You know what rebuilding in pro football feels like? Try standing and remaining stable during airplane turbulence. Try building your home’s foundation in a terrible storm. Howling engulfs you, and patience and perspective, which are almost always helpful tools, don’t feel like them inside of noise and panic.
That’s why, in this confusing league that legislates parity, where just about everybody feels like they are a piece away, the only team that actually announced it was rebuilding was the Colts. (Oddly enough, they are going to the playoffs anyway.) Your paying customers want a chance, not a project, especially now that the home experience is better than the stadium experience. If you rebuild it, they will not come.
But look around your sad stadium Sunday, Dolfans, as the AFC East continues this decade-long wait for Tom Brady to please, please hurry up and age. Hard as it is to see from here, with a stadium that will be embarrassing in its emptiness Sunday, in a season that has stirred the one thing you can’t in the emotion business (indifference), the Dolphins have actually done a much better job of being smart and patient about their rebuilding than either of the two other division teams chasing the gold-standard Patriots for the rights to the future.
Here come the broken Bills, with the worst defense in the league and a fresh $96 million tied up in Mario Williams, who was supposed to fix that. Their quarterback? Ryan Fitzpatrick, earning $59 million without much proof that he’s any kind of answer. The Jets? They’re paying butt-fumbler Mark Sanchez $11.75 million for this disaster of a year — as much as the Patriots are paying Brady, in other words. This as Miami pays Ryan Tannehill $390,000 in base salary this season, $480,000 next, $570,000 after that and $660,000 four years from now.
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Sizing up talent
The science of evaluating talent is famously unscientific. This is true before players get on your roster — Brady was a sixth-round pick — and after you’ve already seen them for a very long time. Fitzpatrick and Sanchez are handcuffing their teams after spending years in those uniforms, given bloated extensions by front-office people who had been evaluating them for years. Calmly, the Dolphins walk into the future, through this junkyard of expensive Bills and Jets parts, with about $60 million in salary-cap room and more draft picks in the first 100 than any team in the league.
You don’t trust general manager Jeff Ireland with that, right? That’s fair. That mistrust has been earned over a decade of counterfeit saviors, and his own recent rash of cheap, free agent failures and draft picks who aren’t contributing. But the Dolphins are in the position every rebuilder wants to be in, with young and cheap promise at quarterback and the money and picks to go get him help.
You have to do something with all that, of course. As former Dolphin Jason Taylor says, “They got a second-round pick for me and took Pat White.” But more picks means more margin for error, and more chances to get lucky the way the Patriots did with Brady in the sixth round, tilting inherently unscientific odds in your favor. All of this is very hard to sell to your fan base, of course, which is why the owner has had to buy so many tickets just to keep the team on free TV, but we’d all like to have bosses who have shown the kind of loyalty and faith that Ross has in Ireland amid this turbulence. We’ll learn, with Tannehill’s evolution, whether this kind of marital stability in the front office is Patriots good or Marlins bad.
Bills, Jets falter
Still, there is some soothing in this: The Bills and Jets entered this season very loudly but would be willing to trade places with the Dolphins today. Fitzpatrick has 45 turnovers the past two years. Sanchez has 50. In his first year, which ought to be his worst year, given how little he has played the position in his life, Tannehill has 15. Yes, you’d rather have the instant fix-a-flat that Indianapolis, Washington and Seattle received at quarterback, rebuilding while not looking like it, rebuilding with buzz, but this season was never about catching the Patriots. And now the Jets and Bills are closer to having an expensive No at quarterback while the Dolphins have a cheap Maybe.
You take your optimism where you can get it when the stadium is this empty in December.
Dolphins-Bills doesn’t matter all that much today, but it will matter tomorrow.
The Bills thought they were close when they won last offseason with Williams, this is as the Dolphins drowned in negative noise, but they were wrong in a way that gets people fired. And now they are behind Miami in more than just the standings.