There are a lot of quotes pouring from the Dolphins’ locker room onto your newspaper page or computer screen about how it’s still early, and anything is still possible, and there’s still time to save this season because October is no time for panic.
Players truly believe it because it is, after all, true.
The road that is the 2014 NFL season has not yet come close to a dead end for this team.
But this game offers a fork in that road. This game will likely set the direction for the remainder of the season. This game, early in the season though it might be, will be a tone-setter for what remains.
Several Dolphins players are privately admitting this while quarterback Ryan Tannehill is giving voice to the moment’s significance.
“There’s a lot of football in front of us, but you can’t wait until the end of the season,” Tannehill said. “If you are out of it by the time [issues get corrected], you get to the end of the season, and you are nowhere. We understand that.
“We understand we are playing some good football teams coming up, and we have to play good football for 60 minutes to win games.”
The Dolphins have to start playing good football and do it immediately because the schedule is no longer their friend.
The team badly needs to beat the Chicago Bears because this is the first of five road games in seven weeks that will test Miami’s mettle. And as the Bears are winless at home, now is a good time to take advantage of the opportunity.
The team also badly needs to win Sunday because while a 3-3 record suggests anything is still possible the rest of the season, a 2-4 record coming out of the game paints a gloomy picture.
A devastating picture, really.
If the Dolphins lose to the Bears, the narrative that has been lurking in the shadows will come into full light of day: Fans and media, seeing no hope for the rest of this season, will start talking about next season.
That conversation will be about the next coach or the next draft and definitely not about the next game because that game will seem meaningless.
And who will argue the point? People will be talking about next season because the math will suggest this year is over.
That math, by the way, says if the Dolphins lose, they would have to win seven of the final 10 games to merely salvage a winning season. They would have to win eight of the next 10 games to finish 10-6 — which is the record that typically guarantees a playoff berth.
You know the last time the Dolphins were able to win eight of 10 games in a season?
It was 2008 when a quarterback named Chad Pennington dropped from the sky, a desperation gamble gave birth to an unorthodox offense named Wildcat and, oh yes, the New England Patriots didn’t have Tom Brady at quarterback.
Before that fateful 2008 season, no Dolphins team had been able to win eight of 10 games since 2000.
In other words, winning eight of 10 games doesn’t happen often for the Dolphins even in good times, and a 2-4 record through six games would definitely not signal good times.
“Man, I don’t know about all that history, but I know winning games in the NFL is hard work, and a losing team doesn’t just turn things around in one week and become a playoff team unless something crazy happening,” one Dolphins player told me this week. “Anyway, we don’t do crazy from what I’ve seen.
“So yeah, I guess you can say it would be hard to turn things around at 2-4. It would be more like us to win this week and go from there — being steady, working hard, improving, you know?”
Steady improvement from the beginning of the season until the end has been a goal for head coach Joe Philbin since he arrived in South Florida in 2012. But his previous two teams didn’t necessarily show that kind of development.
The 2012 Dolphins lost six of their final nine games.
The 2013 Dolphins were 5-8 after a 3-0 start and lost their final two games.
So expecting this team to suddenly make a 180-degree turn after a bad start would seem more like dreaming than eyes-open reality.
Some Dolphins veterans recognize that.
Perhaps that’s why the week’s preparation for the Bears was reported to be good. Philbin called his team’s Tuesday practice the best of the season. Tannehill noticed Wednesday’s work was “crisp.”
“There’s definitely an urgency,” Tannehill said. “Do I think we thought to go out and not play with urgency before? No, but I think there’s definitely an intensity now that it’s being brought to the practice field.
“There’s an intensity on the practice field. Guys are hungry to make plays, hungry to get better. Just make the plays that are there and be crisp. We have the talent. We have every piece that we need to put this puzzle together. Now it’s just a matter of doing it.”
It’s also a matter of doing it now.