It was late Sunday afternoon, after another head-scratching loss that could as easily have been a victory, when Dolphins linebacker Kelvin Sheppard got serious, stared into the faces of reporters huddled around him and said, “We are going to finish 10-6 and fight and claw and get in these playoffs.”
And although the sentiment is right and the courage behind it is laudable, everyone should pretty much understand the prediction is delusional because it flies contrary to everything we’ve seen from the Dolphins.
And not just this NFL season.
But the past decade of NFL seasons.
The 2015 Dolphins, like so many of their other aqua-and-orange brethren who came before, have found a comfort zone in limbo.
This team, like last year’s team, like the 2013 team, like the 2006 team, like the 2009, ’10, ’11 and ’12 teams, are neither very good nor very bad. They reside in the twilight zone of the mediocre.
The Dolphins clearly are not playing well enough to make the postseason, not even in a season when injuries have ravaged perennial contenders. This team hasn’t played intelligently enough to make fans or opponents legitimately believe good things are about to happen. And they have not been consistent enough to go on a six-game winning streak in the final six games, which is what it would take to make Sheppard a prophet.
These Dolphins are just … not … it.
They simply fall short of the mark.
Don’t take my word for it. Do what players often say they must do to offer a serious evaluation of what is happening: watch the tape. Pay attention to the games.
If you did that Sunday you saw a team not just lose but beat itself.
The Dolphins offense couldn’t win on third down. It converted only 1 of 10 tries on the money down and then also failed on one fourth-down try.
Indeed, this increasingly disappointing offense not only didn’t make plays on third down but also gave up points on third down when quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw an interception that Dallas linebacker Rolando McClain returned for a touchdown.
It marked the fourth consecutive game the offense yielded points.
The defense, meanwhile, found a way to lose on third down at the most inopportune times.
Tony Romo threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Williams on third down.
With 5:16 to play and the game hanging in the balance, the Miami defense had the Cowboys backed up to their 9-yard line and facing a difficult third-and-14 situation. Then with everyone in the stadium knowing the Cowboys didn’t want to risk throwing the football, the Miami defense gave up a 15-yard run to Darren McFadden.
And third down is only one of a handful of issues that frustrate. Another such issue is the increasing evidence that this team does not play smartly and does not comprehend things well.
Romo’s 16-yard fourth-quarter touchdown to Dez Bryant? Miami interim coach Dan Campbell said the team practiced that very play numerous times last week. And despite that planning and preparation, one player wasn’t where he was supposed to be when the play came up in the game.
Matt Darr, the punter for goodness sake, tackled an opponent out of bounds and was flagged 15 yards for unnecessary roughness. It helped set the Cowboys up for a field goal.
And for the second consecutive week a Dolphins kick returner made a dubious decision on a kickoff, putting Miami inside its 5 to begin a series.
This stuff doesn’t have anything to do with athletic acumen or talent level. This is just dumb football. This is losing football.
Unfortunately, and this is going to sound strange, the Dolphins are not total losers.
That’s right. Despite their obvious flaws, the Dolphins do not completely stink. They still manage to beat teams like Houston, which beat the New York Jets on Sunday. They still beat Philadelphia on the road.
This team is good at times. It is good enough to break your heart.
They make you believe. They make you think that a comeback is possible like they did after they fired Joe Philbin and won the first two games under Campbell.
They make you think deficits can be overcome like they did last Sunday when they got down 16-3 at Philadelphia and still won, and they did this week when they erased a 14-0 Dallas lead to tie the score at 14.
This team messes with your heart and your head. It delivers good fortune in just the right doses so as to keep people’s hope from going bankrupt. Unfortunately, the doses are strictly measured and never let you trust a postseason berth is possible.
And you know where that leaves the Dolphins? In a terrible, awful, increasingly frustrating middle ground.
Here in the middle ground the team will never be in a position to draft first.
Here in the middle ground the Dolphins don’t have enough talent to dethrone New England, but they have just enough that that demands big contracts.
Here in this cursed middle ground, these high-priced players have not lifted the team beyond the mediocrity of seven or eight wins per year. But at the same time, we have a team that is spending a great deal of money to get to 7-9 or 8-8.
These Dolphins are neither broken nor whole. They are middling, kind of like that draft slot they will eventually find themselves occupying in April.
So what’s the answer? It doesn’t matter what I suggest because after this season is over the team will make a handful of moves and try to sell the public on the idea those will raise an entire franchise from the perpetual mediocrity mire.
And some folks will buy in — again. Probably the same folks who believe Sheppard when he says this team will finish 10-6.