Dolphins fans look up from the rubble of what has become of their franchise and cringe, ears tuned for the next high-pitched whistle that indicates the next explosion is coming. Surrounded by the smoke and stink of the latest mess engulfing their beleaguered team, Dolfans look around and here is what they see:
They see that a Kansas City Chiefs team that went 2-14 last season — worst record in the NFL — is now sailing along at 9-0.
They see that Boston just threw itself a World Series championship parade one season after the Red Sox finished last in their division.
They see that the team playing the Heat here Thursday night, the once-lowly, laughable Los Angeles Clippers, arrive newly infused with title hopes.
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Dolfans look around in every sport and see examples of worst-to-first, of big turnarounds, of the meek inheriting the Earth, and wonder, “Why not us!?”
It is a lament now measured not in years but in decades.
The Miami Dolphins have fallen and they can’t get up.
The once-proud franchise of the Perfect Season and Don Shula and Dan Marino continues to stumble and skew so much closer to embarrassment than excellence. The club continues what seems a losing battle to avoid being the worst thing you can be in the sports and entertainment business: Irrelevant.
Make that irrelevant on the field, where the hunger for the next Miami playoff victory dates to the last one a month shy of 13 years ago. The club last won a Super Bowl in 1973, last even appeared in one in 1984.
I recall original owner Joe Robbie’s lament that Miami was “wasting the Marino years.” It seems the club has been wasting just about all of the years since as well. Wasting fans’ time, you might even say.
Off the field, we have too often seen the sad opposite of irrelevance. We have seen attention of the notorious type, a club making itself a punch line and damaging its brand with a tarnish not quickly or easily wiped clean.
Now Miami is the epicenter of the bigger-than-sports story about bullying — about how guard Richie Incognito treated tackle Jonathan Martin in such a way that Incognito got suspended from the team and Martin left under emotional duress.
Now all coach Joe Philbin and his players are being asked about is bullying and hazing and controversy.
“Nobody cares about Tampa, huh?” defensive end Cameron Wake said this week after dozens of media members grilled him about the Incognito/Martin mess and nothing else.
Miami plays at Tampa Bay on Monday night, oh by the way, and the prime-time stage surely will see another sociological examination of a scandal that has turned the franchise into an episode of Dr. Phil.
Miami is 4-4 at midseason, tied for seventh in the jockeying for six AFC playoff spots; in contention, in other words. But all anyone is talking about is the Neanderthal locker room culture and absence of leadership that fomented the current mess.
Just one week earlier, an hour north in Boca Raton, Florida Atlantic University endured its own outrageous football scandal when coach Carl Pelini and an assistant were forced to resign related to drug use. That story was smaller because it was small college against the NFL, but FAU football founder Howard Schnellenberger attended that news conference, and he looked crestfallen to see what he’d fathered and raised so shamed.
It made me wonder what Shula, who raised Dolphins football, thought of this latest bullying scandal. So I asked him.
“You win with good people on and off the field,” the 83-year-old Hall of Famer told me Wednesday. Then he said, meaning Incognito: “They took a chance on a guy with a bad reputation and it backfired on them.”
Bullygate adds in a major way to a series of Dolphins missteps and embarrassments in recent years that together paint the picture of a franchise that is somewhere between poorly run and dysfunctional — that, or just plain snake-bitten.
How else to explain this litany:
Club follows bad medical advice, chooses Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees.
Running back Ricky Williams, fueled by marijuana and chasing his muse, abruptly quits team in his prime.
Dolphins woo coach Jim Harbaugh under the nose of then-coach Tony Sparano, failing to land Harbaugh and embarrassing Sparano. (But not as much as the search party of owner Stephen Ross and general manager Jeff Ireland embarrassed themselves.)
Team has a chance to draft star receiver Dez Bryant but ruins the possibility when Ireland infamously asks him in an interview whether his mother is a prostitute.
Team goes hard after coach Jeff Fisher, doesn’t get him.
Trades Brandon Marshall, who is flourishing in Chicago.
Goes hard after quarterback Peyton Manning, doesn’t get him.
Does not re-sign Reggie Bush, who is flourishing in Detroit.
Now the major offseason addition, Mike Wallace, has disappointed so far.
Oh, and had Miami re-signed left tackle Jake Long, chances are this bullying mess might never have happened.
The Dolphins, at least, are not even the worst-run team in their own state, with Jacksonville and Tampa both winless. Likewise, Ross should send a gift basket to Jeffrey Loria because Loria’s Marlins seem to take local dishonors for franchise dysfunction.
The thing is, the Dolphins never used to be the club that only looked good when compared with the worst.
This was the team that set the standard, once.
Now it seems like one thing after another with the Dolphins, always too much going wrong, never enough going right, always a punch waiting for tired, hungry Dolfans as they turn a blind corner.
The legend, Shula, watches from afar, the wise old king wondering if he’ll live to see the Dolphins get to another Super Bowl, that Holy Grail that never seems any closer. Hard to believe, but Shula stopped coaching 18 seasons ago. Not hard to believe, he never stopped caring about his team.
“It hurts. You hate to see it happening,” he said.
He didn’t just mean the latest scandal. He meant the years of missteps and letdowns.
I asked Shula what he most wants for this franchise, for his Dolphins. I thought he’d mention another Super Bowl. Instead, he mentioned something more important.
“Just to get back that credibility,” he said.