What swirls around the Dolphins this week hasn’t in a long time.
They are being talked about for the right reasons. Locally and afar, there is a buzz about them — not the buzz of flies, but chatter that is positive. Miami is seen as an NFL franchise trending upward. The team that caused a national stink for having bullies in its locker room is now playing the role of bully on the field.
The feeling wasn’t like this early last season even with the 3-0 start. That felt like a mirage. There remained a broad skepticism that soon proved justified.
Now, though, after the 33-20 opening knockout of AFC East monster New England — a brute-force showing decorated by almost 200 yards rushing and a punishing defensive assault on Tom Brady — Miami suddenly is an “it” team.
“Honestly, not bragging or boasting, I feel like we could have had at least 50 points,” receiver Mike Wallace said Wednesday.
ESPN (loath to wait a minute in its mania to get out front of trends) ranked the Dolphins No. 1 on Wednesday on a list of Week 1 surprise teams most likely to sustain success. Knowshon Moreno reigns as the NFL rushing leader. Cameron Wake is AFC Defensive Player of the Week. A Las Vegas sports book, Bovada, quickly adjusted Miami’s Super Bowl odds from 66-1 to 40-1, biggest bump in the league.
It’s still all hype for now, of course. Franchises with the barren recent history of this one don’t get the benefit of the doubt. “Prove it” is the constant challenge and dare. This is the state of Show Me.
If Miami loses Sunday at Buffalo, the attention being paid to this team will fall of a cliff and disappear. “Same old Dolphins” will be the derisive new chorus replacing the praise.
Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline and I had an odd exchange this week on a local morning radio show. The host was lauding me for having predicted a playoff season for Miami and for also correctly picking the opening upset over New England, but Hartline gently chided me for rarely attending practices, saying, “So how do you know we’re better?”
Easy answer. I don’t need to see the car being assembled at the plant to know I love the latest Lamborghini. Don’t need to meet the cattleman or interview the restaurant chef to know I want the bone-in rib-eye.
I saw the Dolphins as playoff-caliber because they weren’t far from it last year despite the Bullygate mess, and because additions such as Moreno, Branden Albert, Cortland Finnegan, Earl Mitchell, Ja’Wuan James and Jarvis Landry made them appreciably better.
What was most odd, though, about the exchange with Hartline was that I, the media curmudgeon, was cast as the cheerleader while the player coming off an exhilarating win played the voice of reason.
“It’s only one game,” Hartline said.
His caution mirrored what I’m sure must be the feeling of most Dolfans, whose giddy hopefulness is tempered, on a deeper level, by years of having been let down.
That the caution would come from Hartline is understandable. He arrived here in 2009. His Dolphins teams have been 7-9, 7-9, 6-10, 7-9 and 8-8 — uninteresting mediocrity personified. He has done nothing but watch the playoffs on TV. One season ago, the 3-0 start raised hopes, but the crash came fast and hard. Then a late-season surge made the playoffs seem all but certain, but, well … you know how that ended.
Enter Buffalo, then, as the perfect framework, the perfect gauge, the perfect opportunity for the Dolphins to show us why this team and this season are different (or why they aren’t).
The Bills beat the Dolphins twice last year and the last time, just before Christmas, was a killer. Miami was 8-6 and could have clinched a playoff berth by winning, but lost 19-0 in upstate New York. It wasn’t that close. It was an embarrassment. The Dolphins totaled six first downs and 14 yards rushing. Ryan Tannehill was 10 of 27 for 82 yards. Buffalo gouged the run defense for 203 yards rushing.
Nobody in the Dolphins locker room who was there has forgotten being on the wrong side of that stampede. There are still hoof prints tattooed.
“You want to try to spit that out and get that out of your mouth,” as defensive end Jared Odrick put it this week, “but you can’t.”
Yes you can, Dolphins.
You do that by going into the Bills’ stadium this weekend — against a team also flying high after an impressive opening upset in Chicago — and winning.
You do that, Miami, by stopping Buffalo’s Fred Jackson/C.J. Spiller running back tandem despite your injuries at linebacker. Because good teams leave the excuses to others.
You do that by flexing muscles and proving last week’s Moreno/Lamar Miller ground show was no fluke, and you do it against the best defensive line you’ll face all season in the Bills’ Mario Williams-led front. Because that’s what good teams do.
This is the first time since the 2002 league realignment that Miami has opened a season with consecutive games against AFC East rivals, magnifying everything.
“One step in the journey,” coach Joe Philbin called the opening win over the Patriots.
Some steps are bigger and more important than others, though, and this week at Buffalo feels like one of those.
The national media is watching Miami, interested, but its attention span is short.
Dolfans want so much to believe, to trust, but recent history creates hesitance.
Everybody is ready to shake heads and mutter, “Same old Dolphins” — maybe even expects to.
But that’s up to the Dolphins, isn’t it?