This was about more than one game. This was about more than one victory. The future of this franchise was at stake Thursday night and because the Dolphins beat the Bengals, a season that teetered so precariously the past month endures.
This game put general manager Jeff Ireland in the crosshairs.
This game put coach Joe Philbin in the crosshairs.
This game put quarterback Ryan Tannehill under a microscope.
They can all take a deep breath. All is well for now.
Had the Dolphins lost this game, the questions and vultures would be hovering over those men tirelessly now. But the Dolphins did things this night they hadn’t done for nearly a month.
They ran the football and stuck with the run.
They protected their quarterback.
They forced the other quarterback into mistakes, including three interceptions.
Cameron Wake, absent for three weeks even though he was on the field, showed up with three sacks and a game-deciding safety.
Dolphins 22-20 in overtime.
“I don’t know we could have went one more series,” Wake said when it was over.
The season is saved — at least for now.
So everyone on the team, and most of all the franchise’s most visible men, are safe. Hold that fire, please.
The monthlong losing skid is over. The Dolphins are 4-4. The second half of the season still holds promise. The postseason is still a possibility.
It’s strange that one Thursday night result can mean so much, but that’s the situation the Dolphins found themselves in following a string a disheartening losses to teams that weren’t necessarily better or more talented.
An improbable loss to Buffalo and a comeback victory by New England last week had fans, media and, frankly, people within the organization, questioning coaches as well as players.
How could this team, talented enough to begin the season 3-0, get stuck in the muck of the past month?
That month showed us work by offensive coordinator Mike Sherman that raised eyebrows. Why didn’t he want to stick with the running game? Why did he call sweeps on third-and-an-inch?
Well, Sherman stuck with the running game this game as the Dolphins rushed for 157 yards on a bloated 30 carries.
The past month also showed Tannehill as a quarterback who couldn’t play big in big moments. But he did that against the Bengals.
No, he didn’t throw a touchdown. But neither did he throw an interception, and he avoided the dreaded fumble. And when the Dolphins trailed 20-17 in the final minute, Tannehill authored a tying field-goal drive.
The past month showed this team needs a head coach who could rally his team. Philbin kept saying the issues would be addressed and ultimately fixed, but for four weeks they were not.
The problems seemed at least addressed if not completely fixed this night.
The Dolphins rallied this game. They took the fight to the visitors. They led 7-3, 10-3, and even held the familiar 17-3 lead that reminded of last week’s first-half lead against New England. That lead evaporated, and the Dolphins had no response.
This lead evaporated, admittedly, but this time Philbin’s team responded.
That’s mostly what Dolphins fans are hoping for from this team lately. They want a pulse. They want life. They want a team to be proud of even if they don’t always win.
The Dolphins offered all those things against the Bengals and got the victory as well.
So is everything perfect now?
Can the Dolphins spend the next 11 days before their next game basking in this result’s glow?
No. This team still has issues.
There are injuries everywhere. The third-down defense needs to improve. So does the tackling. And the passing game remains inconsistent.
But those are football issues. Everybody in the NFL has those. They matter but don’t doom.
The Dolphins also have to address the Jonathan Martin issue. The right tackle missed the game because of an “illness,” the team said.
Well, that illness, it turns out, was Martin getting upset with teammates over what a league source called “bullying” on the part of teammates.
Martin, 6-5 and 312 pounds, apparently was fed up with what is said to be a constant barrage of taunts and practical jokes and by teammates — whom, by the way, nicknamed Martin “Big Weirdo” during training camp in 2012.
Regardless of how you feel about this matter, whether you think the mountainous Martin should be more resilient or the teammates should be ashamed of themselves, the Dolphins have a problem.
How does Martin come back into that locker room without feeling more alone than ever?
How do his teammates, who have now been publicly accused of being mean to Martin, welcome Martin back into the fold?
This has to be a front-burner issue for the Dolphins. It has to be addressed.
But the good news is this issue is much more palatable than wondering when the GM will be fired, or whether the head coach is on the hot seat or whether the season is completely lost.
The Dolphins avoided those issues Thursday night. One victory is the reason.