Maybe you forget, but the Miami Dolphins were 1-0 last season, too.
They had gone to Los Angeles and squeezed out a victory against the Chargers in the fourth quarter. And everyone thought that meant the Dolphins were picking up where they left off the year before when Adam Gase’s first group somehow banded together to make the playoffs despite not being exceedingly talented.
It didn’t turn out that way.
No one outside the organization knew it at the time, but those Dolphins who went to New York for the second game traveled with a lot of baggage. Yes, that early in the season.
Linebacker Lawrence Timmons had already gone AWOL and was now suspended, an issue we now know caused a distraction in the locker room.
President Donald Trump that week called NFL players who kneel during the national anthem “sons of bitches,” and that led the Dolphins to have at least one player meeting — a couple of sources say players had multiple smaller meetings — to determine a response. While a significant portion of NFL players, including Dolphins players, responded by kneeling that week, a significant portion decided to stand as they always had.
And, I was told this week, some within the Dolphins organization believe that issue became problematic for Miami. Because at one of those meetings, the entire team agreed to link arms, during the national anthem even though a large number of players didn’t want to do anything unusual at all during the national anthem. After that agreement was struck, seven players decided to go a step further and kneel. And they apparently didn’t tell their teammates that was their plan.
And that caused friction that broke down along philosophical but not racial lines because players of different colors were on each side.
There was also this: I’m told some players were considering their social stance — both for and against the kneeling — to such an extent that it cut into their football preparation that week and the following week against New Orleans. It should be pointed out the Dolphins lost both games before recovering to 4-2.
So the seeds of distress on the Dolphins’ culture and within the locker room were sown early last season.
Before any problems manifested as on-field issues.
And here we are one year later. The Dolphins are 1-0 and headed to play the Jets again.
Fans are hopeful and wary that a repeat of last year’s fraudulent early success isn’t about to repeat. But this looming game should tell us some things about that. And about the 2018 Dolphins.
This game will help us start to understand who the Dolphins really are going to be this season. And it will tell us if that much-chronicled offseason remaking of the roster, which jettisoned some me-first guys and brought in football guys, actually worked.
A quick aside, if you’re wondering what me-first guys look like: Jay Cutler was an I-don’t-care meme in the flesh. When the team contacted him, first through friend Adam Gase and then on the contract side, Cutler said he’d like to sign to replace an injured Ryan Tannehill. But he wouldn’t do it for less than $10 million.
This is a guy no one else wanted. The Dolphins were offering him a chance to chase elusive success one more time when no other team wanted him. And his response was about money. That should have been a hint the Cutler era (error) wasn’t going to go well.
Another me-first guy? Linebacker Rey Maualuga, who was regularly out on the town at four, five, six in the morning on days he had to practice.
This season, people within the organization swear they have purged those kind of people from the locker room. They believe they’ve got it close to right.
Miami’s current pregame protest during the national anthem that includes Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson? A team source this week said it has factored not one bit in the preparation of the team. It’s a non-issue so far in affecting football or team chemistry because no one is really focused on it — meeting about it, worried about it, spending football preparation time discussing it.
And remember, that’s accounting for the two receivers protesting and the 45 other players typically active on game day who must decide in advance what or what not do during the national anthem.
There are other signs the locker room is pointed in the right direction.
Last week’s victory over Tennessee was hard as much because of the nearly four hours in delays caused by weather as by the Titans themselves.
It mattered, the Dolphins believe, that players such as receiver Danny Amendola and Tannehill made sure the offense kept focus on the task at hand even as the second postponement lasted two hours and two minutes.
It mattered that the defense didn’t lose sight of the job. That, by the way, was evident to defensive coordinator Matt Burke, who occasionally left the coaches’ locker room during the postponement to check in with his players.
“...Every time we came back out, those guys were hanging out together, which was cool to see,” Burke said. “There was just a … I was just at ease. I didn’t feel any anxiety. I didn’t feel … I wouldn’t say there was one person calling guys up or anything like that. I think it kind of became a point of pride, just as that thing extended and went on and on.
“It was like, ‘Hey, when we get back out there, this is what we have to do’ type of thing. I wouldn’t say there was necessarily one guy that was rallying the troops per se, but we just really collectively … There was no panic. There was no anxiety. It was ‘All right, hey. This is what they’re telling us we have to do to win the game today. That’s what we’re going to go through.’ We all left the locker room together and got it done.”
That’s a good sign. It’s a sign of unity.
And the Dolphins will need that to succeed this season because already there are other difficult moments afoot. The team has already lost two starters on offense to year-ending injuries.
Starting tight end MarQueis Gray tore his Achilles before the season began. Left guard Josh Sitton, the most decorated and arguably best lineman on the team, is out with a torn rotator cuff in a shoulder.
The 2016 Dolphins lost Reshad Jones, probably the most dynamic playmaker on the defense, to a shoulder injury and kept winning. That team was wired differently than the 2017 squad.
The 2018 team will start showing us how it’s wired on Sunday.