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Miami Dolphins seek fast start to season: ‘You don't want to dig yourself a grave’

Joe Philbin makes it a point to do everything with pace. The Dolphins practice fast, in hopes they start games the same way.

But for the first-year coach to truly change Miami’s culture of losing, he needs to start the season fast.

The Dolphins have been dreadful early on in recent years. Since 2002, they have gone 11-21 in September, including 3-7 in road openers.

Three times in the past decade, they have gone winless through at least the first six games of the year.

That includes last year’s 0-7 start, which essentially ended the Dolphins’ season before it had a chance to begin and sealed Tony Sparano’s fate.

“I don’t know if I’d wish the beginning of last year on my worst enemy,” said tight end Anthony Fasano, one of roughly three-dozen players who lived though last year’s debacle.

“But you’ve got to learn your lesson from it. Building some confidence and momentum early on is big for us.”

Not to mention their bottom line. Dolphins fans, fed up with years of losing, stayed home in 2011 in a way that has not been seen in a long time.

Their average home attendance — 60,886 — was the fifth-worst in the league, and off the previous year’s mark by more than 10 percent.

The franchise’s marketing department is in the midst of a full-court press to try to win its fan base back. The team’s decision to appear in Hard Knocks was just one of several ways the Dolphins are trying to increase their profile. But no TV show or T-shirt giveaway can take the place of winning.

The team got a short-term bump when it drafted and decided to start Ryan Tannehill, but even that has fizzled after a winless preseason.

Plus, if Miami is to break from its recent slow-starting ways and win its opener, the team will defy most oddsmakers’ expectations.

As of Thursday afternoon, Las Vegas had the Dolphins listed as 12-point underdogs in their season opener against Houston, perhaps the AFC’s most complete team.

“You don’t want to dig yourself a grave,” said Karlos Dansby, a linebacker and team leader who also endured last season’s brutal opening stretch. “Starting fast is vital, it’s everything.”

Although no championships are won in September, seasons are often ruined that early. Since 1990, only 22 of the 180 teams (12 percent) that started 0-2 made the playoffs.

Miami in 2008 was one of those notable exceptions, winning 11 of its final 14 games to capture the organization’s only AFC East title since 2000. That year was an anomaly in many ways — the Wildcat was born, and Chad Pennington survived the entire season without injury.

The Dolphins haven’t had a winning season since, even though they started well in 2010, winning their first two games.

But there was no false hope in 2011, when Miami didn’t taste victory until November. By then, the Dolphins were five games out of first place with just nine left to play and needed to run the table just for a shot at a playoff spot. Of course, they did not, finishing 6-10.

“I think it snowballs for teams that aren’t mentally strong,” Fasano said. “I think we need to be mentally tough in good and bad situations.”

Philbin has tried to develop that toughness with a blistering practice pace. After stretching, the team goes right into competitive exercises — often a two-minute drill — to set the tone for the rest of the session. The hope is that games will follow suit.

“That’s where we get that whole mentality of starting out fast,” defensive end Cameron Wake said.

Will it work? The answer will be known pretty soon. Make that pretty fast.

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