Greg Cote

Greg Cote: No lead is safe for Miami Dolphins

Were I to write a children’s book centered on these Dolphins, I would start with a working title: The Little Team That Couldn’t.

It would be a scary tale, something not lending itself to a happy ending. The moral of the story for cringing fans would be, “Don’t get your hopes up.”

It would be about a bunch of players just good enough to raise those hopes but not good enough to sustain them.

It would be about a team evidently missing a chromosome from its DNA.

A team that didn’t close games.

A team that couldn’t finish.

A team that — if it falls short of the playoffs — need look no further than Sunday afternoon for the answer why.

The Dolphins let a near game-long lead slip late and lost to the Carolina Panthers 20-16, personifying the football adage that good teams find ways to win while the other teams get creative in the opposite direction.

Miami is now among a thick knot of AFC teams with 5-6 records, the playoffs still in reach. For this reality alone it isn’t the time to detonate everything and fire everybody; the season still has a chance to end right.

But this is a team that would have been alone on the inside track for that sixth and final spot by winning Sunday. And blew it.

How the narrative on one team and its season changed as the latest victory ran away. This team holds leads like you might hold falling rain in your cupped hands. That is, with great difficulty and ultimate frustration.

The Dolphins led 16-6 at halftime, and the narrative was rosy. The defense looked great. Ryan Tannehill was outpitching Can Newton. Mike Wallace finally looked like the deep threat intended. Miami seemed headed for its third win in the past four games — a team that was rallying around its Bullygate controversy and coming together.

Ebullient fans were doing The Wave right then. The merry sing-a-long to the team’s original fight song rang through the stadium with uncommon gusto.

Then something happened.

The Dolphins happened.

“There’s a lot of reasons why a team loses,” defender Jared Odrick said afterward.

Yes, and Miami offered up just about all of them.

They scored zero points after halftime.

Their running backs ran 13 times for 16 yards.

They continued to the treat the red zone like personal quicksand, settling for field goals when touchdowns tantalized.

They allowed a Carolina first down on fourth-and-10 that led to the Panthers’ late winning points, thanks to a scatterbrained late-hit penalty by Reshad Jones.

“In critical situations,” Cameron Wake said, “we drop the ball.”

Sometimes literally.

A fitting end to Sunday found Wallace, who might have been a hero, dropping what should have been the winning touchdown pass in the final minute.

“A frustrating game. We should have won,” Wallace said. “We just don’t finish games. We’ve got to have killer instinct. I don’t think we really have it.”

The funny thing is, nobody is lamenting the lack of that invisible yet essential team trait if Wallace himself catches that deep pass as the game ebbed.

He got turned around as the spiral approached: “I tried to find the ball,” he said.

He found it. He just didn’t catch it. It glanced off his hands, rendering moot or wasted his two earlier long catches including a 53-yard touchdown.

Wallace did not say he should have caught it but implied it, with, “I just didn’t make the play.”

Tannehill, asked directly, said, “That’s not for me to say.”

Well, it is for me to say. He should have caught it.

Coach Joe Philbin, asked about the drop, said: “I didn’t have good angle on it.”

Well, I had a great angle on it. It’s called instant replay. He should have caught it.

But that also isn’t the sole reason Miami lost.

Teams that can’t run, don’t score in the second half and fail to make defensive plays precisely when they are most needed — those teams do not deserve to have a happy locker room.

Those teams deserve to have indigestion on Thanksgiving.

“We have to be a complete team and play four quarters, not a half,” Tannehill summarized it pretty well.

You could trace the loss — or at least the beginning of the end — to a quintessentially Dolphinesque sequence late in the first half.

Leading 13-3, a Nolan Carroll interception set up Miami at the Carolina 11 with 2:01 left in the first half, but a quick fizzle left the team settling for a short field goal.

Carolina took over at its own 20 and faced a first-and-15 from its own 43 with eight seconds left. Miami weirdly played its secondary so deep they were nearly out of the stadium and in the parking lot. The Panthers completed a 29-yard pass with one second left. Field goal.

So what might have been a 20-3 halftime lead was 16-6.

“That was huge,” winning coach Ron Rivera said.

For Miami, the rest was misery. I mean history.

So, once again, an NFL playoff stretch run commences with the holidays, and the Dolphins are on the outside, scrambling, still hoping, but not seeming quite good enough. Still not finishing. Still not closing.

Still leaving their fans mostly frustrated.

Unless this team does something to change it, the working title of that Dolphins children’s book seems more and more perfect to me:

The Little Team That Couldn’t.

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