Welcome to the 2014 Dolphins season, a span of four months (five if the team gets in the playoffs) that comes with threats of horrible depths but also promises of a ceiling that could rival the Sistine Chapel.
If things go exactly right, the Dolphins could make the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and maybe actually win a postseason game for the first time since January 2001.
With a defensive line that is not only loaded but also versatile enough to shift into multiple fronts, a deep and talented receiver corps, a new offensive line, indeed, a new offense, and a fresh attitude that put last year’s harassment scandal in the past, this team merits every ounce of optimism that today surrounds it.
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If things go wrong, as they have consistently for so long — remember Daunte Culpepper instead of Drew Brees, Fail Forward Fast, and coaches and general managers not talking — then this Dolphins season could lead to a seismic quake that shakes Joe Philbin from his job and perhaps a dozen current starters from the roster.
So this is a high-stakes season for the Dolphins.
Owner Stephen Ross has opened his wallet for an offseason roster upgrade and will keep the cash flowing during a coming reconstruction of Sun Life Stadium. But he wants a return on his investment.
He has said multiple times he expects to go to the playoffs. He has given no guarantees or endorsements to anyone at the Davie training facility that extends beyond this season.
So what’s at stake this season?
This is going to be one of those defining seasons that either settles the franchise for the near future or points the whole place in a completely different direction.
Think about it: Philbin easily kept his job after going 7-9 and missing the playoffs in 2012. He easily survived last year’s 8-8 record, a late-season collapse and that national scandal.
Could he get away with another year like either of those two again? Can he get away with another year in which the team fails to make the playoffs?
Although Ross isn’t saying publicly, the informed guess here is no.
But if the coach does get the Dolphins in the playoffs, Philbin would cement his status in Miami. He probably get a contract extension.
It really is feast or famine.
About two dozen players, led by quarterback Ryan Tannehill, are in similar situations.
Play well and win, and all is well. Lose too much and the new coach probably won’t think so highly of you.
Tannehill is the face of this at-risk group as he is the face of the franchise.
He was excused as a rookie for not playing well even as other rookies such as Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson got into the playoffs. Last year he was excused for being better but still not good enough because the offensive line was terrible and the offensive scheme didn’t work.
“I think that I am at the point in my career now where progression has to be made fast and you have to be consistent and there are no more rookie mistakes or second-year mistakes,” Tannehill said.
To put it more succinctly: “You can’t play quarterback and have excuses,” Tannehill said.
Tannehill gets it. No more excuses.
The truly amazing thing is that it could all go in either direction for this team. The Dolphins really seem good enough to reach rare heights. But they also seem flawed enough to fail miserably.
Remember that last year the team followed a stunning victory over eventual division champion New England with a depressing loss to division cellar dweller Buffalo.
Celebration one day.
Depression seven days later.
As Dolphins CEO and president Tom Garfinkel said recently, “…The NFL has a lot of parity. You never know what’s going to happen … .”
What happens Sunday when the Dolphins open with the Patriots could give hints. If the Dolphins can beat the Patriots, logic dictates they can beat any team in the division.
And the Dolphins are enthusiastic about the opportunity.
Philbin, normally reserved, has called this “a special week,” and has talked about being “excited” about this game.
“I like it this way,” receiver Brian Hartline said. “You put so much work in, so who better to open up against than a team that’s in your division and [been the] leader the past decade or so? It’s not like you put all this work in and then you’re playing an off team. I wouldn’t want it to start any other way.”
Welcome to a defining Dolphins season.