No pressure for the Dolphins on Sunday. It’s simply the franchise’s most consequential home game in the last decade.
That’s no sports-talk or Twitter hyperbole. It’s the sentiment privately held by many both inside the team’s Davie headquarters and among the franchise’s vast alumni association.
No doubt, Sunday’s Dolphins-Jets showdown at Sun Life Stadium — the 97th edition of the AFC East’s fiercest rivalry — is the game of the year for Miami.
A win, and a little help, puts the Dolphins (who are 8-7 through 15 games) in the playoffs. A loss extends their postseason drought to five seasons.
But beyond that, some insiders believe, it will be a mini-referendum on the entire Jeff Ireland/Joe Philbin experiment. The team’s power structure has been tasked with reviving a franchise that was once the league’s gold standard.
“Let’s put it this way: there are either going to be a lot of guys who are very happy or there are going to be a lot of nervous people in this organization, come Sunday night,” said former Dolphins linebacker Kim Bokamper, who will be inducted into the team’s Walk of Fame on Sunday.
Bokamper added: “[If] you don’t win the game, you don’t go to the playoffs, and then all of the sudden, you’re back to, ‘Do we tear this thing down? Do we patch it up? Where do we go?’ I don't know those answers. It’s most significant game they’ve played in probably a decade.”
Now, some will argue that 2008’s playoff loss to Baltimore — their only postseason appearance since 2001 — carried more weight.
But here’s why many in the extended Dolphins family say Sunday means more:
That game five years ago was seen as a reward for a fluky season; meanwhile, the Dolphins have gone all-in this year, with high expectations and a higher payroll.
Back in August, before Bullygate principals Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin became household names, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross laid down a benchmark for success.
“I think when you make moves, you want it to really create, bring back the winning tradition to Florida,” Ross said at the time. “You can’t make moves and not want to and hope to, you know, make the playoffs and see where you go from there. You want to see progress, and that’s the most important thing.”
Ross continued: “I want to see growth in the team and building the foundation for this season and the future seasons as well. I don’t want to be a one-shot wonder, and I think the fans don’t.”
Therein lies the rub. If the Dolphins lose Sunday, it’s hard to see the season through any lens but failure.
First, and foremost, they’re a prohibitive favorite to beat New York.
Oddsmakers believe the Dolphins will win by nearly a touchdown Sunday. R.J. Bell, a handicapper who runs the website PreGame.com, pegged the Dolphins’ chances of winning at 70 percent. Miami is 9-6 against the point spread this year.
And the odds of losing to the inferior Bills and Jets in back-to-back weeks? Roughly one in seven.
Second of all, this is team that started out the season red hot with a 3-0 record before proceeding to lose their next four games. Historically, 75 percent of NFL teams with a 3-0 record have gone on to make the playoffs.
But on a macro scale, a loss Sunday would mean the Dolphins’ fifth consecutive season out of the postseason and also without a winning record.
And while they would technically finish a game better than in 2012, an 8-8 season would in many ways be a step back. With a loss, they would actually finish third in the AFC East, based on tiebreakers. And their division record (2-4) would be worse than in 2011, the year in which the Dolphins fired their coach.
When asked recently if Miami needs to win Sunday for the season to be considered a success, star wide receiver Mike Wallace said: “Definitely.”
He added: “If we don’t win, we’ll improve one game, maybe? That’s not good enough. Even two games, in my expectations, we still fell short.”
Few think Philbin’s job would be in any real danger, even with a late-season swoon. Ross thinks highly of him, and gave him unwavering support during the workplace misconduct scandal that could have derailed the season.
But a loss Sunday would give Philbin, hired before the 2012 season, a career record of 15-17. Most believe that 2014 would then become a make-or-break year for him. Ross considered firing Philbin’s predecessor Tony Sparano after three years — and he had won the franchise a division championship.
“I think when you’ve been in the league for a while you understand, really the fact of the matter is most everybody that plays or coaches is [on a one-year contact],” Philbin said. “Your paper might say different, but that’s kind of life in the NFL.”
That’s doubly true for Ireland, the Dolphins’ sixth-year general manager who’s long been a magnet for criticism. On the surface, Ireland’s job would appear safe, too. Ross extended Ireland’s contract before the season, and the Miami Herald reported a month back that the owner gave assurances that Ireland would be back next year.
But many familiar with the situation wonder if Ireland could survive what would be rightly considered a late-season collapse, considering he spent some $100 million of his owner’s money in free-agent guarantees back in the spring. Ross has famously changed his mind in the past, and he could again.
Others argue that it would be tough to fire Ireland, despite all his missteps, since it appears he has gotten it right at the most important position. Ryan Tannehill has developed into a top-20 quarterback, and many believe the Dolphins have found their long-term answer to a decade-long issue.
How the fan base would respond to another year of Phillbin-Ireland after two disappointing seasons remains to be seen.
Despite an 11 percent jump in attendance, the Dolphins are still the league’s ninth-worst draw in the NFL, averaging 63,465 tickets sold per home game.
An idea of how soft the demand is for Sunday’s home finale: As of Thursday evening, the median price for a secondary-market ticket bought on StubHub was $100 — 17 percent below the league average.
Those figures are on par with the final Dolphins home game of 2012.
It’s well established that Dolphins fans — like Miami sports fans in general — only turn out for winners. They had been so spoiled by Miami’s long run of excellence that when Jay Fiedler was the quarterback around the turn of the century, a 10-6 year was considered a disappointment.
Now, that would be a cause for celebration, considering the Dolphins haven’t had a playoff victory since Fiedler led Miami past the Colts 13 years ago Monday.
“It's amazing,” Fiedler said of the drought. “You think about all the history that Miami’s had in winning playoff games, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and it kind of stopped at the turn of the century.”