Outcome of game against Raiders could show Miami Dolphins’ direction

The Dolphins against the Raiders? In 1972 this would have been a game between premier NFL franchises. In 1982 it would have been a meeting of the two best teams in their conference. In 1992 it would have featured a Dolphins offense that had seven players with Pro Bowl experience — the good old days for Miami. In 2002 it would have featured a Raiders team bound for the Super Bowl — the good old days for Oakland.

The Dolphins against the Raiders on Sunday?

These franchises once played in the classic Sea of Hands game. Now both are merely treading water.

Both have devolved into mediocre-at-best and often embarrassing franchises that are working feverishly to pick themselves up after a long, hard decade filled with failure.

The Raiders haven’t been in the playoffs since 2002. A team that once boasted a commitment to excellence has shown no commitment to its head coaches because six have been fired in the past 10 years.

This season, the coach is new, the general manager is new, but some of the same old bugaboos — players jumping offside in crucial moments, for example — persisted in the season opener.

“We have to eliminate self-inflicted wounds,” new coach Dennis Allen said after the Raiders shot themselves in the foot multiple times in their opener, something the franchise has done repeatedly during the past decade.

The Dolphins tasted the playoffs in 2008, even winning the AFC East title that season. But that fleeting high has been outweighed by lows that included a mutiny on Dave Wannstedt’s coaching staff in 2004, Cam Cameron’s 1-15 season, and Nick Saban, Bill Parcells and Jeff Fisher all choosing to be somewhere other than working in Miami.

It used to be these were storied franchises. Lately, they’re mostly horror-storied franchises.

But this season offers a new day for the Dolphins and Raiders. Both have new, first-year coaches. Both are seeking a new direction.

Both have a grand opportunity Sunday.

For the Raiders, this game presents a chance to build a foundation that could sustain the season. This game marks the first long trip for a team scheduled to travel 28,692 miles this season — most in the NFL and more than the 25,000 miles it would take to make it around the globe.

When the Raiders face the Dolphins, they will be doing it after traveling across the country, three time zones away from home, and in a heat and humidity that is every bit an advantage for Miami now as the cold is for Buffalo and Green Bay in December.

If the Raiders overcome the circumstances and the Dolphins, Allen will be able tell his players they can have similar success in games at Carolina, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Well, maybe not at Baltimore, but you get the idea.

The Dolphins?

They have a lot of things going for them Sunday also, not the least of which is they play the Raiders. And the Raiders last week couldn’t so much as punt the ball without drama because their long snapper was injured and his replacement fired ground balls for punter Shane Lechler to field, and Lechler is not Bert Campaneris.

The amazing thing is Oakland didn’t replace the replacement during the week. Yes, they signed a practice-squad player who may or may not be promoted for this game. But for a team that laments self-inflicted wounds, even replacing an inexperienced player with a more inexperienced one isn’t akin to unloading that gun they have perpetually aimed at their own feet.

This game can be a difference maker for the Dolphins. Last week, they played Super Bowl contending Houston even for 24 minutes. If they play mediocre-at-best Oakland well for 60 minutes and pull out a win, the horizon promises better days.

The Dolphins suddenly can look out as far as November with optimism because the schedule threatens only one 2011 playoff team through Thanksgiving.

Depending on your opinion of Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton, it can be argued the Dolphins don’t face an elite quarterback until Dec. 2, when they play New England and Tom Brady.

If the Dolphins can beat the Raiders, the season changes because the locker room would be buoyed with more confidence than it already has and this time it would come from a legitimate source — actual success on the field — rather than the wishful thinking kind of confidence players showed during a winless preseason.

If the Dolphins can beat the Raiders, why wouldn’t they be able to beat Arizona or St. Louis, Tennessee, Indianapolis, Seattle and Buffalo? Suddenly those outside concerns about a replay of 1-15 would seem distant and foolish.

Those are the grand opportunities the Dolphins can grasp with a win. A loss? That would present evidence that the doomsayers might be prophets. If the Dolphins cannot beat an equally troubled team at home when so much is in their favor, whom can they beat?

A loss would cast a bigger shadow of doubt over the franchise’s direction. It would suggest Miami’s decade of decline hasn’t ended.

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