Autumn has been unkind to the Dolphins the past four years, but the springs might have been worse.
The slights are well-known. No thanks, Jeff Fisher said. Jim Harbaugh did the same. And Peyton Manning? He barely granted the team a meeting.
Yet here we are, once again, as general manager Jeff Ireland hunts this year’s white whale.
Hundreds of players will officially become free agents at 4 p.m. Tuesday, but none has captivated the attention and imagination of fans (and perhaps even some Dolphins officials) as Mike Wallace.
For the third consecutive offseason, the Dolphins are buyers. They swung and missed the past two years.
But this March, there’s hope — and dare we say confidence — that the Dolphins brain trust will get it right.
The Dolphins have been active in the three-day negotiating window with other teams’ free agents and their own. Beginning Tuesday afternoon, the talks become real with Wallace, among others.
The Miami Herald learned late Monday that the Dolphins remain in the running for cornerback Sean Smith, who in recent days has been linked to several other teams — including the Patriots, Buccaneers and Cardinals. The prevailing sentiment has been that Smith will leave for another team, but a source close to the situation said that is not necessarily the case.
Smith is one of many moving pieces in what could be a defining week for Ireland.
“I think this is the most important offseason in Dolphins history since they brought Don Shula to South Florida,” said Keith Sims, a former offensive lineman-turned radio host. “This is make or break for them.”
In many ways.
They have not won a playoff game in more than a decade. They had their worst home attendance in 23 years last season. And they have an uphill climb to win public funding for a $400 million stadium overhaul.
Wallace alone can’t fix all of that, but he is seen as the missing piece to a Miami offense that ranked 27th in yards (311.5 per game) and points (18.0) last season. As early as Tuesday evening, he’s expected to sign a multiyear contract paying at least $12 million per season.
But will it be with Miami? Depends on who you ask.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported all day Monday that the expectation was Wallace will end up in Miami. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote that “Miami didn’t have much, if any, competition for a big-money deal ($11 million or more a year)” for Wallace.
But when asked about reports indicating Wallace to Miami was a fait accompli, a Dolphins source scoffed.
“Been hope for while and nothings [sic] changed,” the source texted. “Working.”
Considering how much can change in a day, perhaps caution is the best tact.
Take, for instance, Monday, when Percy Harvin and Anquan Boldin were reportedly traded. The moves fill needs at receiver for the Seahawks and 49ers while creating the same for the Vikings and Ravens.
Speculation began immediately that the Vikings will pursue a receiver in free agency, and possibly up the price in the Wallace Sweepstakes.
The Dolphins have roughly $30 million in salary-cap space after signing Brian Hartline and Matt Moore to extensions. Hartline has a 2013 cap number of just more than $2 million, while Moore will count $2.5 million against the cap, according to Spotrac.com, a player contract database.
Miami has the flexibility, in part, because five starters — including former No. 1 pick Jake Long — will be off the books as of Tuesday afternoon. Long is expected see what kind of market exists for him — USA Today reported that the Bears and Rams have interest — outside of Miami, but he could return.
Reggie Bush, meanwhile, is all but gone. There has been little buzz thus far about Chris Clemons, Anthony Fasano and Nate Garner, all of whom have been Dolphins contributors the past few seasons.
Maybe it’s because most front offices will be frugal this spring. With the cap relatively flat from 2012, teams have been more focused on cutting to get under it than spending to reach it.
“This is a soft market,” Bill Polian said Monday morning on ESPN. “I don’t think there’s a lot of money out there.”
Except, of course, if your name is Mike Wallace. If (and, more likely, how much) the Dolphins are willing to pay him could be the difference between a new dawn and more of the same for the historic franchise.
“At the very least, this could be a playoff-caliber year if things go well,” Sims said. “That should be the bar.”