What gives football its gravitas, its Sundays-as-Armageddon feel, is that every result can seem to change everything. It isn’t so in baseball with its endless 162 games or in basketball and hockey with its drone of 82. But in football, as we are seeing now with Dolphins fans, two consecutive losses can take what was giddy optimism — ebullience! — and wrench it into something closer to anger or panic.
It matters little that one of the losses was to Drew Brees and the unbeaten Saints in New Orleans, and that the other was Sunday’s by three points to the defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens.
It also matters little, apparently, that a 3-2 record right now would have been mighty fine with most fans if asked before the season, given the early schedule.
Two games changed everything.
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Not in reality — the Dolphins are what they were a month ago, a team flawed but good enough to be in the playoff hunt — but rather in perception and feel.
For anecdotal evidence, at 3-0, in the Dolfan Satisfaction Meter postgame polls I have in my MiamiHerald.com blog, a record 99.0 percent gave the team a thumbs-up, with a robust 78.2 percent calling themselves “very” satisfied.
At 3-2 that overall thumbs-up had plunged to 30.7 percent when last I checked, and the “very” satisfied number had shattered in the ravine at 4.1 percent.
The team was not elite when 3-0 and is not bereft at 3-2. It isn’t even a different team now, just one we see differently.
Two weeks ago ESPN.com had a photo of Miami receiver Mike Wallace to front a piece on teams that had most improved with their offseason moves. The shiny new toys were many. There was Wallace and Brandon Gibson to catch passes. Brent Grimes to knock them down. Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler to patrol the mid-defense. Dion Jordan to create sacks.
Miami’s 3-0 start made those acquisitions, as a group, appear to glimmer and gleam.
Beleaguered general manager Jeff Ireland got to preen for a little bit as the same fans who had once called for his firing now had to reconsider their lack of faith.
The two losses since have only made us confront what was always the truth but was easier to ignore until now.
Ireland forgot about the grunt work, about the fundamental business of making his offensive line better.
Wait. No, he didn’t forget. He just failed to give it the attention it deserved or solve what he had to know might be a huge problem.
Ireland’s actions/inactions indicate he thought giving Ryan Tannehill better targets would be enough to ensure and accelerate the young quarterback’s ascension.
The reality is that a shambles of an offensive line has Tannehill being sacked at a record rate, too often allows him too little time to find targets and has rendered Miami’s ground game so impotent that the play-action pass has not been effective.
Tannehill has been sacked a league-most 24 times in five games. That’s on pace for 77, which would be more than any other quarterback has endured, ever.
“A concerning trend,” in the words of left tackle Jonathan Martin, who is cerebral but, unfortunately, not particularly physical.
Meanwhile, the running game, such as it is, is on pace for 1,114 team yards, which would be an all-time franchise low — including the pass-happy Dan Marino days, the 14-game schedules and the moribund expansion-era teams. The existing record low is 1,205 yards rushing in 1988.
All of this traces to the offensive line, what coach Joe Philbin rightly calls “the starting point” for any offense.
A man named Jim Turner coaches that unit, if he would even admit it these days. He is a former Marine, so his toughness is not in question. But the toughness of the men he coaches is. Results invite doubt about his job security, but this is the burden of Ireland.
Ireland is the personnel chief who went into this season with two quality, NFL-starter-caliber linemen — center Mike Pouncey and guard Richie Incognito — and a bunch of discards and spare parts.
The left tackle Martin, a 2012 second-round draft pick, is a nightmare, a perpetual work-in-progress at the last position you can afford one. Right tackle Tyson Clabo, a 2013 free agent pick-up, has been almost as bad. Each has already allowed six sacks.
Ireland knew Martin was a weak link and risk, and yet he let Jake Long go in free agency to St. Louis, and then failed to consummate negotiations with Kansas City to trade for left tackle Branden Albert.
Retrospect tells us Long, even with his sketchy injury history, was worth spending more to keep, or that Albert was worth spending more to get.
There were free agent options not pursued, such as Patriots tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
There were draft options passed by, in a year when three of the first four picks were tackles and Miami was in a trade-up mood.
There also have been recent trade options. Just last week two starting left tackles changed teams — Baltimore getting the Jags’ Eugene Monroe and Pittsburgh the Cardinals’ Levi Brown, both for modest draft picks. Each would have immediately helped Miami.
The Dolphins’ history of great offensive linemen only magnifies the 2013 woes.
From Hall of Famers Larry Little, Jim Langer and Dwight Stephenson to Bob Kuechenberg, Richmond Webb and Long, this has seldom been a club that couldn’t protect its passer and run block. Heck, what’s happening now is enough to make you get all wistful for Vernon Carey!
The lack of protection is blindsiding Tannehill’s progress and this season’s prospects.
If only Ireland had the excuse to say he had been blindsided by this problem.