The loudest cheer Thursday night came when Leonte Carroo snatched a 33-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Doughty out of the humid Miami Gardens air.
The second-loudest cheer? It came when both the Dolphins and the Falcons were in the locker room.
A couple got engaged on the big screen at halftime — congrats Emma! — and the crowd went nuts.
It was a fun moment. But it was also apt. The Dolphins are still glowing from a union no one could have imagined two weeks ago.
Jay Cutler didn’t take a single snap in the Dolphins’ preseason opener Thursday, but he’s still all anyone talked about.
Just three days after ending his retirement for a one-year, $10 million contract, Cutler was already paying dividends. The team store at Hard Rock Stadium on Thursday night had his No. 6 jersey out front and center.
“We were lucky [Cutler] didn’t cost us a draft choice,” owner Stephen Ross said from the broadcast booth. “It cost me a lot of money.”
Not signing Cutler might have cost more, of course. It could have doomed the Dolphins’ season.
That’s why the loyal souls who showed up Thursday to see their team beat the Falcons 23-20 were able to leave the Rock with optimism, even if there wasn’t a ton from the Dolphins’ starters to inspire it.
The tone for a ragged night was set two minutes in.
The Dolphins offense couldn’t even get the first snap off in time and had to burn a timeout. And it didn’t get any better from there.
Matt Moore went three-and-out in his only drive of the night, and on the ensuing punt the Dolphins lost arguably their most promising linebacker, Raekwon McMillan, to a knee injury — the severity of which was not immediately known.
But Night 1 of the preseason isn’t about the starters. A bunch of Miami’s sat out Thursday, and those who didn’t were out of the game quickly.
So anyone who gleans much of anything from a team standpoint is on a fool’s errand.
But preseason game No. 1 does give coaches — both real ones and those who play one on Twitter — an early feel for who belongs.
Carroo never gave off that feeling last year. He was overweight and underwhelming.
But Carroo, a third-round pick in 2016, recommitted himself to the game this offseason, and Dolphins coach Adam Gase has noticed.
“I feel like he has a way better grip on the playbook,” Gase said. “He’s playing way faster. His game speed, or practice speed in this case, has been light years from last year.”
Just ask C.J. Goodwin, the Falcons cornerback assigned to Carroo on the touchdown play. The route wasn’t all that exotic — basically a go — but Goodwin flailed when Carroo adjusted to an excellent 33-yard throw from Doughty.
Who else impressed?
Quite a few Dolphins, actually.
Rookie Davon Godchaux, who has worked his way into the starting lineup, was as advertised. The young defensive tackle was a presence in the middle.
William Hayes, the veteran defensive end brought in to shore up the run defense, had two tackles in his first game in a Dolphins uniform.
“We wanted a guy that’s going to be aggressive versus the run and still rush the passer, and he has done a great job,” Gase said of Hayes.
Even without four starters on the offensive line, the pass protection was solid. Neither Moore nor Doughty were sacked, and they were barely even hit.
Running back Kenyan Drake made a compelling argument to be Jay Ajayi’s primary backup.
With Ajayi watching from the sidelines — as of Tuesday, he was still in the concussion protocol — Drake rushed for 21 yards on four carries.
Jakeem Grant never had much space in the return game, but he handled every punt he fielded Thursday after struggling with drops as a rookie.
And wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow surely got a second look from coaches with a 99-yard touchdown catch.
But this was all a fun diversion from the real story.
Cutler’s time is coming.
The courtship is officially over.