If only that hopeful narrative that was so often repeated at the start of this Dolphins training camp had held up against the pushback of reality.
You know the scenario: The New England Patriots are older and diminished by the losses of key players such as Wes Welker while the Bills and Jets are not going to challenge because they have uncertainty at quarterback. The Dolphins, meanwhile, are on the ascent after a huge offseason of improvement.
Problem is the preseason began and the Patriots have looked great because, primarily, they still have Tom Brady playing at a high level. The Bills and Jets are a mess, but the Dolphins and their new additions haven’t jelled quite as quickly as everyone thought.
So it seems everyone will be chasing New England again this year.
“Obviously, you want to go out and win your division,” Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill said during a hopeful summer of practices. “That’s the best way to get to the playoffs is winning your division. [The Patriots] are one of the good teams in our division. We take it week-by-week. We know what they’ve done in the past. We are not oblivious to the fact of what they’ve done the past 10 years.”
The Patriots have won the AFC East nine of the past 10 years. And, I hate to tell everyone, they are likely to win it again.
Sorry, Dolphins fans.
The harsh truth is that despite all the improving the Dolphins did this offseason, despite a defense that is among the best in the NFL, this team still looks like it’s going to be chasing the Patriots.
Yes, the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills are in Miami’s rear-view mirror. But that was the case last season also. The Patriots, however, remain just ahead.
Well, for all the spending the Dolphins did this summer — $204,152,500 in new contract obligations with $107 million of that being guaranteed money — this team has great potential.
But also a great many issues and questions.
The potential comes in the form of upgrades that include a new deep threat wide receiver (Mike Wallace), a fine starting receiver corps (Wallace, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson), a faster linebacker corps (with the additions of Phillip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe), and the hope Tannehill makes a leap in his second NFL season.
But on the backside of those expected improvements comes the reality of what we saw in training camp, namely that the Dolphins are, as coach Joe Philbin said multiple times, “a work in progress.”
They haven’t arrived. They are merely on the journey.
The truth is no one knows for sure that Tannehill is going to play like a franchise quarterback.
No one can be certain running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas can make fans forget Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.
No one is certain an offensive line that lost Jake Long and struggled for much of the preseason will play well or stay healthy.
No one can be certain about the tight end position because the upgrade made by signing Dustin Keller in free agency disappeared when his knee crumpled in a preseason game.
Even coaches who are paid to know everything about their team can only project improvement is afoot because they are not absolutely certain it is coming.
“I think we can be better than we were as we began the season last year,” defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said about his unit that is the team’s strength. “But there is still work to be done.”
Perhaps that’s the reason this team’s goals — so clear in the past — are defined in more vague terms now.
Years ago, when Don Shula was coach, the annual goal was to win a Super Bowl. Then the goal started to erode as the team’s success waned. Now, in the midst of four consecutive losing seasons, owner Stephen Ross won’t say the team must make the playoffs to be a success.
“You can’t make moves and not want to and hope to, you know, make the playoffs and see where you go from there,” Ross said when I asked him to define a successful season.
If he had only stopped there. Success is getting to the playoffs. It’s winning enough to have a chance to win a championship.
But Ross then started parsing words. And he started talking about progress. And he started equating progress with success.
“You want to see progress, and that’s the most important thing,” he said. “It’s really seeing progress as this team develops because I’m looking to bring a team to South Florida to win consistently, and that’s the most important thing.”
It is about winning
So showing progress from last season’s 7-9 record is successful, according to Ross. Does that mean 8-8 is a successful season for the Dolphins?
Here’s some advice: Professional sports is about winning and getting in the postseason and having a chance to compete for championships.
It’s not about losing as much as winning in 8-8 seasons. It’s not about being 9-7 but on the couch when the playoffs are on TV.
The narrative when training camp began was that these Dolphins would challenge the Patriots for a division title. If they win that title, that’s success. If they don’t win the division but still get in the postseason, that too will be a fine achievement.
That’s progress. And everything else is a failure.