Miami Dolphins

Dolphins’ performance vs. Bills could be barometer for team’s future

Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin on the sideline as the Buffalo Bills host the Miami Dolphins at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014.
Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin on the sideline as the Buffalo Bills host the Miami Dolphins at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The day the Miami Dolphins learned they would return to London in 2015, a veteran player with multiple years left on his contract was asked if he was excited about another trip abroad.

His response, after pausing to shrug his shoulders: “One year at a time, man. I’m just trying to get through this year.”

The inference: He has no guarantees that he – or many of his teammates – will actually be on the roster to make that trip.

That’s the uncertain backdrop Thursday night, when the Dolphins host the Bills in a critical showdown of 5-4 teams. The postseason stakes are high. The future is cloudy – at least for the home team.

“It’s a very important game,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin acknowledged. “It is the middle of November already. It’s hard to believe. If you want to be a great football team, you have to play great in your division. This is a big game. It’s a big division game. It’s a home game. You have to play well.”

Added running back Lamar Miller: “I think every guy in this locker room knows how important this game is.”

Here’s how important: With a loss, the road to the postseason becomes the path to the top of K2. The Dolphins would need to win at Denver or New England – and maybe even both – to have a realistic chance at the playoffs.

But there’s a broader reason why a win Thursday night is essential: Philbin’s margin for error is quickly approaching zero.

The next seven games will determine the fate of this franchise. Is Ryan Tannehill the team’s quarterback going forward? Will Philbin be back for a fourth year? And if not, will GM Dennis Hickey be the collateral damage?

Those are decisions, ultimately, that will fall to owner Stephen Ross and his close circle of advisers (team CEO Tom Garfinkel, RSE Ventures head Matt Higgins and perhaps even Dan Marino).

However, there’s growing belief around the organization that the conventional wisdom – Philbin must make the playoffs to save his job – might be flawed.

Ross, who is personally fond of Philbin and loyal to his employees, might be persuaded to keep the current apparatus in place, should the team finish 9-7. A caveat: It depends on how that 9-7 comes about.

If the Dolphins lose their last two games and miss the playoffs for the sixth straight year – particularly since those last two games are against the also-rans Vikings and Jets – nothing will probably save Philbin. (And the prevailing wisdom is that if Philbin goes, so will Hickey after just one season.)

But if the Dolphins remain competitive throughout and show Ross they are indeed trending upward, there’s a very real chance that Philbin returns in 2015, even at 9-7.

And given Ross’ history, Philbin might even get an extension, however modest. Ross historically doesn’t like his high-level employees working on one-year deals, and even Jeff Ireland was extended before the 2013 season – only to be out as GM by year’s end.

Players are traditionally far removed from such machinations, but not so this year. Within the Dolphins’ locker room, there’s an understanding of what’s at stake.

Though players privately insist it’s not a motivating factor, they know they’re essentially playing for their coach’s job.

They’re probably playing for their own, too. The Dolphins have 12 unrestricted free agents – including six starters – whose contracts end when the season does.

You’d think that the front office would try to lock some of these contributors up long-term, but that has not been the case. Some agents haven’t even gotten a phone call from the Dolphins broaching the subject.

And the belief around the league is that dynamic is due, at least in small part, to the uncertainty about who will be running this franchise next year. Why green-light a multi-year deal for Charles Clay if you’re not sure whoever’s coaching the Dolphins in 2015 wants Clay on their team?

One way Philbin can show improvement is to finally beat the Bills, to whom he has lost four times in five meetings.

The Dolphins were swept by Buffalo in 2013 – the No. 1 reason they missed the playoffs – and were trounced 29-10 in Western New York back in September.

“We can’t get swept within our division, particularly two years in a row,” said receiver Mike Wallace. “We can’t lose to these guys four times in a row. We just can’t do it. We’ll be ready on Thursday.”

It’s the most important game of the year, Wallace added.

Perhaps more than he knows.

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