Everything cleared. Got suddenly brighter. As if an omen, the weather turned from pregame thunderstorms and gloom to blue skies and sun here Sunday. The game followed suit. So, perhaps, did this season.
The Dolphins — a team, franchise and brand so staggered — needed this. So did so many fans so starved to feel pride in their fallen team again. Dolfans were still chanting, “Reg-gie, Reg-gie!” on the stadium concourses as they exited the stadium, their joy bigger than the game and overflowing.
So much went just right in this 35-13 home-opening rout of the Oakland Raiders, but what turned the spigot was crowd favorite Reggie Bush running for 172 yards including game-changing touchdowns of 23 and then 65 yards.
There was a hat-giveaway honoring the 40th anniversary of the franchise’s 17-0 season of 1972. ‘Still Perfect,’ the ballcaps read.
Well, this 2012 team is far from perfect, but it was close enough for one nurturing, faith-restoring afternoon. And Bush, as if in homage to ’72, seemed to be channeling Larry Csonka on one of his TD runs and Mercury Morris on the other.
He broke four tackles on his 23-yard score, an up-the-middle power run with echoes of ol’ Zonk busting through defenders as if they were turnstiles. Then Bush ran wide left, found the corner and turned on the jets a la vintage Merc on the 65-yarder that made that “Reg-gie!” chant bloom full-throated.
“It feels good,” Bush would say later, of the fans’ adoration. “I’m not going to lie and say it doesn’t.”
Isn’t that exactly what this franchise and its fans have been missing for so long?
Bush was the face of the feel-good Sunday but hardly the only man causing it or feeling it.
A Gatorade bath drenched first-year coach Joe Philbin as the clock expired. The aim was slightly off-target. No matter. It was his first ever. His pant legs drenched, Philbin entered the postgame media room and could not contain his emotion.
You felt it in the hitch in his voice. In the moment he looked down and appeared close to tears.
“My entire family was here,” he said. “Mom and dad. My five siblings…”
Except his entire family wasn’t here. A son drowned earlier this summer in a Wisconsin river, just before Philbin took the Dolphins job. No man marks a milestone without thinking of loved ones not there to enjoy it with him.
A far different emotion enveloped rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill as he celebrated his first career touchdown pass, a 14-yard strike to tight end Anthony Fasano, who dove across the goalline, flung the ball in the air and was mobbed by teammates.
Twenty-nine seasons earlier, Dan Marino’s first career TD pass also happened to be to a tight end who wore No. 80, Joe Rose.
“Good storyline,” Fasano had to agree.
The special ball found its way to Tannehill.
“Somebody tracked it down,” he said. “I’ll find somewhere for it.”
Tannehill had an efficient day, clean, with no interceptions and only one tipped pass, his big problem a week earlier in the loss at Houston.
I don’t know if Tannehill will end up coming anywhere near Marino’s 420 career TD passes (third most of anybody), but I think this kid is going to be very good.
Days like Sunday make fans start to believe. Teammates, too.
After a tumultuous training camp, a winless preseason and an opening loss, Sunday came to this team like medicine.
“That feeling in the locker room with the guys celebrating a big win — that’s what you play for,” said Tannehill, smiling.
Sunday came to this franchise like medicine, too.
You saw the erosion of the Dolphins brand in the crowd for this game. In the folks not there. The attendance of 54,245 was the lowest since 1991 and meant almost 20,000 empty seats. For a home opener! There would have been a local-TV blackout if not for an NFL rules change.
You also saw the diminishing of the Dolphins brand in last week’s local TV rating of 13.5 for the game in Houston, by far the lowest of 32 clubs and roughly 30 percent below last season’s average.
Twelve seasons removed from the most recent playoff win will do that to a franchise. So will a 31-41 home record over the past nine seasons. So will years of perceived mismanagement.
The past couple of years the ownership tried to mask all of this disenchantment in bells and whistles, in orange carpets and celebrities on the Jumbotron shouting, “Fins up!” Thankfully the orange carpet and those annoying videos are gone this season.
The Dolphins finally seem to understand that winning and only winning will bring the fans back, and that’s why Sunday was so huge. It was about not only winning big, but encouraging hope of better days ahead.
The rookie Tannehill personifies Miami’s hope for a winning future, but now it seems he has more help than first thought. The results left you thinking Oakland is pretty bad – but also wondering if maybe the Dolphins haven’t been badly underestimated?
It wasn’t just Tannehill continuing to show great promise and Bush looking like an elite back. It was Brian Hartline (nine catches for 111 yards) arguing the notion this team is bereft of receivers. It was the offensive line dominating. It was the run defense all but erasing Oakland’s Darren McFadden. It was the pass defense rallying to make it a rough day for Carson Palmer.
This was an all-round team effort we have rarely seen here in a long time.
Linebacker Karlos Dansby called the Dolphins offense “inspiring” to watch. When was the last time you heard that?
“Fun,” Tannehill called the day. Indeed.
It was a heck of an entrée for Jets Week, next Sunday’s visit by division-rival New York. For good measure, division-topping New England also lost Sunday.
One game is far from an assurance that happy days are here again, but one day like this one allows a fan to dream, to believe a little more.
Those Dolfans chanting “Reg-gie! Reg-gie!” as they exited the stadium Sunday — they had earned that feeling.