Little hope seen for 2012 season at Miami Dolphins Kickoff Luncheon

The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce held its annual Dolphins Kickoff Luncheon on Tuesday, and perhaps only in this NFL town can an ostensibly uplifting occasion come off as sort of depressing. The event was at Jungle Island, where screaming birds and shrieking monkeys were making more noise than the fans in the banquet hall.

It would be unfair to say the room was somber, but neither was it quite full, or nearly full of life. There were empty seats among the 72 tables of 10 (with some of those empties at the stadium-namesake Sun Life Financial table, oddly enough).

Players were paraded out and introduced to barely polite puffs of applause, with Ryan Tannehill and Reggie Bush among the very few to inspire anything approaching an actual cheer. Modest clapping for new coach Joe Philbin hardly lasted until he reached the stage.

“I think you’ll be delighted with this group,” Philbin told the crowd.

By this group he meant his team, in case it might not be obvious that anyone would use the word delight for what we have seen thus far in the preseason.

Fittingly, somehow, the team’s best player, tackle Jake Long — the lone elite-at-his-position Dolphin — conspicuously missed the luncheon because he was off resting a right-knee injury that will sideline him from the season opener.

This was the pep rally without the pep, for a season that — based on current indications — should be arriving with a warning more than a welcome.

“This was always the good-luck charm for the Miami Dolphins,” kickoff luncheon host Jimmy Cefalo said of the event, trying to pump up the crowd.

And a multitude ought to have been thinking:

No team could use some o’ that good luck more.

Alumni Hall of Famers Dan Marino, Dwight Stephenson and Larry Little were introduced to again remind Dolfans how distant the halcyon days have become. A chronological video of franchise highlights had nothing more recent than the turnaround season of 2008, which proved a brief, aberrant pause in the decade-plus of misery.

Former Dolphins players are magnets for (usually unsolicited) opinions on the state of the current team, and they get an earful.

“The morale of fans is lower than I can ever remember,” Jeff Cross, the defensive end from 1988 to ’95, told me at the luncheon.

I spoke to a few fans as they walked in. They were easy to spot because many wore team colors, standing out visually like jesters at a funeral among a crowd of mostly business folks in dark suits at corporate tables.

“Our only hope is that Tannehill is fantastic right away like Marino was in ’83,” said fan Martin Coslaw of Miami Shores. “Or else we’re in for a long year, I’m afraid.”

“Another one!” added his wife, unnecessarily.

Reasons to believe.

Dolphins fans are starving for some of those — looking for them like men overboard look for life preservers — as Miami’s preseason wraps up Wednesday night in Dallas. Then it’s on to the regular season, ready or not, with the “not” appearing more likely at the moment.

Reasons to believe.

The rookie Tannehill should be a big one. His being named starting quarterback provided a bump in enthusiasm. The thing is, even if you believe this kid will be great someday or at least very good (and I do), a conspiracy of his inexperience and a poor surrounding cast offering too little help are here to suggest his rookie season could be a lumpy and bumpy one.

Reasons to believe.

What is going right, exactly?

Brandon Marshall shipped off to Chicago and the Chad Johnson experiment not panning out has left Miami with its least impressive receiving corps in memory.

Sunday’s trade of cornerback Vontae Davis to Indianapolis has thinned a pass defense that seems to need more help, not less. (I like the trade, for a second-round draft pick and sixth. But I also acknowledge that a deal that could help the Dolphins down the road makes the immediate road — this season — seem steeper, and longer.)

And now Long gets injured on the eve of the season, answering the beleaguered fans’ rhetorical, “What else can go wrong!?”

Meantime, Miami is 0-3 in exhibition games. “It’s only the preseason.” Right?

A player told me that former owner Wayne Huizenga once ripped into his Dolphins in a team meeting for espousing that attitude publicly, as if what you do in August doesn’t matter and that a magic switch might be found and flipped come September.

What should give us pause today isn’t that Miami is 0-3, but that Miami has looked sloppy getting there. Maybe not so much sloppy as unready.

“We’re gonna get this thing turned around,” Philbin told the crowd, to a reaction that sounded more polite than convinced. “We’re all going to build something we’re all proud of.”

We’ll see. For now, reason to believe, please.

Fourth preseason games are supposed to be about resting guys, getting healthy and not paying much heed to the scoreboard.

And that’s fine for most teams, most times.

These Dolphins, though, are trying to win back lost fans. Trying to grow enthusiasm in ground that has turned barren and hard. Trying to make folks think that this season has not been conceded and drifted lost into the ether of rebuilding.

Reasons to believe.

Give us some, Dolphins.

We’ll even take something great, anything great, happening in a meaningless ol’ fourth exhibition game like Wednesday’s, for these are not times to be picky.

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