We’ve been here before and it didn’t go very well.
The Miami Dolphins were right here a year ago, right at the postseason’s very doorstep. And then they tripped and fell and joined the ranks of all those other Dolphins teams that, no matter the circumstances, found some way to disappoint.
Last year’s Dolphins flopped on this very spot.
They played a huge home game in December. They knew the stakes included a postseason berth if they could somehow weave together a victory. It would have been a delicious slice of redemption for this success-hungry franchise.
But all they got was a bitter taste of failure.
All we got was a bitter taste of failure.
And here we are again.
These 2014 Dolphins have toiled mostly in their now familiar shadows — which is hard to do for an NFL team, but who’s going to argue they get the same attention as New England or Green Bay or even the New York Jets?
These Dolphins started the season with a stunning victory over the Patriots and then hit the skids for a couple of weeks. They recovered and have been playing good enough, long enough to reach this plateau.
Here it is December again and the Dolphins still matter.
The Dolphins are still relevant.
But all that has really happened is this team has climbed the same mountain reached by last year’s squad and reached about the same heights. The Dolphins are about as close to mattering as last year’s team was on that final Sunday last December.
So can this team take the next step?
Ever since he took over as the Dolphins’ coach, Joe Philbin has talked about having his team improve as the season progresses so that, come December, everyone is playing their best football.
Ever since he took over as coach, Philbin also has pointed to the improvement his program has made year to year. The Dolphins were 7-9 the coach’s first year and 8-8 last season. And yes, Philbin acknowledges the improvement has been only incremental, but it has been improvement nonetheless.
Well, for that narrative to remain true, the Dolphins should now take this next step. They must beat the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday so everyone can continue to see the progress and improvement Philbin talks about.
This team should answer the call for the season’s biggest game because that would place it one step beyond last year’s team that failed to answer the same call.
No, there is no guarantee that a victory against the Ravens will send the Dolphins into the playoffs. But a loss will almost definitely exclude them from those same playoffs. So a loss would be the virtual equivalent to last year’s loss to the Jets.
That’s not progress.
That would be stagnation.
That would return the Dolphins to the same margins they’ve existed in for a decade.
Fans want better than that. They deserve better than that.
So these coaches and players have to be better than that.
The Miami defense has to be better than that because it boasts so much talent and carries so much potential. But that unit has been something of a disappointment this season.
This defense played a great second half against New England, it beat Jacksonville and swamped San Diego. But this defense also failed at Denver, at Detroit and at home against Green Bay and Kansas City.
And in the past two weeks this defense has offered college program resistance to opposing running games.
A few weeks ago, the Denver Broncos’ offensive line was embarrassed against St. Louis. Afterward, the entire line and indeed the entire offense was challenged to redeem itself and run the football on the Dolphins.
They rushed for 201 yards.
Last week, the Jets, lacking any shadow of a passing threat, plowed the Miami defense for 277 rushing yards.
So now it is the Miami defense that should feel challenged. You guys have been manhandled in consecutive weeks. You’ve missed way too many tackles. You’ve taken way too many bad angles.
Will you answer the challenge?
The Miami offense?
Coordinator Bill Lazor’s strategies for protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill by throwing short, quick passes while helping embattled right tackle Dallas Thomas was figured out by Rex Ryan last week.
You now need a counter move, coach.
And Thomas continues to be a weak link on a struggling offensive line. The Dolphins help him by sliding their protections his way. They keep tight end Dion Sims in to add double-team help.
But Thomas faces sack menaces Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs on Sunday.
Will you answer the challenge, Dallas Thomas?
The Dolphins need a lot of players and coaches to step up. It’s the only way this franchise can progress to the logical next step.