The temptation is to paint this one with the broad brush of anticlimax. After all, the Miami Dolphins are mired among the group of AFC also-rans, and they’re closer to the bottom than the top of that mediocre pack.
So down here with the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans, the Dolphins turn the final corner on their season with seemingly little to play for except perhaps beating the astronomical odds against them making the playoffs.
Not exactly compelling, right?
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Sunday’s game between the Dolphins and Minnesota Viking is life or death … for coach Joe Philbin.
His coaching tenure in Miami is not over and might not end after this season if, despite the troubles of the past few weeks, he can win this one and the season finale and a flirtation with Jim Harbaugh fails.
In that regard, a victory over the Vikings would pump fresh oxygen into a coaching tenure seemingly on life support.
But lose this one?
To a rebuilding team?
With a rookie quarterback?
To make the current losing skid more closely resemble a collapse?
Near season’s end?
For the second year in a row?
That would be the last straw for many Dolphins fans, a large percentage of whom already are either unhappy with or unsure about the coach. That would break trust with the percentage of ticket holders who either resisted the desire or could not sell their tickets to this game and tried to stick with their team amid understandable disappointment.
A loss would also likely turn the confidence owner Stephen Ross has remaining about his coach into tough questions at season’s end that even Philbin might not have good answers for.
One question that looms before this game and will be asked of Philbin after the season is whether he got his team, his talent, to play up to its potential. It is, after all, one thing to have a 7-7 record with bad or even mediocre talent.
It’s the reason Philbin’s first season finished at 7-9 and he was lauded for doing a good job.
But 7-7 has a totally different meaning and feel if it’s clear, at least in the mind of the club’s owner, that the team has better talent than its record.
And if Ross asks some of his players whether they think they have better talent than their record, the answer he would get wouldn’t help Philbin’s case.
“We just haven’t played up to our potential,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said, covering the team’s inability to win important games late in the season the past two years. “We haven’t played well. If you look at the last two games, we had opportunities. We started the games well and then, in the second half, as a full team, we didn’t play well.
“It’s not one side of the ball or the other, it’s the total team. And you can’t win when you do that.”
It must be said that majority of Miami players asked about Philbin defend him publicly. Receiver Mike Wallace, for example, said “it’s the players’ fault” and not the coaching staff’s fault that the team has failed in games with playoff implications.
Other players say they really like Philbin.
But if they like him so much, why don’t they play better for him? Why do they play so inconsistently for him? Why do the Dolphins sometimes seem as if they lose interest or focus — the third and fourth quarters against New England last week being an example?
No one has an answer, but everyone seems to have an opinion. The only opinion that matters belongs to Ross.
The owner has not talked to the media about any of this. He declined when asked to comment last week. He hasn’t made himself available.
That’s fair if he’s waiting for the final two weeks to play out before deciding Philbin’s fate. And when that time is done, Ross will certainly measure how his team finished.
But the picture of that finish so far is a grim one.
The Miami offense, promising earlier this year, has scored only three touchdowns in 33 December possessions spanning three games.
The Miami defense, for years the strength of the team, has been inconsistent against the run, inconsistent getting to the opposing quarterback and is allowing an average of 27.3 points per game in December.
The fact the Dolphins have played two likely playoff teams the past two weeks bears on those statistics. The Vikings are not in that class. They are under .500, and the Dolphins are 4-0 against such competition this year.
That’s why Joe Philbin cannot lose this game. Because losing this one could end any argument one could make for keeping him as coach.