The Miami Dolphins are competitive. That’s a good thing because not long ago this franchise served up a 1-15 season.
And a 4-12 season.
And a couple of 6-10 seasons.
So in a tangible way, the 7-6 Dolphins have progressed from their days of historic ineptness to being good enough to compete in just about every game now. But are they good enough to win consistently?
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“I think our team has been competitive every week, especially the last 10,” coach Joe Philbin said, “but consistently winning … I would have to say 7-6 and we haven’t been.”
That is owner Stephen Ross’s dilemma.
That is possibly Joe Philbin’s undoing.
Philbin has improved the Dolphins over the past three seasons. There’s usually nothing embarrassing about their game-day performances anymore. But the improvement has so far failed to cross the line between mediocre and good.
And the problem for Philbin is that when boss Ross looks at his team, he sees talent that should definitely be good enough to get it into the playoffs.
That’s the reason a source familiar with the owner’s thinking said Ross would try to make a significant move if the Dolphins cannot salvage this season to the extent the team makes the playoffs.
The source said Ross would try to upgrade a team that missed the playoffs for a sixth consecutive year by revisiting the idea of hiring Jim Harbaugh.
Now, this has a lot of moving parts — partially because we are three games before the regular season’s end. So let’s work through this systematically:
It must be said if Philbin can raise his team’s level of play starting Sunday at New England, and the Dolphins somehow get into the playoffs, all will remain as is. Philbin would not only remain as coach but probably get a contract extension, too.
If the Dolphins cannot get to the postseason, Ross would have work to do and most of the assignment will center on Harbaugh.
If the Dolphins miss the playoffs and the current San Francisco coach becomes available after the season as seems likely, Ross would somehow join the derby for the Harbaugh.
Sources tell me Ross believes the Dolphins are a very good job for any prospective coach now compared with 2011 when he first tried to sway Harbaugh to Miami. To Ross, the Dolphins are a retooling and tweaking job rather than a job requiring rebuilding the roster from scratch.
In other words, Ross believes the Dolphins are a great coach and some minor moves away from being very good.
This is not new thinking by Ross. I’m told he sometimes talks of how coaches can take a franchise to the next level. He uses Jon Gruden’s move from Oakland to Tampa Bay, where he took a good team to a Super Bowl title, as the chief example of that thinking.
And as Harbaugh vastly improved San Francisco, taking over a 6-10 team and converting it into a perennial NFC contender his first three seasons, there’s confidence he could initially do the same in Miami.
Ross’s ties to Harbaugh are not new. The owner infamously chased Harbaugh while Tony Sparano was Miami’s coach and I’m told Ross sometimes talks in remorseful tones of his inability to land Harbaugh back then.
Leave it to a real estate mogul to have remorse about not closing a sale.
There’s also this: Harbaugh went to Michigan. And Ross went to Michigan.
Yes, that’s a thing for the Dolphins owner.
There would be obstacles, however, possibly preventing Ross from getting Harbaugh. Harbaugh’s wife is reportedly not a fan of living on the East Coast. The Raiders, looking to make a splash with a big-name coach, are likely to offer the Harbaughs a viable counter to being with the 49ers.
But the Raiders are a rebuilding project. They are possibly moving to Los Angeles. They also are not known for lavishly spending on coaches and Harbaugh wants to be among the highest paid coaches.
So there could be light between the Raiders and Harbaugh in which Ross could operate.
Well, what if that doesn’t work? What if Harbaugh signals Ross that the Dolphins weren’t the right fit in ’11 and still aren’t? That’s where it gets tricky.
Ross, privately wanting to upgrade from Philbin but finding no viable option, could then decide to stick with the current coach. The idea of keeping a coach who has been competitive and might finally coax the team into the postseason next season might trump the idea of hiring another coach of unknown quality.
So in that regard, two things could save Philbin’s job: He makes the playoffs. Or Harbaugh isn’t interested in the Dolphins.
But if the Dolphins don’t get in the postseason and Harbaugh signals he’d be willing to come, well, that would mean change is coming.