Imagine going to Baltimore, into one of the league’s most hostile environment, a place where your team hasn’t won in two decades, and your assignment is to block Terrell Suggs, who’s among the most terrifying pass rushers in football.
And now imagine being asked to do all that with one hand.
Branden Albert doesn’t have to imagine. He lived it. After he dislocated his left wrist in mid-November, the Dolphins’ left tackle pledged to his fellow linemen that he would be back in time for the Ravens game. He kept his promise, even though his left hand — his edge-blocking hand — was all but useless just a few weeks after surgery.
“I didn’t want to let them down,” Albert told the Miami Herald. “You always can second-guess if you came back premature, but it’s football. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to help your team and sacrifice what you need to sacrifice.”
The Dolphins lost that day, but it wasn’t because of Albert. He held Suggs without a sack, blocking with his shoulder at times because it was the only tool he had.
Fast-forward three weeks, and Albert’s wrist still isn’t right, and probably won’t be until the offseason. While the sutures are out, it still swells up on him and his range of motion stinks.
But there’s another game to play Saturday, and it might be the biggest one this franchise has had in eight years. So there’s zero chance Albert would miss it.
If the Dolphins beat the Bills Christmas Eve, they’re all but certain to make the playoffs, If they lose, those odds fall to just 28 percent, according to fivethirtyeight.com.
So a long-elusive goal for a once-dominant franchise is tantalizingly close. And it’s only because Albert’s sacrifice, while heroic, has been the rule, not the exception.
The entire franchise, from the owner to the equipment staff, has given much of themselves for the greater good.
“I think the sacrifices our guys have made this year is [that] there was a complete buy in from the day that Adam [Gase] walked in the door,” longtime Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said. “I think there was a belief when he got the job with the coaching staff. I think there was a belief with the players. He’s a very energetic, positive person, and I think that has trickled its way through the locker room. It has been nice to see.”
Gase’s predecessor, Dan Campbell, once said that a coach has no bigger responsibility than managing personalities.
Gase has succeeded where others have failed.
He helped convince owner Stephen Ross to hand over his franchise (and untold millions of dollars) to a rookie head coach.
He helped convince offensive linemen Laremy Tunsil and Jermon Bushrod to learn a new position.
He helped convince Ndamukong Suh, the gifted but standoffish defensive tackle, to become a team leader.
He helped convince Matt Moore to return to Miami as a backup for little more than the league minimum.
He helped convince longtime defensive assistant Jim Washburn, who just turned 67, to return for a 40th year of coaching.
He helped convinced DeVante Parker that, yes, there is a difference between being hurt and being injured, and that he’ll never be great if he can’t play through pain.
And he helped convince Cameron Wake to subjugate his playing time — and stats — early in the season so he’d be available late in the year.
Had any of these men refused Gase, the Dolphins might not be 9-5 now and on the verge of their first playoff appearance since 2008.
“This whole unit, we haven’t had any of the whining, ‘I’m not getting this, I’m not getting that,’ ” Dolphins offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said. “I’ve really been impressed with this football team, I think that’s been our strength as we’ve gone on this little mini run.
“That’s rare in this league. It’s rare in a big-market city. It’s rare on a team that hasn’t had a huge amount of success and some of those things. I think that’s really been a strength. That’s probably what I’ve been the most proud of being a part of is that these guys just keep coming and keep going.”
Winning, of course, helps, and the Dolphins have done a lot of that in the past two months. That wasn’t the case the first month of the season, however. They started 1-4 and the vibe wasn’t right, Christensen said.
“Those first five games, our sideline wasn’t healthy,” he added. “It wasn’t right. It didn’t feel like a winning sideline. Since then, we kind of just sold all along that, ‘Hey, if we just stay together ...’ ”
They have, and reeled off eight wins in their past nine games. One more win Saturday combined with a Denver loss on Sunday night would punch their postseason ticket with a week to play.
And all of that sacrifice will at last be rewarded.
Said Rizzi: “At 1-4 where maybe the rest of the country thought the wheels were coming off the wagon here, he circled the wagons — if you will — and said, ‘We’re not going to go off of our mentality, because we’re 1-4. We’re going to stick with the same exact things we’ve doing every week,’ and it has paid off. I think the guys have really bought in.”