When you have lost the Dolfan-Maniac, you have lost the country (or at least Miami-Dade County).
And the Dolphins this spring came perilously close to doing just that.
For two decades, Roger Avila has been a faithful season-ticket holder. But he has been much more. He’s a true fanatic. Avila comes to games in an elaborate getup reserved usually for professional wrestlers. Face paint. Personalized jersey. Beads. And a wig.
But after yet another exercise in rooting futility last season — when the Dolphins lost their final two games to miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season — the Maniac nearly hung up his shoulder pads.
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“Every year, I keep saying to my son [who shares his name], ‘Roger, this is my last year. Roger this is my last year,’ ” Avila said.
And it probably would have been, had the Dolphins not made wholesale changes.
Embattled general manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman are out. Dennis Hickey and Bill Lazor are in.
Those moves not only showed Avila that the Dolphins were serious about getting this historic franchise fixed. It gave him hope, which, along with tradition, has been the Dolphins’ best (and perhaps only) sales pitch.
“There’s a lot of hope this season,” said Avila, 51, who still remembers going to games during the Dolphins’ 1972 perfect season. “When I saw what was going on, we brought Lazor in, got a new general manager, we’ve got a little hope left. Give me a little hope, and I won’t leave.”
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is just as tired of losing as Avila. So he acted. Ross gave Hickey the OK to spend millions to rebuild an offensive line that was, frankly, offensive in 2013. And Lazor has installed a scheme that, by all appearances, will drag the Dolphins out of the football dark ages.
“There are different paths and different ways, but we’ve got to score more points than we have, absolutely,” said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, whose seat is hot after two mediocre seasons.
Philbin’s goal is for the Dolphins to average 25 points per game this year. That comes out to 400 for the season — probably enough to put a team with a competent defense into the playoffs.
Sounds easy. It has been anything but for a franchise that hasn’t scored 400 points in a season since 1986 — Dan Marino’s fourth year in the league.
Want to know why Ireland and Sherman are gone? Here’s the short answer: The Dolphins ranked 27th in total offense in 2013 and weren’t particularly good at anything. They were 26th in rushing and 20th in passing.
Last season, eight of the 12 playoff teams ranked in the top 10 in scoring. Carolina, at 22.9 points per game, was the lowest-scoring playoff team — but the Panthers made up for it with the league’s No. 2 defense. By way of comparison, the Dolphins have averaged 23 or more points per season just once since Marino retired.
But again, there’s that word — hope. Lazor’s offense is fresh. It’s fast-paced. It’s multiple. And it’s arguably more talented than any Dolphins group in a decade.
The Dolphins might have the best collection of receivers on the East Coast. The offensive line that allowed 58 sacks last year has been rebuilt. And the toxic locker room atmosphere has been fumigated by a coach who’s determined to be more open and diligent.
Questions remain, of course. The running game is troublesome. The Dolphins were the worst tackling team in their division a year ago, and the same starting linebackers are back for another go-round.
“I think I’m looking at a better football team than I saw last year, especially a team that if you had scored one more touchdown a game, you’ve probably won 10 games,” said Kim Bokamper, the former Dolphins linebacker-turned-sportscaster. “I think there’s reason for optimism, but they’ve got to go out and do it on the field.”
And that starts with fixing an offense that has had issues since the turn of the century. Lazor needs to call the right plays at the right time.
Then it falls on the players Hickey has assembled to run them effectively.
Or put a different way, should these franchise cornerstones play to their abilities, all that hope might finally be realized.
Onus on Tannehill
Ryan Tannehill has thrown as many touchdown passes as Robert Griffin III (36). He has a better career completion percentage (59.4) than Andrew Luck. And Tannehill has more career passing yards (7,207) than Russell Wilson.
All three of the those quarterbacks, however, have done something he hasn’t: been to the playoffs. For Tannehill to secure his long-term future in Miami, he would be well-served to join his draft classmates from 2012. There is no guarantee that Ross wouldn’t completely clean house with another failed season.
“I’m excited about this team,” Tannehill said. “I’m excited about the players we have first and foremost, I’m excited about the offense we have and the meshing of the two. I think it’s a good fit; the personnel we have is a good fit for this offense.”
Tannehill associates said he lacked such optimism at the end of the 2013 season, when the Dolphins missed the playoffs because the offense simply stopped working. Just one of Miami’s final 25 possessions ended in points.
For Tannehill to grow, the Dolphins had to move on from Sherman, who was his coach at Texas A&M before joining Philbin in Miami.
“It was tough,” Tannehill said. “It hurt for a long time after the season ended. ... It took me awhile to let my mind and body heal, and look at it several times and get past it.”
Dolphins fans can relate.
Albert a key piece
Branden Albert almost was a Dolphin a year before he actually became a Dolphin. And if not for that near-miss, Sherman and Ireland both still might have jobs.
Albert thought he was headed to Miami in a draft-weekend trade from Kansas City in 2013. But Ireland balked at the Chiefs’ terms, believing he had enough in Jonathan Martin at left tackle to win. The result — a team record in sacks and a franchise-bruising bullying scandal — proved him epically wrong. The Dolphins’ line play derailed their season.
Now, Albert has a chance to wipe clean the slate. The ace pass protector was Miami’s No. 1 priority in free agency last spring, and the feeling was mutual.
“Miami was my first team out of everybody,” Albert said. “I pretty much knew I wasn’t coming back to Kansas City. Arizona had interest, but I knew I was coming back to Miami.
“I think Miami’s my destination for the rest of my life. ... I think it was just the opportunity for me, as I was told at the beginning of the year, to continue my legacy as a football player. The quarterback got sacked 58 times, and if I could help turn it around, I could [do it] not just for me, but the whole Dolphins nation.”
Milestone in reach
Mark Duper didn’t do it. Neither did Mark Clayton.
Should Brian Hartline eclipse 1,000 receiving yards for the third consecutive season, he will become the only player in the team’s 49-year history to do so.
And whether he wants to admit it or not, Hartline has thought about the milestone. Hartline, who has tallied 1,083 and 1,016 yards in the past two seasons, became Tannehill’s go-to guy early in the quarterback’s career. That place in the pecking order alone makes him the most important person in the Dolphins’ loaded wide receivers meeting room.
“I think they’ve been my most productive [seasons],” Hartline said of 2012 and 2013. “I think this is a production-based league. The numbers don’t lie. You might have a game where [you] might not have played as good as the numbers said. Or [you] played better than [your] numbers said. But over a season’s time, I think that typically numbers don’t lie.”
And then Hartline added: “Another number is, I haven’t been in the playoffs.”
Mike Wallace has been to the playoffs. He has even been to the Super Bowl.
But he won’t be satisfied if he doesn’t repeat the feat in Miami. Because Wallace plans on finishing his career here, which means his legacy in pro football will be closely tied to his ability to get the Dolphins over the hump.
Are the playoffs a must this year?
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Nothing less. Nah. Anything less? Nuh-uh. Not at all. But we’ve got to earn it. We can’t think because we had a good team, good players, we’re going to get to the playoffs. We still have to get in there and earn it. Work hard every single day at practice, treat practice like a game, every single day.”
Wallace has bought into the program after a frustrating first year in Miami.
Lazor intends to get him the ball in a variety of ways, so even if his deep-ball connection with Tannehill doesn’t improve, his productivity most certainly will.
“This is a new beginning for us,” he said. “We have a new attitude, a new credo for our team. A new attitude.
“This year, it just feels different. The vibe feels different, the coach is different, everybody. Definitely a lot of hope. We have a lot of positivity around here last year, a lot of guys focused and anxious. We still have a sour taste in our mouths from last year.”
Avila, the Dolfan-Maniac, has tasted it for the past 20 years.