The opening of training camp is an exciting time in most NFL cities because it signals the early dawn to a new football season filled with promises and possibilities. That’s the way things felt in South Florida for a long time years ago.
The Dolphins open camp Sunday and everything that was so exciting and new about the team in the offseason will finally be on display in sweat-drenched pads and shiny new helmets. But because this franchise, so rich in tradition, has been a perennial loser lately, this training camp opens amid a guarded optimism rather than the typical full-throated expectation of greatness.
These Dolphins — players and coaches — are hopeful and confident of accomplishing grand things in 2013.
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But, like it or not, they follow previous Dolphins teams that also believed they would accomplish grand things and didn’t. Those teams expected to climb mountains but never got out the valley of four consecutive losing seasons.
So this team has to actually perform before we trust we’re headed to a new plateau.
This team has to prove it’s a winner before we think of it as a winner.
Don’t take my word for it because it is you, the fans, who already have spoken to the organization on this subject.
The fact is that while the Dolphins were busy revamping their roster by signing Mike Wallace for a whopping $60 million, selecting Dion Jordan as the first defensive player taken in the draft, and retooling other skill positions such as cornerback, running back and tight end, the ticket-buying public in South Florida was mostly unmoved.
Although the club made 10,000 calls to potential season-ticket customers every week and boasts a 75 percent renewal mark with last year’s purchasers — among the highest in the NFL — new sales have been stagnant.
The Dolphins’ season-ticket mark today?
Same as last year.
It was at 61,121 in 2006 and 51,069 in 2010.
The Dolphins have been trending in the wrong direction in recent years, and this offseason’s free agent spending spree that had the team commit to $200 million in new contracts and more than $100 million in guaranteed money didn’t change anything.
Indeed, club sources admit that outside of the free agency flirtation with Peyton Manning for a couple of weeks in 2011, “the phones haven’t rung” at the ticket office the past couple of years.
That says local fans — the ones who matter most to the team because they actually affect the bottom line — might be happy football season is back, but they’re not yet willing to bet their discretionary income on believing the Dolphins are going to win in 2013.
Those fans apparently believe they fell for one too many head fakes from the Dolphins in the past and aren’t going to be fooled again.
Those fans obviously remember the Super Bowl run that was supposed to happen in 2006 but never did. They remember the hopeful division title defense in 2009 that was aborted the second Chad Pennington was injured. They remember the Karlos Dansby and Brandon Marshall signings were supposed to put the team over the top in 2010 but never did. They remember all the significant steps the franchise was supposed to take every time a new quarterback — 16 of them from 2000 to 2012 — was either signed, drafted or acquired in trade.
Most of those steps resulted in pratfalls.
So for those fans, it’s good but no longer enough that the Dolphins drafted Ryan Tannehill. Fans want to see him actually perform like a good quarterback rather than be projected or talked up as one.
It’s good but no longer enough that Wallace, a proven threat in Pittsburgh, was signed in the offseason. Yes, he averaged eight touchdowns each of the past four seasons, but he has to actually blow the top off a defense in a Dolphins uniform before Miami fans get truly excited about his heralded speed.
Local fans want the Dolphins to show them they’re good rather than tell them they’re going to be good.
I don’t blame them. It shows wisdom to wait for the proof of this team’s abilities to show up on the field before letting hopes run amok.
That’s because this team has a chance to be really good. And an equal chance to be really disappointing.
If general manager Jeff Ireland’s calculations are right, the Dolphins might indeed fit the narrative of challenging the lessened and older New England Patriots for the AFC East title.
But those calculations come with an algebra course’s worth of variables. For instance:
Tannehill, not as productive as most other rookie quarterbacks last season, becomes a good quarterback this year.
Lamar Miller, an understudy to Reggie Bush last season, produces more than his predecessor.
Dustin Keller, injured or ineffective for the Jets last season, stays healthy this year.
Brent Grimes, on crutches much of last season after tearing his Achilles in Atlanta, returns to form at cornerback this year.
Jordan, Miami’s highest drafted rookie since 2008, plays up to his draft status after missing the entire offseason recovering from shoulder surgery.
Jonathan Martin, an inconsistent right tackle as a rookie last season, makes the transition and upgrade to a good left tackle replacing Jake Long this year.
Phillip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe, signed as high-priced upgrades to Dansby and Kevin Burnett, play like the upgrades they’re supposed to be.
It’s possible all those things happen. The Dolphins are hopeful about all of them. But if local fans share that optimism, it comes with a qualification.
It comes with much caution.