The Miami Dolphins open their 50th regular season home schedule Sunday and any fans not totally confused by this latest team – by how good it is, or isn’t – are deluding themselves or simply too beaten down by years of frustration to dare a guess.
Welcome back to the Land of No Idea. It’s the perpetual state of being a Dolfan: Eyes wide open, blindfolds on, no clue what you’re stepping into.
Your team might be poised to stage a rollicking, faith-restoring butt-whuppin’ of the Buffalo Bills, or it could be on the verge of an embarrassing home collapse, and neither would surprise, and if you claim to feel strongly which is likelier, you’re guessing.
It’s early in the season for a “statement game” but this had better be the right kind of one for a Miami team and season that is wavering and needs to declare a direction.
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After six consecutive seasons of mediocrity, the Dolphins again plow forward the customary 1-1 — stuck in the middle with you, to borrow a distant song lyric.
What seems to change around here except nothing?
What is this team consistently good at except inconsistency?
What do we have here? Who are these guys?
The Dolphins spent $114 million for Ndamukong Suh, who is to stopping the run what Michelangelo was to painting ceilings, but have been gouged for 284 opponent ground yards the first two games.
Miami spent two first-round draft picks and a large free agent check building an offensive line but can’t seem to run the ball or protect the quarterback that well.
You don’t even get the sense the coaching staff is sure of the kind of team it wants to be philosophically. Call it an identity crisis.
In two games against defenses not nearly as good as the one they will face Sunday, Ryan Tannehill has thrown 78 passes and handed off to running backs 26 times, a 3-to-1 lopsidedness that is stunning.
“There’s no law that says we have to be balanced,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor actually said this week.
Hmm. Well, this might not be a law, but it’s an NFL fact: Over the past five seasons, teams with a 100-yard rusher have won at a .706 clip, whereas it’s .521 with a 300-yard passer. Even as King Sport goes all pass happy, fundamental ground control still is the most direct path to winning.
Lazor elaborated: “We’ve got to gain consistency and confidence in the ground game. As players and as coaches.”
Hmm, again. Isn’t that what August is for? You have in Lamar Miller a 24-year-old running back who rushed for 1,099 yards and averaged 5.1 per carry last season and you still don’t quite trust him?
The offensive linemen gnaw at the bit to flex muscles and run, which is the more enjoyable macho task compared to the defensive stance of pass protection.
“We’ve got to get a running game going,” center Mike Pouncey said. “When we don’t run the ball we don’t give ourselves a chance.”
Yet the commitment seems forever fragile. You’d play Lotto this week with more confidence than you’d bank on 20 carries for Miller on Sunday.
What can you count on from this team? You would have said disciplined play, perhaps. But Miami has had 19 penalties in two games. I thought of that this week as I roamed the team’s Davie headquarters and noticed the book in the locker of linebacker Chris McCain. It was How to Make Good Decisions, by Mack King Carter.
This was supposed to be getting easier, wasn’t it?
It seems to be getting harder instead.
The major commitment of acquiring Suh, the contract extension for Tannehill and a favorably regarded draft positioned Miami as sort of an “it” team entering this season. Playoff talk among fans seemed justifiable rather than lunacy.
And certainly two games in at 1-1 is no time to forsake hope.
Look around, though. What we saw as Miami getting significantly better might have been Miami barely keeping up in the now-rugged AFC East.
In New England, Bill Belichick keeps recycling greatness, and Tom Brady — unlike the fading likes of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees — seems at age 38 to be even better than ever. The Patriots reign still looks unstoppable. It almost seems unfair.
Buffalo? The Bills last made the playoffs a century ago (1999), but they no longer are a punch line. They’re punching back. The blustery arrival of coach Rex Ryan — who makes teams loud and interesting and sometimes even makes them good — has infused the Bills with a fresh attitude to go along with a scary-good defensive front.
And the Stinkin’ Jets are still the Stinkin’ Jets, of course, still Miami’s most visceral rival, and now with a defense good enough to keep them in every game.
Two games is a small sample, but ESPN’s current NFL power rankings have the Patriots rated No. 1, the Bills No. 8, the Jets No. 9 and the Dolphins No. 15. No other division has all four clubs ranked nearly that high.
That’s what I mean about things getting harder, not easier. Miami might prove better than last season but still be the worst team in a burgeoning, flexing division.
So what to expect from Sunday’s home opener against Buffalo?
Anything, of course!
Hope-sparking dominance by Miami would not surprise.
A soul-crushing defeat would not surprise.
And neither would one of those in-between performances that leave you wondering — again — how good your team is, or isn’t.
Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com.