Armando Salguero

Dolphins showing marked improvement and even in this misbegotten season that matters | Opinion

They lost again and that’s what counts most, so its what must be said first. But it’s different now for the Miami Dolphins.

It’s better.

The team that began the season soiling itself and the legacy of their once-proud brand isn’t embarrassing itself now. The games aren’t shameful, or at least they haven’t been the last two weeks.

The Dolphins are looking more and more like an NFL team and getting NFL team results. And no, I didn’t say good NFL team. This is still a winless team that still makes boneheaded mistakes and plays.

Example: When was the last time you saw an onside kick returned 45 yards for a game-sealing touchdown?

But Miami’s 31-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, which extended the losing streak to six games this year, was in many ways more encouraging than last year’s 42-17 loss here to end the 2018 season on a three-loss skid.

Because this team was built to lose and is fighting. And competing. And scaring the living daylights out of the last two opponents. Last year’s Dolphins were expected to win and were built to make the playoffs and still fell off the table without putting up much of a fight at season’s end.

And if you recognize this team began the season with a 49-point loss and followed that with a 43-point loss, the last two Sundays that have delivered one-point and 10-point losses feel like, well, improvement.

“The goal is to win,” coach Brian Flores said after the game, his voice filled with the still bubbling emotion of a close one. “Yeah, I see progress, but at the end of the day this is about wins and losses. This team has to learn how to win. There’s a discipline to winning. You got to have execution in those critical moments and we got to learn how to do that. We didn’t do a good enough job of that today.

“I got to learn how to coach it better and we got to get better. Because it’s there for us.”

This is where I normally tell you how and why a victory that was indeed there for the Dolphins to snatch, instead slipped out of their hands. This is where I typically sigh and critique a performance that falls short of meeting a winning standard.

But you probably saw the game so that’s all I’m going to say about that.

But what you didn’t see is what happened afterward -- when Flores came to speak with reporters still full of adrenaline and drive. The cooling off period this Fall day did nothing to dial back the coach to his usual temperate attitude.

He was fired up. He had the game’s aggression still in his speech so he talked to the reporters almost like he speaks to his players.

And it was good. Because it showed a life in the head man that I’d seen through four quarters from his team.

And if a team reflects a coach, that’s the kind of coach I’d like the team be like.

Flores was asked if the game was basically lost when his team, up 14-9 with three minutes to play in the third quarter, failed to score after a long drive when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw an interception at the 2 yard line.

“There were other plays in the game,” Flores snapped. “Look, that happens. You throw interceptions, you keep playing, we get a stop defensively, you put another drive together. The game wasn’t over right there. We can’t think that way. And I’m not going to go back and say that was the situation that lost the game. We had another 18 minutes left in the game.

“It’s a 60 minute ballgame. We preach that on a daily basis. We practice that way.. That’s what I expect from this team. That’s the standard. We just keep playing. See what happens. We have to make a couple of more plays and pull one of these out.”

Flores was asked about competing despite the fact cornerback Xavien Howard, safety Reshad Jones and center Daniel Kilgore missed the game with injuries and he wanted nothing to do with that idea.

“Look, we’re going to compete,” he said. “I’m a competitor and this team is going to compete. We’re not going to make excuses, we’re not pointing fingers. I don’t care who’s up, who’s down. I really don’t. That’s not going to change. We’re going to fight for 60 minutes and keep playing.

“And if we turn it over, we’re going to keep playing. We’re not going to sit here and point fingers and place blame. We’re not going to do that. The Dolphins aren’t going to do that.”

So now you’re wondering why this matters. Well, here it is:

Even as the 2019 season is basically over for these Dolphins because -- breaking news! -- they’re not going to the playoffs or be a .500 team, the final 10 games are important as a glimpse on the future.

Do any of these players, most of them very young, some probably not fully deserving of the playing time they’re getting, step forward and show themselves as a viable part of the future?

Do the players the Dolphins have heavily invested in show steady improvement?

And do Flores and his staff, working with a subpar roster, milk every ounce of potential and talent out of this bunch?

I’m seeing positive signs on the latter of those. Miami scored 21 points on a defense that hadn’t allowed more than 17 points in five previous games and held the New England Patriots to 16.

I’m also seeing an offensive line that is improving.

“There’s been so much improvement from Week 1 to now,” said Fitzpatrick, who was not sacked Sunday. “I think a lot of that is working together whether it’s at practice or sitting at a lunch table. We all know each other a little bit now. We know everybody’s name, something we didn’t necessarily have the first couple of weeks.”

Flores, in a season whose ultimate goal is to land the Dolphins the No. 1 draft pick next spring, is doing everything he can to make his team better. And that seems to be happening.

Now he’s trying to get his team a victory. He started Fitzpatrick in this game and said he’ll start the veteran again next week because that is the quarterback who gives the Dolphins the best chance to win.

That might be the source for jokes on social media but in the real world where honor still matters, that move merits respect.

“We are playing better in spurts but we have to continue to try to learn how to win and continue try to not make those big mistakes in critical times,” Fitzpatrick said.

No one has any idea if the Dolphins will get there. But they’re trying. They’re improving.

And even in this misbegotten season, that matters.

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Armando Salguero has covered the Miami Dolphins and the NFL since 1990, so longer than many players on the current roster have been alive and since many coaches on the team were in middle school. He was a 2016 APSE Top 3 columnist nationwide. He is one of 48 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters. He is an Associated Press All-Pro and awards voter. He’s covered Dolphins games in London, Berlin, Mexico City and Tokyo. He has covered 25 Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, and the Olympics.