The Dolphins had been eliminated from the playoffs about an hour earlier, but now general manager Jeff Ireland was in the middle of the locker room wearing a dapper red Christmas tie and a smile on his face as he congratulated players and assistant coaches for their victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Ultimately, this day’s results won’t make a difference, but it was sort of liberating for the Dolphins: It signaled the moment when we stop thinking about this season and start obsessing about next season.
And that makes Ireland the most important person in the Dolphins organization for the next eight months.
Ireland didn’t wish to talk, as is his custom during the season. He believes this time of year belongs to Joe Philbin, the assistants and the players.
But it will soon be his time. And if you don’t believe that, it might surprise you to learn that I overheard Ireland make that point after Sunday’s game better than I or anyone else could.
“I’ve got picks and money,” he told a visitor as he rubbed his hands together almost in mad scientist glee.
Indeed, for all you think of Ireland, and I know some fans don’t like him, you must admit he has done a great job of setting up Miami for a big offseason and even a grand offseason if he gets things right.
Think of it:
The Dolphins will have five draft picks in the first three rounds of the April NFL Draft. That means they will have a crack at five of the top 100 players coming out of college. And they’ve got at least $40 million in salary cap room to work the roster. That means free agency this offseason can be an open field when it has been only a sliver of daylight previous offseasons.
If Ireland plays it right, this could be the most significant offseason in Dolphins history since the summer of 1970 when Joe Robbie hired Don Shula.
So what’s the plan? This offseason will be about the three Ps.
I can tell you with certainty that’s how Ireland sees the coming months. He doesn’t just need players, the Dolphins have plenty of those. Ireland wants playmakers that make game-changing and game-defining plays. He wants to find ways to get the offense more points and score points on defense.
And if he does that, it should be fair to expect the Dolphins — a team alive for the postseason into Week 16 this year — to be a playoff team next year.
In other words, Ireland isn’t going into the offseason to draft more guards or chase defensive tackles in free agency.
Long’s time short
That means free agent Jake Long’s days with the team could be over. Frankly, even when Long was great he never won or lost a game. He didn’t run for yards or catch passes, and he didn’t stop anyone from doing it. Lots of teams with worse left tackles went to the playoffs while the Dolphins stayed home.
But now that Long seems lessened, now that he’s got durability concerns, now that the Dolphins have replaced Long with rookie Jonathan Martin and gotten better at the position, Long’s future with the team seems grim.
Martin, by the way, was terrible his first day as a rookie right tackle. The Dolphins were worried. Eventually, after working at it, Martin got good enough to start.
But Martin’s first day as a starting left tackle after Long got injured was something of an epiphany for the team. He had a C-plus day with no practice at the position. And now, four weeks later, he’s a consistent B-plus player. Add his potential for improvement, his low price and Long’s high price tag and the signs point to Long going elsewhere in the offseason.
The club, by the way, is comfortable thinking the future at left tackle is Martin not Long.
That would leave more salary cap space to spend on wide receivers. That means the Dolphins don’t have to be so frugal at tight end. The Dolphins would have more money to help Ryan Tannehill get the football in the end zone.
A quick side note on Tannehill:
The Dolphins today don’t know whether he’s going to be a franchise quarterback that should be around for a decade. Indeed, a club source said Sunday it might take another season or perhaps two before the team knows for certain about Tannehill.
So kindly hold the Dan Marino comparisons.
A work in progress
But has Tannehill this year already earned the team’s indulgence and trust for the next couple of years? Yes. The Dolphins are certain of that. He’s your quarterback for the next couple of years.
With their quarterback in place, and the wide receiver position a top priority, the Dolphins also have a decision to make at running back.
It must be said starter Reggie Bush, unsigned for next year, has made his case for being retained. He scored three touchdowns Sunday, including two as a pass catcher. He has not left a lot of yards on the field.
He’s a hard worker and a good teammate and leader. He’s solid.
So the Dolphins will try to re-sign Bush, according to team sources. But because they have Lamar Miller on the roster — and Miller is 218 pounds and runs a 4.4 and his time is coming — the Dolphins will only re-sign Bush at their price, not at his.
So even there, at what seems like a dilemma, Ireland is working from a position of strength. His choice is to keep Bush, a good player, for money the team is comfortable paying, or lose Bush and, in his eyes, upgrade to Miller.
It’s a no-lose situation. So, yes, this has the potential to be a huge offseason for the Dolphins.