The saving grace is that the NFL is a league built mostly for parity, and there are so many flawed teams in the AFC that one of them will be not so terrible enough as to sneak in as the last playoff qualifier.
And the Dolphins, losers of six of their past eight outings, are still alive in that fateful chase to make a postseason appearance even while not actually deserving to be in the postseason.
So cheer up, Dolphins nation, your team is inconsistent and often struggles to finish games. It cannot hold big halftime leads, and the coaching staff doesn’t necessarily instill confidence …
… But that’s OK because there are a bunch of other teams fighting the same uphill battle. One of them or perhaps the Dolphins is bound to win that fight —even if that victory happens because everyone else slipped on a bar of soap in clown fashion and knocked themselves out.
But step back from all that. Let us be honest here, folks. We all know how this is going to end. We know this season that began with such promise and a seemingly different vibe is headed in the wrong direction even if it somehow by sheer happenstance ends in the right place.
We know something is wrong.
We know this team doesn’t have it.
And the reason we know is we’ve seen this same sad act this year and for years before that. And that suggests the same problems simply don’t get solved.
Think of it:
The Dolphins blew a 16-6 halftime lead on Sunday and lost 20-16 to the Carolina Panthers. Did that not look a lot like the loss to New England five weeks ago when the Dolphins held a 17-3 halftime lead and lost 27-17?
The Dolphins failed to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Carolina. We’ve seen that before, too. This game was the seventh consecutive game the Miami offense failed to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
And this game once again uncovered the Miami defense as a unit unable to shut down the opposition when the game was on the line – kind of like happened against Baltimore and Buffalo and so many other times in the past few years.
This team is like a terrible rewind of Groundhog Day, reliving past experiences, trying to solve the same old problems, while never deviating much from the 7-9, 8-8, 9-7 course of the last decade.
The course to irrelevancy.
These Dolphins look a lot like those Dolphins.
That’s why after Sunday’s game there stood defensive end Cameron Wake, surrounded by a huddle of reporters, trying to explain how the Panthers completed a fourth-quarter fourth-and-10 play on their winning touchdown drive.
“That’s unacceptable,” Wake said in a voice barely above a whisper that reminded of the similar postgame news conferences Jason Taylor gave in similar hushed tones and dire situations.
“In that situation, they can’t put points on the board. Things were looking good for us right there and they made a play to put a field goal on the board going into halftime. Obviously, that’s not the way you want to close out the half. It’s frustrating.”
Over at the other end of the locker room, receiver Mike Wallace should have been enjoying a fine game. He caught five passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. He caught a 57-yard pass and was open deep on three others that showed great potential for the days ahead.
But instead of enjoying an exclamation point of a day, Wallace had to explain the one big drop that might have given Miami the lead with 10 seconds to play – a 60-yard heave by Ryan Tannehill that, tough as it was to catch, could have been a crowning moment for Wallace.
“I tried to find the ball,” Wallace said. “I had a big cushion, big run across the field. Just tried to make a play on the ball … I just didn’t make the play.”
Wallace is a dynamic player. He is proven, having done great things in Pittsburgh. And if he ever leaves Miami, he’ll do great things wherever he goes. But here in Miami, for some reason, there’s always something that doesn’t click.
Sometimes he’s open and quarterback Tannehill underthrows. Sometimes Wallace is open but the offensive line protection doesn’t hold up. Sometimes Wallace drops the certain touchdown.
And we saw this exact same thing with Brandon Marshall, who was better in Denver than he was in Miami and is better now in Chicago than he was in Miami.
Why is it great players come here to underperform?
Tannehill, by the way, is increasingly getting attention as a player we’ve seen before as well. He has a great arm. He works later and longer than anyone. He prepares, he listens, he wants to be great.
But something’s missing.
Did I tell you he underthrew Wallace on plays that could have gone for three touchdowns had he hit the wide receiver in stride? It’s the same problem with deep ball accuracy we have been seeing for his 27 starts.
No, he doesn’t throw the pass that makes you wonder what he’s doing. In that regard he’s not as bad as Chad Henne. But the Dolphins expect Tannehill to connect, they expect him to score touchdowns in the second half, they expect him to be the answer.
Instead he’s still a question.
“I can’t put my finger on it,” Tannehill said when asked why scoring in the second half has been so problematic. “We got behind the chains it felt like today in the second half. That’s a good defense but at the same time we had our opportunities to move the chains, get in the end zone and we didn’t do it.”
This is also is familiar: The Dolphins coaching staff that at times does some fine work too often makes the wrong game-defining decisions.
No, on Sunday it wasn’t Tony Sparano fist-pumping a field goal or Cam Cameron wanting his team to fail forward fast or even Dave Wannstedt incessantly running his hand through his hair while wearing a confused look.
It was the Panthers having eight seconds before the end of the first half with the ball at their 43-yard line and the Miami coaches deciding the way to play it was line up the secondary at or near the goal line.
Well, Cam Newton completed a 29-yard pass to Brandon LaFell in front of the surprised defensive backfield, taking only seven seconds to do it and setting up a 46-yard field goal.
Afterward, coach Joe Philbin was asked to explain. And mostly what he did was credit LaFell for a smart play and the Panthers for an “absolutely good play.”