Unthinkably bad game for so-called contender Miami Dolphins

Thank goodness for the United States military. I don’t just mean that as a patriotic American. I mean that because — if not for hundreds of troops being honored here on Veterans Day — Dolphins fans surely would have set an NFL single-game record Sunday for least reason to cheer in a home stadium.

It was that bad.

No. It was worse.

I did not think it possible that a team considering itself to be a playoff contender could lose this badly, at home, to a bad opponent.

The thought kept occurring, as the Dolphins’ 37-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans imploded, that our military personnel here to be honored might have preferred immediate deployment overseas rather than keep sitting through this football torture.

It was this franchise’s worst home defeat since expansion-era 1968, and all the worse because of the stakes in play.

There is a phrase for a home team favored by six points that loses by 34, if you’ll permit me one last military allusion:

Shock & Awful.

Worst loss?

“Oh yes. By far,” linebacker Karlos Dansby put it plainly.

“I’m embarrassed [by] the way we played,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill agreed.

Miami’s promising rookie QB bears his share of that embarrassment, of course. It is never a good sign when your team’s most outstanding play of the game might have been Tannehill’s touchdown-saving open-field tackle following his third interception.

The Dolphins were lost in a 24-3 crater by halftime and by then all that kept fans from complaining more audibly was that they kept showing soldiers and patriotic images on the giant video screen and no self-respecting fan wants to take a chance being caught booing the flag.

“That team I watched for [the first] 30 minutes was not the team I coached for eight games,” said coach Joe Philbin.

The team he watched in the second 30 minutes wasn’t much better.

I cannot recall another team and its fortunes plummeting from one extreme to the other more dramatically than the Dolphins, who in a span of 14 days have gone from the euphoria of a 30-9 beat-down of the hated Jets to Sunday’s monstrosity.

(Both extremes are the “real” Dolphins, a team both deeply flawed but capable of re-starting a fight for playoff contention.)

Likewise, I cannot recall another pro/college doubleheader delivering more disappointment upon Miami in a single weekend than Saturday’s last-second 41-40 Miami Hurricanes loss at Virginia followed by Sunday’s Dolphins surrender.

Putting a positive spin on it, at least the 1972 Dolphins had a very good day Sunday, watching the last-unbeaten Atlanta Falcons lose.

Meantime the 2012 Dolphins’ day ended in an emptied stadium with the Titans’ backup quarterback kneeling.

That was what the Dolphins had spent the entire afternoon doing.

Tennessee entered this game having just lost at home 51-20, after which longtime owner Bud Adams said his team had been “grossly outcoached and outplayed.” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross should have been thinking something similar Sunday.

Miami receiver Marlon Moore noted rather defiantly afterward that two weeks ago fans and pundits were talking playoffs while now, two losses later, the record sunk to 4-5 and “everybody’s going to try to pull us apart now and say we’re nothing.”

In fairness, the Dolphins are not nothing, but what they are is a team with too little margin for error to afford consecutive losses.

What they also are — after a loss this dumbfoundingly lopsided — is a team that invites all of the skeptics and doubters back under the tent.

I mean, how to explain that Miami failed to cross the goal line even once Sunday against a Titans defense that was allowing 34.2 points per game and on pace to allow more than any other team ever? The Dolphins couldn’t generate a single big play, with none longer than 17 yards.

Reggie Bush’s fumble on Miami’s second possession set off the Titans avalanche, and he would not return to the game until the middle of the third quarter. Later guard Richie Incognito also was benched after a roughness penalty cost Miami dearly.

I agree with the benching of Incognito, who must learn to contain the aggressiveness that just landed him No. 2 in a dirtiest-players poll. Not at all as sure about benching Bush for half a game. Trying to teach somebody a lesson is OK, but trying to win a game is even better.

Bottom line: Turnovers (four) and penalties (seven) were the hub of a thoroughly disheveled performance, but don’t exonerate the defense; too much was going wrong over there, too. Miami allowed 177 rushing yards and saw Chris Johnson end its league-best 22-game streak of not allowing an opposing 100-yard rusher. Neither did Miami pressure the Titans’ pocket or force a single turnover.

The bad day extended beyond Miami the team to Miami the city.

The stadium was one-third empty, and Dolfans who once gave this club a distinct home-field advantage have over time relinquished that. With Sunday’s loss the team’s home record since 2003 is now 31-41.

The slapped-down Dolphins hardly have time for self-pity now, which probably is a good thing. The team will be on a plane in a couple of days for a Thursday night game at Buffalo.

Last word to Tannehill, the rookie with enough savvy to know the truth in this:

“We’re going to see what kind of character we have this week.”

Related stories from Miami Herald