There are new windscreens on the fences surrounding the Dolphins’ practice facility at Nova Southeastern University in Davie. They bear a new message this season, one written unmistakably in 6-foot tall white, block letters against a turquoise background:
CHAMPIONS PRACTICE HERE.
If only. It is wishful thinking. That, or a psychological swipe at self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Dolphins last practiced as champions 40 years ago. Their training camp was then at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. The current Davie site was at that time an undeveloped pasture that had once been an auxiliary airfield during World War II.
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Sorry for the quick history lesson, but that is what the Dolphins continue to be: An NFL franchise bound to its history for the lack of anything to replace it. A club rightly proud of its past, but partly owing to the dearth of its present.
This is Joe Philbin’s burden.
What the Dolphins have become — a once-reigning franchise that has slid to irrelevance — forms the impatience that chases Miami’s coach into his third season here. Win-or-bust is the framework, the overriding sense he has this season to make the playoffs or to seek work elsewhere.
That might not be fair. Philbin took over a team that had gone 6-10 and went 7-9 his first year, then 8-8 last year. That’s improvement, however modest. In a vacuum, that should not necessarily find a coach on a professional hot seat entering his third season.
But Miami is not a normal situation. Here, Philbin isn’t just coaching a team, he is working against time. This season will test Philbin’s strength, because he must do all of this, all at once:
• He must lift this team from its rut of mediocrity.
• He must carry his own career to a higher level, to a proof of his coaching ability and leadership that are yet unknown.
• And he also must bear the weight of Dolphins failures past, because those are what have created the must-win urgency that envelops him.
There is a cumulative effect. The ghosts of Cam Cameron and Tony Sparano ride on Philbin’s shoulders. Their shortcomings are why the clock ticks so loudly for Philbin. Nobody expects him to be the next Don Shula. Just make the damned playoffs!
Club owner Stephen Ross was asked last week if Miami must make the playoffs for Philbin to retain his job. It was one of those obligatory media questions guaranteed to elicit a non-answer. Ross danced as you knew he would.
“I’m not going to say here he has to because I can understand what the headlines [would be],” Ross said. “I like Joe Philbin very much. I believe the ingredients of being a winning organization is having consistency. I’m expecting Joe Philbin to be here a long time.”
But there was a “but.”
“Every year, you want to see improvement,” he finished the answer.
Ross is in a tough spot, balancing his fondness for Philbin against the growing — and justified — impatience of his fan base, his customers. Fed-up Dolfans have waited since 2008 for a winning season, and since 2000 for their team to win a playoff game.
Improvement to 9-7 this year but no playoffs wouldn’t please many fans. Should it please the owner?
Ross seeks consistency but he has had the wrong kind of it during his control of the club. His teams have been consistently mediocre. His five seasons have seen records of 7-9, 7-9, 6-10, 7-9 and 8-8. That has left fans bored as much as angry.
Ross is 74. That, too, informs what should be impatience on his part. After last season, he changed general managers, replacing unpopular Jeff Ireland with Dennis Hickey. Like Philbin, Hickey also carries the burden of Dolphins failures past. The team’s playoff drought and Ireland’s missteps are why he will get less time to fashion a turnaround than he otherwise might.
The NFL is not a slow-build league anymore. Consistent failure is not abided. There are 32 current head coaches, and Philbin is one of only seven who have failed to make the playoffs with the same team each of the past two seasons. The rest either have made the playoffs, or failed to a point their team made a coaching change. And of those seven, Philbin is one of only three who had not previously made the playoffs as a head coach. (The only others are Dallas’ Jason Garrett and Oakland’s Dennis Allen.)
Philbin is not blessed with the charisma, bravado or dynamism that can sustain popularity and make failure more digestible, the way that a Rex Ryan can. Philbin must win.
Ross is not going to fire himself as owner. Hickey, entering his first season, seems safe for a while as the roster builder. Quarterbacks are such rare commodities and so costly to replace that Ryan Tannehill is an unlikely scapegoat should the playoffs elude Miami again.
That leaves Philbin in the crosshairs.
In Year 1, he was a rookie head coach learning on the job, yet saw the team improve by one victory.
In Year 2, the Bullygate mess that decimated his offensive line and locker room tested his leadership, yet the team improved by one victory again.
Now, in Year 3, his team is better, his excuses fewer. But the playoff drought is still there. So are the old ghosts of Dolphins failures past. They are Philbin’s inheritance. They are on him like a heavy yoke.
Every day he goes to work he sees those windscreen signs shouting in the distance.
CHAMPIONS PRACTICE HERE.
Joe Philbin is charged with transforming that wishful lie into truth. That starts with advancing to the postseason and that means this season, because impatience creates imperative.
If this coach can’t make the playoffs, it might be time to see if somebody else can.