The biggest difference between the Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks on Sunday is obvious: One team, having enjoyed success for years, knows how to win. The Dolphins don’t.
Simple as that.
The Seahawks are NFL royalty. They’ve been to the playoffs four consecutive seasons and five times in the past six years. They’ve won their way into two Super Bowl games.
They won the Super Bowl in February 2014.
And no one will scoff at predictions the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl this season because winning has given that franchise that kind of credibility.
Maybe they’re not losers, per se. But they’re definitely not winners.
“When this thing is said and done, when we head to Seattle, we’re going to play a team at their place that’s been together since 2010 and they’ve established their culture,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said in drawing the comparison between his team and his opponent.
“And,” he continued, “we’re playing catch-up.”
The Dolphins are playing this 2016 season to do something that used to be taken for granted but has become a rarity lately. The Dolphins are playing for a winning season.
This franchise hasn’t had a winning season since 2008. And that mirage, growing ever distant on the horizon, represents the only winning campaign Miami has enjoyed the past 11 years.
What that means tangibly is that not one of the 24 Dolphins draft picks still on the roster has ever enjoyed a winning season.
Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey hasn’t.
Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones hasn’t.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill hasn’t.
All three are team captains. The fact is none of Miami’s five captains has ever been on a winning NFL team when you include defensive end Cameron Wake, who was signed out of the CFL in 2009, and special-teams captain Michael Thomas, who was on San Francisco’s 2012 practice squad but never played a game for the 49ers.
These are Miami’s locker room leaders.
And, yes, you read that right. Wake, at 34 years old, and one of the team’s longest tenured players has never played on a winning Dolphins team.
This might seem trivial to some. But these guys think about this stuff. They can’t help thinking about it.
“A lot,” Jones said. “It’s frustrating sometimes if you let it. So you can’t dwell on it too much. But it’s hard. Hey, it’s a tough league to win in. We play in a tough conference, a tough division. Every week is a challenge and we haven’t played up to that challenge in the past.
“But you can’t worry about that once the season starts. You can’t think about what happened in the past.”
The problem for some of these players is that having never won is a burden they carry. Sure, players can be judged by their individual accomplishments or by the size of their contracts.
But players understand better than anyone no matter how much they do as individuals, their reputations can carry a “but” if they don’t win. They understand there is no more raw and fundamental a measure of a player than the one that separates winners from losers.
That is especially true of quarterbacks. And Tannehill — because he’s the quarterback, the leader, a captain, and, like it or not, the man who has not yet put the Dolphins on his shoulders and led them to a winning season — carries this burden now.
“Yeah, I take it personal,” Tannehill said. “Not only myself but a lot of guys. Jarvis Landry takes it personal, others take it personal, we’re all in this thing fighting to win.
“If you care like I think you should and most of the guys on this team do, you have to take it personal. You put in a lot of effort, time, emotion and energy into finding ways to win. It feels great when it happens. It feels like crap when it doesn’t.
“That’s why I’m here early in the morning and work late into the night. You work to win. That’s why we’re brought here to be a part of this team, is to turn things around and be in the playoffs and eventually the Super Bowl. That’s what we’re striving for every day, is winning games. Whether that’s the first game of the year or late in December or in the playoffs, you’re fighting to win games.”
Matt Moore is Tannehill’s backup. He has been on the Dolphins since 2011 so he has never enjoyed a winning season in Miami, either. But Moore has been on a winning NFL team before.
He was on the 2008 Carolina Panthers that finished the regular season 12-4 and went to the playoffs. So Moore has been around winning and knows what it feels and looks like.
“What I noticed from that team is guys were just tighter,” Moore said. “We were together. One. John Fox was the head coach and everybody understood what he was saying. We just kind of moved as one, going forward constantly.
“That’s what I think is very important to having that winning season. Obviously, X’s and O’s have a lot to do with it but when you talk about feeling and vibe and everything, that was a huge part of it.
“It’s fantastic. You’re having fun. The whole place is night and day different.”
So can these 2016 Dolphins become winners? Can they join the ranks of teams such as Seattle? Is that possible?
Tannehill and Moore agree it is possible — not because they’re hoping it is, but because they see clues that it is.
“The vibe in the building is different,” Tannehill said. “Gase brought that vibe when he came in. It’s a positive building now. An energetic building.
“It’s a young coaching staff that pushes us each and every day. Whether it’s drills or in the meeting rooms there aren’t a lot boring meetings, boring things going on. There’s a high level of interest, pushing us to be good and take that next step. Whether you look at linebackers or quarterbacks or tight ends, it’s a constant pushing from the coaching staff. That’s what you want. You don’t want to just be going through the motions and day in and day out it’s the same thing.”
Moore believes he sees in these Dolphins some of the same things he saw in Carolina that fateful winning season there.
“I do, no doubt. No doubt,” he said. “As much as we’ve put in since April, as much as we’ve done in the preseason, you guys can get a feel for the coaching staff. Well, we get a feel as players of how good it can be and how he wants it to be. No doubt it has the potential to be like that.”