Don Shula always used to say the Monday right after the regular season ended was the worst, toughest day of the year when no playoffs lay ahead. After so many months of always working, planning, preparing for the next game — of vitally having something more to do — there was no next game. There was only emptiness. Shula likened it to falling off a cliff.
That feeling has defined how seasons have ended for this franchise and its fans most of this young century. Only once since 2001 (in '08) has Miami qualified for the postseason — until now. Now, for the first time in eight years, the Monday after the regular season isn't when everything ends, but rather when all that matters is just starting.
Sunday's 35-14 home loss to the rival New England Patriots? We'll give it no autopsy here except to say Miami buried itself with a terrible start. The Dolphins were on a slab without benefit of anesthesia as all-time great Tom Brady performed his surgery. At one point the TV cameras showed owner Steve Ross up in his suite pleading and imploring his team, "We're down 20! C'mon, guys!"
The thing is, these Dolphins have the power now to render Sunday's loss meaningless, forgotten, by replacing it with a victory next weekend in Pittsburgh.
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It must be about just that for Miami now — the postseason seen not as a culmination, but as a beginning. Merely getting there cannot be enough. It's fine for Miami fans to be thrilled just to get there, but deadly if the Dolphins' team mindset has any shade of "happy to be there."
Not since Dec. 30, 2000 have the Dolphins won a playoff game. That is the drought this team needs to erase, the hand-me-down hunger that needs to fuel these guys. Fathom that. Babies born into Dolfan families around then have grown up waiting for their team to matter again. Those babies are now planning for college.
The imperative for Miami to win again in the playoffs, the definition of a relevant NFL team, will hear no excuses — no, not even the quarterback situation. Matt Moore is a capable fill-in, as he showed again Sunday after a slow start. Besides, starter Ryan Tannehill coming back from his knee injury and playing at Pittsburgh has yet to be ruled out, even as it seems unlikely.
Coach Adam Gase made clear after Sunday's game it will take more than medical clearance for Tannehill. It will take Gase seeing him at practice during the week and being comfortable he's ready. That's smart.
"If I don't feel comfortable with it, then Matt will stay the starting quarterback," Gase said. "I have to see [Tannehill] practice and I have to see him move around and I have to feel really good about it. I'm not going to jeopardize his career by throwing him out there [if he isn't completely ready]."
Sounds to me as if more Moore is the likelihood. in any case, this team needs to find a way to win a playoff game.
Gase is the ninth Dolphins head coach (including interims) since ever-distant Dave Wannstedt was the last man in Miami to win one of those.
We were reminded again Sunday of this franchise's chronic reliance on its better days and past as a crutch, in lieu of more recent glory to celebrate. The honorary pregame captains, all dressed in their Pro Football Hall of Fame jackets, were Dolphins legends Dan Marino, Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Dwight Stephenson, Larry Little and Paul Warfield. The youngest of them, Marino, last played in 1999, and it was only one year later that Miami last won a playoff game.
The loss to the Patriots closed Miami's regular season at 10-6, a marvel considering the record once was 1-4. But the focus rightly swiveled fast to the coming weekend and Pittsburgh.
"Literally as I walk out of this building," as defensive star Cam Wake put it, "my mind's on next week."
Said running back Jay Ajayi: "We get the opportunity to keep playing. Every game after this is elimination. We still have a chance to go get it."
To go get what should go without saying.
A championship, of course. The 12-team playoffs sometimes are referred to as the Super Bowl tournament for a reason. That dreaming dozen teams, including Miami, are now only three victories (two in the case of teams like the Patriots with a first-round bye) from reaching that title game of all title games.
Sunday's lost siphoned from Miami some of the tailwind it sought heading into the postseason; still, these Dolphins had won nine of the previous 10 games before Sunday. Three wins in a row from here ought not be a prospect that has these guys quivering — even though an AFC path that will begin "at Pittsburgh" and likely would end "at New England" is plainly daunting. The Steelers of Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown have won seven games in a row, their tailwind a hurricane. Brady's Patriots are the betting favorite to win the Super Bowl.
For Miami the odds remain great, no doubt; they'll be a decided underdog at Pittsburgh. Then again, does anyone recall how thoroughly Miami dominated the Steelers in a 30-15 victory earlier this season?
The idea of the Dolphins finally winning in the playoffs again is not silly. It is not far-fetched. Miami reaching the Super Bowl might be, at least to conventional thinking. Then again, we might want to be a little wary of the idea of any outcome shocking us.
Didn't the Chicago Cubs just win the World Series for the first time since 1908?
Aren't we about to inaugurate a TV reality-show host as United States president?
The Dolphins have a chance, that' s all. Thirty-two NFL teams started, 12 are left and Miami, at long last, is one of them.
So it's the Monday after the regular season ended, and there is work yet to do, a game ahead.
For now, that's plenty, but, come next weekend, it won't be enough.
For this franchise, ending an eight-year playoff drought is big, but ending a 16-year playoff victory drought is what matters now.
Last word on that to Ajayi:
"We're in," he said. "Now let's go get it."