Armando Salguero

‘Optimism for next year’ could come with significant pitfalls for the Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins Ryan Tannehill and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen watch from the sideline as the game slips away in the fourth quarter as they play the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL Wild-Card Playoffs at Heinz Stadium, Pittsburgh, PA, January 8, 2017.
Miami Dolphins Ryan Tannehill and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen watch from the sideline as the game slips away in the fourth quarter as they play the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL Wild-Card Playoffs at Heinz Stadium, Pittsburgh, PA, January 8, 2017. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

PITTSBURGH, PA. -- The Miami Dolphins got their rears handed to them early Sunday afternoon and soon afterward the common theme among players and fans was that the team that has been so bad for so long did pretty well by simply making it to the playoffs this year.

So Sunday’s 30-12 whipping to the Pittsburgh Steelers hurts. But it’s understandable.

And it’s better to go to the playoffs and lose than not to go at all.

Me?

I like Stephen Ross’s approach a little more. The team’s owner, getting his first taste of playoff football, left Heinz Field with a bitter taste in his mouth but hope for a brighter future in his heart.

“Today everybody in this room is disappointed,” Ross said. “But the basis is here to really create something in the right direction. I believe it.

“I think we’ve come a long way from where we started. I’m certainly unhappy right now. But I’m happy in the direction we’re going and I think we have the right coach and the right people in place ... That gives you optimism for next year.”

It’s good to have optimism for a brighter future. The Dolphins have been excellent at having hope for brighter futures for two decades without, you know, often delivering that brightness once the future arrives.

The difference now is the team seems to have a leadership structure that has figured out their roles and are doing good work in those roles without departing lanes and trying to run the whole show. The Dolphins have in executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum, general manager Chris Grier and coach Adam Gase a trio that has proven it can put a playoff team together.

Proven is a big deal. That’s important.

But these guys put together a playoff team that, well, wasn’t good enough. Forgive the bluntness but do you want bouquets or do you want truth?

The Dolphins aren’t close to their goal. As Ross noted when he was asked how close the team is, the Dolphins are “three games away,” meaning three wins from reaching the Super Bowl.

That is closer than Miami has been since 2008. But that doesn’t mean the Dolphins are close to being a championship contender. They’re simply relevant now. But let’s not get carried away and think that’s good.

The Jets, you should know, were relevant last year.

The Indianapolis Colts, you’ll recall, were relevant for a couple years in 2012-13.

The 2008 Dolphins were relevant.

How’d that work out?

Relevant is not a goal. The goal is to be championship caliber. And the Dolphins have significant questions to answer before they fly in that orbit.

For me the first, second and third things this team must do to be championship caliber is address the defense this offseason. Frankly, this unit is bad, as proven by those six times in seven games it gave up at least 30 points to end the season.

And -- ready for the tough part? -- there’s a chance this unit might get worse unless Tannenbaum, Grier and Gase do really good work.

How?

Well, the defensive end spot is a major concern. Cameron Wake had a very good season but he’s a few days shy of 35 years old. So unless he’s going to get way better as he gets much older, the Dolphins have an issue here and the worry is they have zero talent at the position after him.

Mario Williams, terrible all season, is going to be cut.

Andre Branch, solid after signing a one-year deal late last offseason, is a free agent and wants to get paid. And that’s going to be interesting because Branch was good while making $2.75 million this year. But he wasn’t $10 million-a-year good and he just might get that in free agency.

Dion Jordan? He’s played his last game for the Dolphins. After being suspended twice for violating both the performance enhancing drug program and the program of substances of abuse (street drugs), Jordan got hurt while on suspension. Who does that? Then he required not one but two knee surgeries.

And now I’m told he’s having “issues” again that effectively will get him cut this offseason. That 26-year-old former No. 3 overall pick isn’t riding to the rescue at defensive end.

So even if the Dolphins re-sign Branch, they need to add another potential starting defensive end. It is their most pressing need.

The Dolphins are also a mess at linebacker. Everyone not named Kiko Alonso is on the bubble for returning in 2017 so this group is going to be remade.

The nugget of good news here is the possibility Koa Misi, who recently had successful neck surgery, wants to return to play next year. That, by the way, is a small nugget because even if Misi comes back he’s injury-prone and doesn’t merit the Dolphins actually counting on him even if they keep him.

None of this is wonderful news. But it is the reality of addressing issues on a defense that didn’t make enough plays while missing too many tackles and blowing too many assignments on Sunday.

And did I mention the offensive line needs addressing and Kenny Stills is a pending free agent and we have no idea what Ryan Tannehill will look like and play like with a knee brace and a diminished ability to run?

These Dolphins were fun to watch in 2016. They turned what started as a disappointing season into a playoff trip. But that trip is over and none of what happened this season guarantees a return to the playoffs next year.

All that’s guaranteed is this team has significant flaws that a good leadership team must tackle. Unlike their defenders did too often this season, Miami’s leaders better not miss.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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