Eight wins for the 2016 Miami Dolphins.
That’s got to be the starting point because what has been a mediocre franchise for decades has gotten us accustomed to mediocre results and an 8-8 record is the very definition of mediocrity.
But where this team goes from that starting point, that’s what will make or break the 2016 season. That’s what will decide how we feel about another year of training camp meant to hone the product and preseason optimism meant to stoke emotions.
Owner Stephen Ross got things going before his team’s first practice Friday by saying he expects to be in the playoffs this season. Of course, he has been expecting a Dolphins postseason appearance since 2009 when he took over as majority owner and so far, no luck.
“Everybody today is optimistic,” Ross said. “They should be optimistic. The fans are optimistic. That’s a great thing about sports. But I think we’ve done an awful lot in this offseason, probably more so than most people. I think that our expectations are great, but at the same time, I want to be realistic. I’m not making predictions. I like where we are. Let’s put it that way.
“I have great expectations, but time will tell.”
A wise and insightful person within the organization told me the team last year went for the big splash offseason additions, and this offseason was about fewer big-name additions but addressing more holes.
Last year may have sent the quality of the defensive tackle position soaring, but this offseason improved the quantity of talent throughout the roster.
That is absolutely correct and although neither are wrong, the combination in consecutive seasons suggests these Dolphins could be a more complete team than a year ago.
And that suggests a better record than last year’s 6-10.
So does this: Adam Gase is already better than Joe Philbin.
Gase is 38 years old and in the first season of his first head coaching job. And already this roster seems more bonded, players seem more engaged, and everyone seems more energized by Gase and his staff than they did last year by Philbin and that staff.
Gase isn’t making any public pronouncements about what this team will be. He’s being coy. He has stepped back from the championship chase Philbin announced in earnest to start last year’s training camp.
But privately several Dolphins players say they believe Gase can improve Ryan Tannehill, improve the offense, and has delivered a defensive coordinator in Vance Joseph who can turn the defense around.
Some of those players had no such confidence Philbin could do any of that last season.
“I think the attitude, I’m not here to compare anything to last year or previous years, but I think the attitude in the building is in a great spot,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “Guys are here to work. Guys are focused on team. There’s not a lot of individual agendas being talked about or pushed around or being thought about. I think guys are here to work as a team — to push each other as a team and go out and compete.”
That’s all great. That all suggests a better than mediocre season is on the way. But that is an incomplete picture.
The fact is there will be surprises. There will be unforeseen problems. Even Friday, the Dolphins were announced five players had to go on the physically unable to perform list when they hoped only one would be there.
Two of those players — Xavien Howard and Bobby McCain — are supposed to start at cornerback and slot corner. Their absence makes the cornerback position glow in neon as a need for this team.
And the issues, setbacks, surprises don’t end there.
The team was unaware of Dion Jordan’s status Friday morning when several national reporters got a tip from the league the former first-round pick was being conditionally reinstated.
(The NFL told the media the news before its own member club.)
Even the good news from Ross that his newly covered stadium would be ready for the Sept. 1 opening came with a lump-in-the-throat revelation: The project that was supposed to cost the owner $350 million, then $400 million, is going to cost closer to $500 million.
Ross, and presumably the next owner, will foot the bill so that doesn’t affect Joe Dolfan. But the point is plans change. Surprises happen.
Players come in out of shape. Players get injured. Expectations can and often go unmet.
And all that affects the won-loss tally.
Maybe Miami’s win total improves slightly if Tannehill plays out of his mind. Maybe the losses pile up quicker if injuries strike key players or the cornerback spot continues to be an obvious weakness. As for 2016 expectations, my advice is go the safe route.
This team is staring at eight wins.