Inside the Dolphins locker room late last week, Nolan Carroll quietly acknowledged what few of his teammates -- and certainly not his coach -- would admit publicly:
This whole bullying scandal has indeed been a distraction, and it’s probably the steepest challenge the organization has faced in Carroll’s four years in Miami.
“We don’t really know what’s going on, but you get family members texting you,” Carroll explained. “You get family members’ friends texting them to text you and ask you what’s going on, and you don’t really know. You can’t really control it.
Carroll continued: “We’re trying to avoid that stuff and not get distracted by it. At times, it has been hard. We’re tuning it out. We’re starting to figure out what’s done is done. We can’t change that. We’re just need to worry about what we can control right now.”
Here’s what the Dolphins cannot control: Their playoff fate.
But they can come awfully close.
Despite the catastrophic events of the past month and a half -- losses in five out of six games and the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin saga -- the Dolphins are just a game out of the playoffs with seven to play.
And there’s more: They have three games still on the schedule against teams ahead of them on the standings, including two against the Jets, who are currently the No. 6 seed.
“We have four more division games,” said receiver Brian Hartline. “We’ve got seven total to play and all of our goals, believe it or not, are in front of us.
“Football gets tough sometimes when you’re mathematically out of the playoffs and if you start losing your realistic goals,” Hartline continued. “At this point, we don’t have that.”
They can thank conference-wide mediocrity for that.
The Dolphins are in a tie for seventh in the AFC at 4-5 with three teams, including Sundays’ opponent: the San Diego Chargers. That gives them a chance to buck history. Only seven of the past 65 teams to start 4-5 have made the playoffs.
Teams begin to separate in late November and December, and beginning Sunday, Miami will have that chance.
In fact, the Chargers and Dolphins have a lot in common other than good weather. Both are staggering into this game (San Diego’s on a two-game losing streak) and maddeningly inconsistent.
At times, the Dolphins have looked like a legit playoff team, beating the division-leading Bengals and Colts in dramatic fashion.
But they’ve also had some horrid losses. Most notably: to the Bills and the Buccaneers, two teams that are a combined 2-15 this year against teams not named the Dolphins.
Usually, a California team traveling cross-country would be a clear underdog, but a 4 p.m. kickoff should mitigate the jetlag, and the Chargers are 9-8 in games played on East Coast time since 2009.
“I told the players after the [Buccaneers] game: you either have confidence in your team or you don’t,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “You either believe in them or you don’t. Things can’t change every single week based on the score. I believe in our guys.”
Many fans, however, do not.
A banner urging Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to cut ties with general manager Jeff Ireland will circle the stadium before Sunday’s game.
Tickets for Sunday’s game could be had for well below face value on the secondary market.
All of this indicates that patience with a team that is on pace for a fifth straight losing season is gone.
“Just hang in there,” Tannehill said the Dolphins’ fan base Wednesday. “We’re going to battle through this thing. We’re going to get this situation sorted out in the locker room that whatever needs to take place, whatever decisions need to be made, that’s what we’re going to do.
“We’re in a tough spot right now but at the end of the day we’re still in the playoff hunt,” he added. “Do we need to win more games and win the games we have coming up on our schedule? Yes. [But] we’re still in this thing and we understand that.”
Brenner will back up Mike Pouncey on Sunday. Pouncey missed practiced Friday with an illness, but is expected to play. Mike Wallace (hamstring) will likely play as well.