These things are not quantifiable, so I’ll make it a declarative: The Dolphins suddenly lead the league in changed perceptions. Improved outlook, too. The NFL keeps no statistics to measure these categories. All you can do is feel them. Maybe hear them in the way Dolfans are talking excitedly about their team again.
This feeling could pivot the other way just as suddenly, and this week — Jets Week — will be a huge gauge of that. Facing archrival New York (and old Miami coach Tony Sparano) here on Sunday will be sort of a litmus test that validates as real what we saw this past Sunday or throws it in question.
That’s why Monday’s mantra was don’t get carried away.
“Our message to the media should be that we have a long way to go,” coach Joe Philbin said, prudently. “A million miles to go.”
And that’s fine. The proverbial even keel is a good thing for teams.
Fans are allowed to be excited and hopeful, though. And should be.
Beating Oakland 35-13 on Sunday only underlined the reality that Miami played a very good Houston team tough for 3 1/2 quarters on the road the week before.
We now must consider it could be true that the Dolphins not only are not dregs-of-the-league bad like most experts predicted … but might actually be pretty good. Playoff good. This isn’t homerism. I’m not booking a trip to the Super Bowl. I’m just suggesting that what seemed a lost season just a week ago seems far from that today.
Look around the league. Premier teams like the Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, Packers, Saints and defending champion Giants already have lost. (Have the 1972 Dolphins ever put the champagne on ice any earlier?)
Now look at Miami’s schedule. The Dolphins have only three games left — versus New England on Dec. 2, at San Francisco on Dec. 9 and at the Patriots on Dec. 30 — in which Miami will be a sizable underdog. The 11 other games are against teams Miami’s own size … all winnable games if what we saw Sunday was no mirage.
(For that matter, maybe a Patriots team that just lost at home to Arizona needs to earn back that aura of invincibility. I’m just sayin’.)
All at once a Dolphins team ranked 30th of 32 by ESPN.com just one week ago should now be considered an AFC playoff contender and — perhaps more important — a team on the rise after years of wallowing and listing.
That’s how fast things can change.
What’s encouraging is that, led by a new head coach, two new coordinators and promising rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, there is the sense of a clean slate and genuine new beginning that we haven’t seen lately.
I love what Philbin preached to the team after Sunday’s win. Not coincidentally, it came on a day when the club handed out “Still Perfect” hats to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1972 17-0 season.
“We certainly acknowledge the great history we have here,” Philbin spoke loudly into a joyous locker room, “but this is the 2012 Dolphins. We have to start our own legacy, our own identity!”
Can I get a hallelujah?
What’s encouraging is that Miami as of right now has more 2013 draft picks than any other team and a ton of salary-cap money to spend on free agents.
What’s also encouraging is that Miami, as is, is capable of being very competitive.
Dolfans who have hungered for so long to be optimistic again should not feel guilty to be that today. It’s hard to look anywhere on the team without seeing a positive.
Tannehill will only get better and better. He is mobile, accurate, composed, strong-armed. I think Miami finally has its elusive Answer at QB.
Reggie Bush is running better than ever. He has topped 100 yards in eight of his past 11 games. He’s quick, elusive, can catch. Add Daniel Thomas and, from what we saw Sunday, ex-Cane Lamar Miller, and Miami has its best trio of runners in years.
It is not blasphemy in the pass-first NFL for Miami to think of itself as a physical team that fundamentally runs the ball and defends the run. This is not the ghost of Bill Parcells back to haunt the club. This is smart. This is playing to your strengths. This is cushioning and making easier the progression of a rookie quarterback.
Run first also is smart if only because the offensive line is shades of better-than-average to very solid. Center Mike Pouncey shows signs of being a great one.
The receivers? Well, this team still needs a premier, game-breaking wideout, a gift for Tannehill that should be an offseason priority. But meantime Brian Hartline indicated Sunday that as long as Miami is running well, this receiving corps might suffice.
Defensively the Dolphins are very strong against the run led by tackles Paul Soliai and Randy Starks, and by much-improved run defense from Cameron Wake. Miami’s 16 consecutive games not allowing a 100-yard rusher tops the NFL.
The pass defense shows signs of improvement and will be that much better if coordinator Kevin Coyle can conjure a needed better pass rush, more sacks.
The kicking game is solid, too. Special teams were great Sunday.
Again, things as fragile and mercurial as perceptions and outlook can swing back fast. Maybe one disappointing afternoon against the Jets is all it would take.
For now, though, I think the Dolphins look like the most underestimated team in the NFL.
I think the Dolphins look like a franchise that is finding that long-elusive corner and beginning to turn it.