Dolphins defensive stalwart Cameron Wake had as good a phrase as any heard in the winning locker room to explain the odd situation his team found itself in here Sunday — with a solid home victory over Buffalo completed just seconds before Miami officially was eliminated from NFL playoff contention.
“It’s frustrating,” he said, “and comforting.”
The frustration is easy to understand. Up here, close doesn’t count. Close gets players benched and coaches fired.
“There’s no pat on the back for, ‘Oh, you almost got there!’ ” as Wake put it.
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So the Dolphins’ 24-10 win over the division-rival Bills is relegated to a mere consolation prize while the Cincinnati Bengals earn that sixth and final AFC playoff spot for which Miami trudged so steeply uphill.
“It’s not Cincinnati’s job to get us in the playoffs,” Wake said, “It’s our job.”
Almost is the frustration for this team, this season.
The playoffs didn’t run away on Sunday. Realistically, they ran away with five earlier losses by one score, including two in overtime. They ran away with all of those squandered leads. They ran away with that inexcusable 37-3 home loss to lowly Tennessee, which alone makes it so hard to think Miami deserved the playoffs at all.
“We had plenty of opportunities during the season to position ourselves,” noted linebacker Karlos Dansby, instead of hoping Pittsburgh might beat the Bengals on Sunday, and then hoping for more help next week.
But Cam Wake also used the word “comforting,” remember?
And he was right about that, too.
This is a team and a franchise trending upward, and a fandom that can take comfort in better days ahead.
This is a team led by a rookie quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, who just finished his fourth consecutive game without an interception, and who is noticeably better than the kid who nervously began the season with all of those tipped passes in Houston. Tannehill also is blossoming as a running threat, as with a crowd-pleasing 31-yard dash that ended with his taking a hard hit to earn the crowd’s cheering admiration.
This is a team that has improved from the beginning of the season to now, one of the ways a coaching staff is judged. It speaks of that to note Miami won its second games with both the Jets and Bills this season after losing the first. That is telling.
Miami’s defense fundamentally is good enough overall. It entered this week having given up the second-fewest points in the conference and sixth-fewest in the league. More playmakers as dynamic as Wake are needed. Safety Reshad Jones — with two fumble recoveries and an interception Sunday — volunteered himself as one of them.
The offense is not good enough but can get there fast if Tannehill continues to improve and get closer and closer to allowing fans to think he is on the path to being not just a solid starter but a star.
The biggest part of “comforting” in addition to Tannehill’s promise is what should happen from here if general manager Jeff Ireland, facing the most crucial months of his professional life, takes advantage of an extraordinary opportunity to make the Dolphins much better and fast.
Miami has stockpiled 10 draft picks, including five in the first three rounds, more than any other team. There also will be more than $40 million in salary-cap money to spend on free agents, Miami’s own and other teams’.
The number of picks and money alone all but assures the team will be better next season. If Ireland uses them wisely and can hit big on several of his decisions, the improvement could be as dramatic as it is sudden.
A dynamic wide receiver, a top cornerback and another sack threat are glaring areas of greatest need.
The last few weeks of this season in effect are an audition for some players, and a time for Ireland to reconnoiter his roster and decide who his keepers are.
Reggie Bush made a loud statement Sunday that he should be one of them.
Bush had a modest 65 yards on 19 carries — rookie Lamar Miller, the ex-Cane, ran better with 73 yards on 10 carries — but Bush reminded us he is a playmaker. The team traded away one of those in Brandon Marshall. Can it afford to let another one slip away in pending free agency?
Bush said it never occurred to him Sunday that the home finale might be his last game before Dolfans.
What he calls “the business side” will come soon enough, but Bush made his case for being a player Miami should want back. Needs back.
His three TDs Sunday came on two splendid receptions sandwiched around a 1-yard run. He turned a swing pass into a 17-yard scoring play with the ball stretched out over the goal line on a horizontal dive. His later 12-yard scoring catch was an over-the-shoulder grab on the edge of the end zone on a Tannehill throw that had to be perfect and was.
“He’s a good guy with the football in his hands,” coach Joe Philbin understated, of Bush.
“Reggie’s a real weapon,” Tannehill said.
Said Bills coach Chan Gailey: “He’s always a factor.”
Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman seems to have had an epiphany and lately realized that Bush is a threat catching passes, too.
Um, why wasn’t that the case all season, Reg?
“I don’t know,” he said, with a slight smile. “You have to ask the offensive coordinator.”
The chance of the playoffs disappeared, the Dolphins will end their season next week at New England.
Then it gets interesting.
Then the offseason starts.
And the opportunity.