Greg Cote

There's a gap between the Dolphins and the best teams. Closing it will take a few steps


Miami Dolphins Tony Lippet leaps over the front lines of the Fins and Pittsburgh Steelers in an attempt to block a field goal in the NFL Wild-Card Playoffs at Heinz Stadium, Pittsburgh, PA, January 8, 2017. The leap resulted in a penalty.
Miami Dolphins Tony Lippet leaps over the front lines of the Fins and Pittsburgh Steelers in an attempt to block a field goal in the NFL Wild-Card Playoffs at Heinz Stadium, Pittsburgh, PA, January 8, 2017. The leap resulted in a penalty.

It is fitting to how the Dolphins’ first playoff game in eight years came and went here Sunday that Miami’s two most memorable plays were:

A) Quarterback Matt Moore getting knocked cold, and briefly out of the game, on a crushing, penalized, helmet-to-facemask hit after he’d released the football.

B) The Fins’ Tony Lippett jumping cleanly over both lines of scrimmage with the elan of an Olympic hurdler trying to block a field goal, only to be called offside and gift a first down that led to yet another Steelers touchdown.

It had been 2,926 days since the last time Miami competed in the NFL playoffs.

Turned out, it wasn’t worth the wait.

It was 17 degrees at kickoff, the third-coldest game in Dolphins history, and the losing margin was unfortunately around that same number in a 30-12 loss that erased Miami from the postseason quick as a light switch turns a lit room dark.

You could barely hear a hoarse coach Adam Gase above the hum of a heater in a postgame interview room as he recited all the ways “where we went sideways.”

He summarized neatly by understating, “It just wasn’t a good day for us.”

Moore suffered three turnovers — “Two fumbles and a pick, that’s not the recipe for success,” Moore had to admit — and the Dolphins defense was horrible in the first half, beaten for three long touchdown drives that buried hopes at 20-3. The franchise of the Killer B’s got killed Sunday by all three of Pittsburgh’s B’s: Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.

Truly it was a derriere-kicking amid a gold frenzy of whipping Terrible Towels. Between last week’s regular season-ending home loss to New England and Sunday’s slapdown in Pittsburgh, Miami at least should have a pretty clear idea of the gulf that separates it from better teams.

If merely making the playoffs had given the Dolphins or fans the idea that gulf had been bridged, consider it an illusion in pieces. And, yes, that gulf is bigger than the QB situation. Ryan Tannehill would not have beaten Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Miami needed better health this season but also better, more consistent defense. The Dolphins allowed opponents 30-plus points in four of the past six games. The defense punished by Pittsburgh for 85-, 90- and 83-yard scoring drives to start (and effectively end) Sunday’s game — that was embarrassingly, stunningly bad, helpless defense. The Fins need to look on that side, especially for outside linebackers, in the draft and in the offseason.

A glum team owner Stephen Ross had been asked afterward how close his team is to where he wants it to be.

“Well, we’re three games away,” he said. “How’s that?”

You need to win three playoff games to be champion or at least get to a Super Bowl. After Sunday, Miami still hasn’t won even one of those since Dec. 30, 2000.

“Just remember this feeling,” Gase told his devastated players afterward.

Those players had been dismissed with disdain (same ol’ Dolphins) when the record was 1-4. Then they climbed so high, surprising the entire league — “Defying all odds,” as safety Michael Thomas put it — and reaching the sport’s coveted stage ... only to take a big [bleep] on said stage.

The thing is, there is a natural order to all of this. Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion, led a veteran, playoff-tested team into this game. The backup Moore, in his first playoff start, led a young team, feeling its way into the postseason like somebody walking into a pitch-black room with arms outstretched.

“They came out more ready than we were,” Fins defensive end Andre Branch said of the Steelers.

Of course they did. One team knows how to win. The other is just starting to learn.

Crawl. Walk. Run. Reign.

That’s the natural order in the NFL. You don’t get to skip a step or two.

There have been 50 Super Bowls, a pretty big sample size now. Well, 40 of the champions had made the playoffs the year before. And of the 10 that had not, only twice did a team win a Super Bowl after a longer postseason absence than the Miami’s seven seasons, and not for a long time. Those two champs were the New York Jets in 1968 and the San Francisco 49ers in 1981, both after an eight-year playoff absence.

Teams that win Super Bowls almost always are franchises that keep giving themselves a chance with sustained success, when the playoffs are routine, annually expected — and not some rarity, like when Miami made it in 2008, after a six-year absence, then went missing until now.

“I don’t see making the playoffs like an accomplishment,” as receiver Jarvis Landry put it.

That’s the right idea. That’s why what’s next is what matters coming out of this.

Is it one-and-done again? See you back here around 2024?

Or is Gase’s arrival the onset of that long-elusive sustained winning? Busting the playoff drought this season needs to be a harbinger fans can count on, not a frustrating aberration. That is the onus on Miami moving forward.

So. Was this a successful season?

“No,” answered guard Jermon Bushrod.

Yes, for the Dolphins, it was. But this franchise needs to get back to the point where that “no” would be unequivocal.

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