One of the NFL’s teams-on-the-rise took the practice field for the first day of training camp in Davie on Thursday, confidence as high and hot as that searing summer sun.
One of the NFL’s one-hit wonders took the same field, a team expected to tumble back to mediocrity after a playoff season widely viewed as an anomaly, a fluke.
The Miami Dolphins are both of those — a team as hard to read or agree about as perhaps any in the league.
Thursday marked the first camp-opening since 2009 by a Dolphins team coming off a playoff season, giving this roster a chance to make real Miami’s first back-to-back playoffs since 2000-01. The taste provided by last year’s 10-6 record has raised the bar, though.
This year’s theme T-shirts worn by players read, simply, ZONE IN — as if the prey is in the crosshairs and the Dolphins are poised for the kill.
“We all have that one goal in mind,” said receiver Jarvis Landry on a morning hot enough to fry an egg still in the chicken. “Win the Super Bowl.“
Said the man throwing to him, Ryan Tannehill: “Our expectations are up. Win the division.”
That alone qualifies as a brave goal, considering Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s New England Patriots have dominated the AFC East seemingly since fans crank-started Ford Model Ts to get to games. And now — even as the Dolphins plot a hostile takeover of the Pats — here comes USA Today predicting that New England will not only win the Super Bowl (again) but do so a perfect 19-0.
Second-year coach Adam Gase loves bravado in his players but also rightly preaches that a 10-win season entitles you to nothing. Maybe that’s why those ZONE IN T-shirts bear this reminder on the right sleeve: 0-0. Because everything starts anew. Everything must be proven all over again.
And have no doubt: The Fins still have much to prove after last season ended with a humbling 30-12 playoff ouster in Pittsburgh, and this one starting with most Las Vegas betting over/unders on Miami wins a modest 7 1/2, not a playoff number. No other returning playoff team is projected to fall so far.
Clearly, the heat is on the Dolphins in a way that it hasn’t been for a long while. When you’re mired in a 7-9/8-8 rut, merely getting out is a triumph. Well, they’re out. Now what?
Which is right: The Dolphins’ optimism? Or the dire Vegas forecast?
Here are the fulcrum issues on which the season will turn and make somebody right:
The stepped-up schedule: It is appreciably tougher. Miami last year was 4-0 in non-division games versus teams that won five games or fewer. In 2017, the Fins will play only one such game.
Mike Pouncey’s hips — You almost felt they were going to throw a parade Thursday because Pouncey had been declared fit to start training camp, but save the celebrating until his chronically tender hips go a full season without calamity. Despite so-so guard play, this has a chance to be a stout offensive line, but only if the veteran center stays right in the middle of it.
Repairing the sieve on run defense — Can we expect what was pretty rancid last season (140.4 run-yards per game, 4.8 per carry) to be appreciably better? When the run-stoppers start with Ndamukong Suh, and when you clearly targeted defense in both free agency and the draft, it better be.
The linebacker quality — Kiko Alonso and a rookie, Raekwon McMillan, surrounding an aging Lawrence Timmons, and backed by uninspiring depth, invites one to wonder whether the LB corps, so vital against both run and pass, is even average.
The cornerback quality — In addition to that guy from New England (twice), QBs facing Miami this year will include Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Derek Carr and Cam Newton. Is a unit led by Byron Maxwell and Xavien Howard good enough?
Ryan Tannehill and his knee — This QB needs to be solid and good, not great, and has shown he can be. But the brace on his repaired left knee is a reminder that any team’s fortunes rely on good luck with injuries and health.
Charles Harris’ first step — Gase said it again Thursday, of his No. 1 draft pick: “His get-off-the-ball is outstanding.” With Cam Wake now 35, Miami needs Harris to parlay that terrific first step to become an instant-impact sack man.
DeVante Parker’s arrival — Landry will catch a ton of balls from the slot. Kenny Still is the speed guy outside. It is Parker, and whether he finally and fully blossoms into the star they imagine, that could set apart this group as special. Landry, when asked Thursday whether this could be a top-five NFL WR trio: “Not top five. One.”
Familiarity breeds success? — This is the second season for Gase’s offensive system and for the defensive scheme. Players think that’s huge. A year ago, they spent much of camp learning. Now it’s about fine-tuning and achieving max comfort and confidence.
By the way, Tannehill’s baby boy, Steel, an infant just days old as camp began last year, just turned one.
“He’s not throwing yet,” Dad said with a smile.