Ninety-nine yards. That’s what separated the Dolphins from a biting loss Thursday night. That’s how far Ryan Tannehill had to drive his team to become a hero.
The Dolphins quarterback had to move his team for a touchdown with four minutes to play that would have turned the fortunes of this game, perhaps this season, and certainly would have colored the rookie’s reputation.
The drive ended in an interception.
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And another possession that came with 1:26 to play also ended in an interception.
Bills win 19-14.
And now, with the Dolphins in full-scale swoon the past three weeks, there is more trouble that seems on the horizon.
The Seahawks are coming to Miami in 10 days. How many home fans are going to show for that one?
Then the Patriots will come to town. The Dolphins just lost to the Bills, Titans and Colts. They’re going to beat New England?
This season isn’t dead yet. But it is on a respirator and doctors are working feverishly to revive it.
That’s the short-term situation. Of course, if you believe this season wasn’t necessarily about, well, this season, then you are looking to other things. You are looking for answers to other more enduring questions.
One question that looms is whether these guys are any better than last season? Last season’s team was terrible early on but rallied, winning six of its final nine games. These guys seem to be writing the script in reverse — good early and playing worse as we head into the toughest part of the schedule the next few weeks.
So are these Dolphins even going in the right direction?
The past three games — all losses in troubling fashion — suggest this team is no longer headed in the right direction. These games suggest the Dolphins are not getting better as the season wears on but, indeed, are regressing at a slow but steady pace.
It’s not so much the results that trouble but the nature of the opposition against which those results are being posted.
Yes, the Colts are a rising team with a budding star at quarterback, but let’s face it, that is the team that lost more than any other team a season ago. The Titans rocked the Dolphins at home and did it with the league’s worst statistical defense following a loss in which they gave up 50 points.
And then there is this Bills game.
The Bills had lost eight consecutive games against AFC East opponents before the Dolphins.
The Bills had lost 10 consecutive prime-time games dating back to 2001.
And, of course, the Bills had taken over from the Titans as the worst defense in the NFL because the Titans practically shut down the Dolphins.
Well, it seems the Miami offense is the prescription against poor defense.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman implored his players to play so inspired this night that it would “make their sons proud.”
But there can be no pride coming out of this work.
The Dolphins didn’t cross midfield until the third quarter.
The Dolphins had only two first downs in the first half and one of those came when a Bills player jumped offside.
Miami’s most productive offensive play in the first half was a 17-yard completion to Brian Hartline. Only problem with the play is it ended with Hartline fumbling the ball over to the Bills.
But there was a bright side.
At least Hartline didn’t get benched for his indiscretion, as Reggie Bush famously noted he got benched last week for his fumble.
But cornerback Nolan Carroll did get benched. He struggled in the first half. I use the word struggled because the word stunk is so unpleasant.
Carroll was picked on repeatedly, and when he didn’t give up completions he committed penalties. He had two pass-interference penalties and an illegal-contact call in the first half.
And for that he was benched throughout the third quarter.
Think whatever you want about the philosophy of benching an underperforming player during the game, but Joe Philbin obviously believes it’s a tool to turn to whenever he thinks appropriate.
Problem for Philbin is Sean Smith suffered from some sort of cramps in the fourth quarter and had to leave the game. And so Carroll got a second chance out of sheer necessity by coaches.
Carroll responded with a 5-yard holding penalty that gave the Bills their fourth first down in four penalties against him. This is a player who was playing better earlier in the season. He has struggled the past few weeks.
Where is the progression in that?
The facts are the Dolphins aren’t showing grand progression up and down the roster.
Bush hasn’t gotten better. In fact, the Dolphins running game has been stagnant for a month.
Tight end play?
Anthony Fasano? Anything?
He has had four catches the past four games after having 22 the previous six games. That’s not progression.
The run defense isn’t up to the standards of the early part of the season. Miami yielded 120 rushing yards this night, which is twice as many as it gained.
The play of the secondary has fallen off and, worse, it has happened against a couple of mediocre quarterbacks.
This season is not lost. There are still questions about how far Tannehill can progress. We can watch to see how much spunk this team has and how far they are from actually being relevant.
But playoffs? And progression from week to week?
Don’t see it.