Greg Cote

As Patriots boast of dynasty, Dolphins’ biggest challenges are yet to come

AP

It almost felt like mockery, didn’t it? Like the New England Patriots — the entire franchise — should have been penalized for taunting.

I mean, the rest of the NFL is well aware who its reigning champion is. We know it with special acute pain in Miami and elsewhere in the AFC East. We don’t need a reminder that the Ming Dynasty in China didn’t last this long. It seems like the Patriots have owned the division since players wore turtle shells for helmets. It actually has only been pretty much all of this century.

And yet there was giddy Pats owner Robert Kraft at this week’s owners meetings in Phoenix, preening, flexing, rubbing it in.

Saying he hopes Bill Belichick coaches into his 80s.

Saying quarterback Tom Brady recently told him he hopes to play at least another six or seven seasons.

In other words: “We ain’t done yet,” went Kraft’s message. “Heck, we might just be getting started.”

Belichick turns 65 next month. Brady will turn 40 before next season starts. It isn’t fair or logical. The idea that the most successful coach/QB combo in NFL history has some prime time left — maybe a lot of it — seems ludicrous. But it remains the cruel, unrelenting reality the Dolphins, Bills and Jets must keep dealing with.

The latest reminder: this offseason.

Has anybody closed the gap on New England?

Nope.

Miami established itself as the Pats’ most viable division challenger in ending its playoff drought last year, but have the Dolphins drawn closer in the race against football’s Usain Bolt?

Nope.

The Dolphins’ offseason and work in free agency has been good. Solid.

The Patriots’ has been better.

With the 2017 NFL season quickly approaching, here are some of the biggest free agent signings thus far.

It’s anecdotal, but Miami earned a “B” grade in free agency from ESPN.com. New England got an “A-” — the best grade of anybody. The Patriots roster “is better now than it ever was last year,” another team’s talent evaluator was quoted as saying.

Some of that is the earned assumption of excellence that attaches itself to New England, the Midas Touch Effect that Belichick enjoys.

So the Patriots are lauded for trading for receiver Brandin Cooks and pass rusher Kony Ealy largely because, well, Belichick is smarter than everybody else and knows what he’s doing. New England also had plenty of cap space to play with, which is why it was able to re-sign its own best free agent (Dont’a Hightower) and overspend to pry cornerback Stephon Gilmore from Buffalo.

I like Miami’s major offseason moves every bit as much. Mainly, the re-signing of receiver Kenny Stills, safety Reshad Jones and linebacker Kiko Alonso; and especially the addition of veteran linebacker Lawrence Timmons, the career-long Steeler. There also is potential in getting tight end Julius Thomas, while adding defensive end William Hayes brings a productive guy who has had  26 1/2 sacks during the past five seasons.

There are plenty of questions left to tackle as the draft nears, of course. I still wonder about Miami’s defense in general, especially against the pass. I wonder about the guard play and the health of center Mike Pouncey. I wonder if we have just seen the career year of Jay Ajayi — because his continued improvement is, along with the continued upward arc of Ryan Tannehill, an unreliable assumption.

But I do like the direction coach Adam Gase has the team pointed, and I like the offseason roster-bolstering personified by the addition of Timmons — and the tailored reasons for it.

Gase this week alluded to how Timmons will especially help defend against New England’s quick-hit passing attack that relies so heavily on yards-after-catch, saying: “He’s another guy that has speed. When you play that team that keeps winning our division, it’s hard to get those [receivers] down. Those guys are making tons of money off of run after catch. We’ve got to do a great job of being able to wrap those guys up and get them down.”

It also is notable that Miami quickly was eliminated from the playoffs last season in Pittsburgh, and in Timmons the Fins have cherry-picked one of the reasons.

Said Gase: “We need more guys that have had that experience of being in Super Bowls, being in playoff games, being in big games.”

Ah, yes. Experience. With that last statement Gase describes the essential gulf that still separates the Dolphins from New England.

One franchise defines and epitomizes the culture of winning, possessing not only the talent for it but also the map.

The other franchise still is trying to get back there, learning to be that again.

Gase in his second season will be trying to lead Miami’s first back-to-back 10-win teams since 2000-01. No Dolphins team coming off double-digit wins has won more games the following year since 1983-84, when Dan Marino was a pup coming into his teeth and his bite.

Last year clearly marked progress for Miami, but now the challenge is bigger and two-fold:

The nemesis Patriots haven’t had the courtesy to fall backward even an inch. And the Dolphins are about to learn that getting from mediocre to pretty good is easier than getting from pretty good to special.

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