Can one feel excitement and dread all at once? We imagine those are the disparate yet oddly joined thoughts Miami Dolphins fans should be feeling as they now palpably face the coming NFL season.
The question is who’s winning. Is it the optimist inside you? Or the pessimist within who always seems closer at hand, louder and more persistent?
Side with optimism, I say. Here’s why:
This Dolphins’ offense will be better than the defense is bad.
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We saw arguments for both sides in the 38-31 loss at Philadelphia in Thursday night's third exhibition game — by consensus the only exhibition that really matters. We saw a schizophrenic display by a team that looked really good with the ball but mostly really bad trying to stop it. It did not strike us as an aberration, either. It looked like what the 2017 Dolphins could well be: Fists pumping on offense, fingers crossed on defense.
The starters on either side won't play much if at all as the preseason wraps up this coming Thursday in Minnesota, so what you saw against the Eagles is likely what you get, Dolfans.
Not much about this team has changed, in other words, which is good and bad.
The good outweighs, though.
That is because (just as we've been saying, and writing) the loss of starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a season-ending injury hasn't proved catastrophic. The combination of Tannehill not being all that great and replacement Jay Cutler being good enough means Miami has not fallen off much at the most important position. Cutler encouraged with his sharpness and arm strength Thursday, in going 5 for 8 for 105 yards and a touchdown. His 72-yard strike to DeVante Parker was a thing of beauty. Coach Adam Gase is looking smart for his gamble that hauling Cutler out of retirement would work because he knew Gase's offense from their Chicago days, making his comfort level almost instant. And it shows.
The Dolphins have too many offensive weapons for any even-mildly competent QB to fail. Parker, Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills are among the league's best wide receiver trios. Parker, on that one long catch, offered a glimpse of proof that expectations of a breakout season by him may not be hyperbole. Tight end Julius Thomas (with a TD Thursday) shows signs of being another smart Gase move, getting a guy who had been so successful for him in Denver.
Oh, and Jay Ajayi. Wow. He looked Thursday like the breakthrough star who last season was the Fins' most dynamic running back since the prime of Ricky Williams. Ajayi figures as the bedrock, workhorse fulcrum of this offense while the passing game provides the surrounding fireworks.
The Double-Jay Attack: Ajayi and Cutler!
Here comes a claim that could haunt me down the road, but this Dolphins offense could be the franchise’s most dynamic since the Dan Marino/Marks Brothers days.
Much of that depends on the offensive line, of course, but that looks OK to me. Four out of five legit starters isn’t bad, assuming good health, especially from fragile-hips center Mike Pouncey. Cutler, prone to gunslingeritis and turnovers, is a guy who needs a clean pocket.
But, yes, with the ball, the two Jays — Ajayi and Cutler — and talented receivers should mean sufficient scoring with even a decent O-line.
Enough, though? Enough to outscore your own team's defensive shortcomings?
Miami will face many offenses better than Philadelphia's this season. Many QBs better than Carson Wentz. Yet Wentz and third-stringer Matt McGloin combined to complete 28 of 36 passes against Miami for 274 yards and three TDs. The Eagles also rushed for 152 yards.
Gase and the Dolphins smartly targeted defense this offseason in free agency and the draft, bolstering a unit that hardly was bereft of talent with Ndamukong Suh, Cam Wake and Reshad Jones. There is a disconnect so far, though. Miami seems like it should be appreciably better on D, yet early results including Thursday night have not been encouraging, especially against the pass. Unless Thursday proves an aberration, the pressure on first-year defensive coordinator Matt Burke will build fast.
Miami last season ranked an awful 29th in total defense and 30th against the run, and a mediocre 15th vs. the pass and 18th in points allowed. The offense was good enough to overcome enough of that for a 10-6 record before a 30-12 loss in Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
Thursday, for all of the good stuff that happened defensively — a Lawrence Timmons interception, an Andre Branch sack, a Jordan Phillips pick — the pass defense was awful. Up in Tampa, Jameis Winston, whose Bucs open the regular season in Miami Sept. 10, had to be smiling. Winston, Drew Brees, Marcus Mariota, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Derek Carr, Cam Newton and Tom Brady (twice) are among the passers who will face Miami this season, so the Dolphins are running out of time to magically fix what we saw Thursday night.
Still, both sides of the ball need not be great as long as one is.
And this Miami Dolphins offense, to me, looks pretty great.