On Sunday when the New England Patriots desperately need a pass completion and the Miami Dolphins need a sack then Tom Brady and Cameron Wake will try to do what they have done so well for so many years. And that moment, important to this game on this day, will effectively be a snapshot of the past 16 years.
Brady, the Patriots’ quarterback and still their best player, against Wake, the Dolphins’ defensive end and his team’s best, in a duel of sorts that in too many ways speaks to what the Patriots and Dolphins have been since the turn of the century:
Brady, 39, is a 12-time Pro Bowl player, a three-time Super Bowl MVP, and a four-time Super Bowl champion. Wake, 35 later this month, is a five-time Pro Bowl player but a man who has never played in an NFL postseason.
That’s how it has been for the Patriots and Dolphins the past 16 or so years. One team dominant, kings of their division and perhaps the NFL’s most successful franchise.
The other team?
The Dolphins have tried hard and has enjoyed sporadic success. But let’s face it, the franchise has endured some really sad times the past 16 years.
That’s the picture of what has been. That’s the history of two teams and, really, the AFC East since Bill Belichick and Brady joined forces.
But if you’re more interested in the future, consider things might just change a little from the same ol’ New England plowing of the division en route to a Super Bowl.
The future, you see, doesn’t seem to be on New England’s side. It seems to be on Miami’s side.
This isn’t wishful thinking. It’s more about math.
New England’s leading receiver this year is Julian Edelman. He’s 30.
Miami’s leading receiver is Jarvis Landry. He’s 24.
New England’s leading rusher LaGarrette Blount is 30. Miami’s leading rusher Jay Ajayi is 23.
Brady is a marvel at 39 who has shown no signs of working with a diminished skill set. But 39 is 39 and soon to be 40. And, with all respect to George Blanda, even Brady can’t argue he’s got more game days behind him than ahead. Meanwhile, Ryan Tannehill is 28 and the Dolphins don’t believe he’s anywhere close to tapping his complete skill set.
Multiple times during this season, as Adam Gase and Tannehill have talked about their offense and how to milk it for everything they can, the coach has used the Patriots as an example of what will eventually happen in Miami. Gase has told Tannehill that after 16 years in the same system, Brady knows the ins, and more importantly, all the outs to his offense.
So even at 39 and with limited mobility, Brady can typically get rid of the ball quickly because he knows exactly where to go with it when he’s under duress. When Tannehill, in the Miami offense all of eight months, gets more comfortable and familiar with Gase’s system, suddenly his 29 sacks this year will be more like 14.
Suddenly Tannehill’s 67 percent completion rate will be closer to 70 percent. Suddenly, Tannehill and all the players that are still trying desperately to learn on the fly, will play on instinct rather than careful thought.
Part of the Patriots’ success is due to the fact their system and culture has been in place for years. The Patriots Way has been the Patriot Way for nearly two decades.
The Dolphins have a system and a culture that has been in place for, like, five minutes. The Dolphins Way isn’t even a thing. Some Dolphins players actually were surprised when they got to practice and it was competitive.
But within the organization there’s significant excitement that the culture will take root, and the system on offense and defense will endure. I’m told the people within the personnel department — from top to bottom — believe they have a solid grasp of what this coaching staff wants for the coming offseason.
At this time last year, this Miami staff and system wasn’t even in place. The personnel department, led by general manager Chris Grier and under the guidance and Football Czar Mike Tannenbaum, conducted their last draft with approximately two months worth of understanding of what Gase and his coaches wanted.
The coming drafts will actually have a full year’s worth of scouting and evaluating of players that best fit the Dolphins.
None of that guarantees success, but it increases the likelihood of it. Obviously, the players the Dolphins select next offseason and the ones after that have to play to expectations. Tannenbaum has to wisely manage the salary cap. Gase and his staff have to continue to develop players.
In other words the Dolphins have to become proficient at doing what the Patriots have been doing for years.
The difference is Gase, at 38 years old, plans to be around for, oh, another decade or two or maybe three if he gets the idea of coaching until he’s 68.
Belichick is 64 right now. His team has dominated the NFL for 16 years. But what are the chances he sticks around the next 16 years?
And that day when Belichick is no longer the genius driving the Patriots to great heights, are they going to be able to find a replacement who will pick up exactly where he left off?
Don Shula, you’ll recall, coached the Dolphins from 1970-95. He was the face of the franchise. He had highways named after him. He had a perfect season.
Shula was Miami’s only head coach for 26 seasons. And in the 21 seasons after Shula, the Dolphins have had 10 coaches.
So the Patriots should be warned that replacing a legendary coach is an exercise not to be taken lightly.
New England obviously can continue its current path if it eventually finds another all-time great quarterback and another all-time great head coach. They can stay the course if the culture and the schemes remain familiar and successful.
But the next 16 years might be perhaps a little tougher because the Dolphins, adrift for so long, are younger and growing and apparently on a good path of their own.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero