’ll jump off Sunday’s game film like goblins.

The offensive line is a mess, threatening to be historically bad. Ryan Tannehill was sacked six more times Sunday, making it 24 in five games. That’s on pace to see him sacked 77 times this season. The NFL record is 76.

“It’s a high number,” said struggling left tackle Jonathan Martin, of the 24 sacks allowed. “I don’t like hearing that.”

Said Philbin, bluntly: “You have to have protection to function.”

Fittingly, it was a late sack that left rookie Caleb Sturgis with that 57-yarder in the final minute.

The running game is all but nonexistent, too, for Miami, the O-line is integral in that problem as well. Lamar Miller rushed for 15 yards Sunday.

Wallace also had only one short catch in the second half Sunday after six for 99 yards in the first as Baltimore switched to a “soft cover-2” defense to take away his deep sideline routes.

“They made some adjustments, and we didn’t,” Wallace said — which sounds like a gentle jab at Miami’s coaching staff, even if unintended.

The sacks and pressure allowed and the lack of a running game take their toll on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who passed for 307 yards Sunday but had 19 incompletions, some on dropped balls.

In the postgame locker room Tannehill’s green dress-shirt covered a big, ugly, red welt on the upper left side of his back. (Yes, sacks hurt.)

His offense converted only 3 of 16 third-down tries, fizzled too often in the red zone and produced only one offensive touchdown.

Not good enough.

“We never found a rhythm,” guard Richie Incognito said.

The defense hardly was blameless. It couldn’t cover Torrey Smith. It gave up a 94-yard TD drive. And it gave up 12 passing first downs, a lot.

“I don’t know that we complemented the units very well,” Philbin said.

He meant that the offense and defense seemed to take turns making plays that create days like Sunday.

Nevertheless, 3-2 is 3-2. It isn’t a record that conjures thoughts of a Super Bowl. But it is a record that should feed hope, even when the losses happen to have come in a row.

“Joe Philbin is building something here that is very impressive,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said afterward. “That was a good football team we beat.”

Flawed, absolutely. But good, yes.

Good enough is the question, and that answer remains a tantalizing mystery.

Philbin and club owner Stephen Ross were speaking quietly in the postgame locker room before they scattered as the media throng was let in.

Ross clapped him on the right arm and said, “Keep working, coach.”

A 3-2 record suggests much work already has been done and accomplished.

Sunday reminded there is plenty left still to do.

Read more Greg Cote stories from the Miami Herald

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