It has been nearly a month since the Dolphins won a football game and, frankly, that time has unfairly painted the early part of this season in gloomy, dull colors.
The team that was 3-0 and flying high after wins at Indianapolis and against Atlanta seemed to offer so many possibilities. No, they were never going to challenge Don Shula’s 1972 team for a stake in perfection, but maybe they could challenge the diminished Patriots for a division title or at least get in the playoffs.
Remember those days?
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was looking like a franchise quarterback. The defense, hobbled by injuries, was nonetheless making big plays. And although there were warts, there also were high hopes for this season.
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These Dolphins, on a two-game skid and coming off a bye week, have been chewing on failure for too long, and everyone is under hostile scrutiny.
The offensive line has been shredded on the field and in the media (not unfairly, by the way) because it has given up sacks at a franchise-record pace.
Tannehill, in his spare moments while not being sacked, has been questioned about inconsistent timing with deep-threat Mike Wallace and his six fumbles that lead the team.
Miami gave up 38 points to New Orleans, and suddenly a defense that was supposed to be the team’s strength is searching for identity. If you doubt that search exists, consider defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle rejected the notion his is a bend-but-don’t-break unit, and the next day coach Joe Philbin called it a bend-but-don’t-break unit.
The good-news Dolphins of early September seemed to evaporate too quickly.
The bad-news Dolphins have lingered like scavengers over a landfill.
So allow me to offer some perspective on these seemingly vastly different teams:
These 3-2 Dolphins, which are favored to beat Buffalo on Sunday and improve to 4-2, are not quite what people hoped they would be when they were 3-0. They’re still not the class of the AFC East because if New England gets healthy, that distinction will remain with the Patriots.
But this is nonetheless a good team.
This is nonetheless a playoff-contending team.
Things are not as dire as they’ve seemed the past few weeks.
The Dolphins have the feel of a team that will be in the playoff chase for the remainder of this season as long as the routine wave of injuries that hits most NFL teams doesn’t grow to tsunami proportions.
Yes, the too-frequent sacks and absent running game are unsustainable. They threaten success the rest of the season.
But one expects Philbin and his staff to have earned their paychecks by coming up with solutions to the problems during the bye. (We don’t know what those solutions are, but good coaches, given extra time, solve these problems.)
“We know what we want to do,” receiver Brian Hartline said. “We know what we want to be. But at this point, we’re not protecting the football well enough, we’re not protecting our quarterback well enough. I think we still want to generate more big plays, although we’re up there in the league in big plays. We want to continue doing that. It’s a clear-cut easy diagnosis.”
And that would put the focus back on the Miami locker room — on the talent.
The Dolphins still have a good roster. And the men on that roster feel as confident about themselves now as they did when they were 3-0 a month ago.
“I think in this room, the expectations of the guys are high and haven’t changed since they were established back in April,” defensive end Cameron Wake said. “First time I stepped out for OTAs and I watched [Dannell] Ellerbe, [Phillip] Wheeler and [Brent] Grimes, and being with Randy Starks and Paul Soliai for years, seeing our defense work together, my expectations are we can stop anybody.
“Why not? We have the best D-line in the league. We’ve got pass rushers. We’ve got amazing corners. Where is there not talent?”
Anyone disappointed by Miami’s 3-2 record should recall that many so-called experts (one named Salguero) believed Miami might actually be 1-4 at the bye. Before this season began, it didn’t seem outrageous to think the Dolphins would have lost at Indianapolis as they did last season (they didn’t) and couldn’t beat Atlanta (they did).
And although the Baltimore loss two weeks ago was deflating, it speaks of Miami’s high hopes that a loss to the defending Super Bowl champion is the huge disappointment it has been.
“If you said at the beginning of the season they’ll be in that game until the fourth quarter and then miss a field goal with a chance to tie, you might be happy with that,” Hartline said. “But our expectations are a lot higher. A loss is a loss to us, and we’re still frustrated about that.”
The frustration is understandable. But it shouldn’t be the thing.
The season is not lost. It still promises good things, starting Sunday.
“On this team, there’s so much talent,” Wake said. “And when I watch our defense line up across from an offense or on occasion I’ll watch our offense line up against a defense and I’ll say, ‘Our line should beat them, our running backs are better than their linebackers, our receivers are better than their DBs,’ and I think we should win.
“Does it happen every day out? No, but my expectation is still there. I look at Sunday and see Buffalo and see Miami, and I’m saying this should be a win for us.”