Hang around earth or the NFL long enough and you begin to nod at the clichès, usually ruefully. You realize promise promises nothing, that nothing is promised, certainly not yours or anybody else’s tomorrow.
Your only shot at the grand prize might be a long one, so you had better take it and try your hardest to make it, because this isn’t a make-it-and-take-it deal.
The few Dolphins players around since 2008 know this. That season remains the only time in any current Dolphins player’s NFL career, even that of 34-year-old offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, that the Dolphins made the playoffs. The playoffs and a long-shot as the AFC’s No. 6 seed become possible with a Dolphins win Sunday against the Jets.
Each Jets player around two years ago for the season-ending game in Sun Life Stadium knows all of the above, too. The Jets, after appearing in two consecutive AFC Championship Games under coach Rex Ryan, got knocked out of playoff contention by the Dolphins. The closest they have come to the playoffs since then is Sunday — the chance to do the same to the Dolphins in the season closer in what could be Ryan’s last game as coach.
Hey, nothing is promised.
“Once the playoffs start and you see teams you beat in there, you figure you’re supposed to be in there and you can play with them,” Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks said. “In the past, we were just playing for pride. We’re not playing for pride, we’re playing to get a spot. We have something to look forward to.”
Maybe something … one playoff game? Two? Four? As the Jets lost their season finale to the Dolphins two years ago to finish 8-8, their MetLife Stadium time-share mates the Giants won their finale to finish 9-7 and slip into the playoffs. Excuse us, that’s “Super Bowl champion New York Giants.”
Starks came to the Dolphins in 2008 as a free agent from Tennessee. He started the regular-season finale against the Jets, a winner-gets-in/loser-goes-home game. The Dolphins took the game and the AFC East with a 24-17 victory.
“I thought we’d go every year,” Starks said. “It hasn’t gone that way.”
Said Dolphins offensive lineman Nate Garner: “It was my rookie year, I didn’t know any different. I was like, ‘We can do this every year! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!’
“I think we have a better team this year than we did then. We’ve just got to win and let everything else take its course.”
That game had two signature highlights: 2007 Dolphins first round pick Ted Ginn snatching a 27-yard touchdown catch from the Meadowlands darkness and 2008 second-round pick Philip Merling, a defensive end, rumbling past Brett Favre on a 25-yard interception return. What promise for the Dolphins, eh?
Promise is nothing. Ginn, regarded as a bust by first-round pick standards, is two teams removed from his Dolphins life. He has played in a Super Bowl and, now with Carolina, is having his best season since 2008. Merling is out of the league.
Defensive end Cameron Wake got to the Dolphins the following year. He knows how rare chances can be.
Wake went to football factory Penn State, yet played in only one bowl game, the 2003 Capital One Bowl (he blocked an Auburn field-goal attempt. Future Dolphins No. 1 pick Ronnie Brown was the game’s MVP).
Wake signed with the defending Canadian Football League champion BC Lions in 2007. In two CFL seasons, he won two Defensive Player of the Year awards and played in two playoff games, both losses.
“It’s been an itch of mine for a while. I feel like I’ve always been around good teams, solid teams, a lot of talent,” Wake said. “I know a lot of guys feel the same way. Always, this is the year. You know your opportunities are limited. It’s not like other sports where you play 20 years. We have this group of guys. Next year, a lot of guys won’t be here. It’ll be a whole different situation. Obviously, you want to capitalize on the moment. Why not now?”
Until they finish work Sunday, now is all the Dolphins have.