There is a tendency to think that the years of mediocrity and disappointment have gradually beaten the enthusiasm out of Dolphins fans and replaced it with the hardened scab of cynical doubt. It isn’t true. A season-opening game like Sunday’s reminded us of that.
So the sound you heard long after the game had ended was an intoxicating cocktail of celebration and hope. Thousands of Dolfans were chanting in perfect unison as they poured down the home stadium’s concourses and into the parking lots. The club’s marketing theme for the game was “Stronger Together,” and the merry noise reflected that.
“Let’s go Dolphins!” the thousands sang, rhythmic clapping in between, the chorus filled with joy and going on and on and on. “Let’s go Dolphins!”
This exhilarating 33-20 Miami triumph over the nemesis New England Patriots was medicine for this beleaguered, listing franchise — “One of the most exciting, fun games I’ve been a part of,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill called it.
Dolfans want so, so much to believe again.
Sunday afternoon gave them a chance, gave them a reason.
This was not a fluke, and it was not a mirage.
These Dolphins have a chance to be very good.
Repeat that. Savor it.
The team I saw rally Sunday to dominate in the second half and humble the mighty Patriots was a balanced squad capable of imposing its will physically on both sides of the line of scrimmage, as it did in overcoming its 20-10 halftime hole.
Miami committed three turnovers and suffered linebacker injuries yet overcame its own early mistakes because the Cameron Wake-led defense sacked Tom Brady four times and — even more impressive — because new running back Knowshon Moreno’s 134 yards on 24 carries led a near-200-yard ground attack.
Tannehill was no better than efficient — except for a bad underthrow of Mike Wallace that led to an interception — but he didn’t need to be better than that thanks to the defense and dominant running game.
New offensive coordinator Bill Lazor came from the Philadelphia Eagles, whose offense last year produced the NFL rushing leader in LeSean McCoy. It’s an offense that spreads the field, is full of movement and, in the second half, kept New England on its heel with a no-huddle element.
“If we correct our mistakes, it’s kind of scary what this offense can do,” Tannehill said.
Moreno’s 4-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter came on third down. Imagine that!
Miami used to have so little confidence in its run that third-and-4 automatically was a passing down.
Were these even the Dolphins?
Answer: None that we’ve seen for a long time. This team flexed and punished.
And that started with the maligned offensive line. This was the group decimated by the embarrassment of last year’s Bullygate scandal. The line began Sunday’s game with five new starters as center Mike Pouncey continued rehabilitating from an injury. But the new unit showed muscle and cohesion — showed everything last year’s line did not.
“They opened up some great holes,” Moreno said.
New left tackle Brandon Albert threw the praise right back at Moreno.
“That’s contagious,” he said of his running.
I was on record forecasting Miami as a playoff team and predicting Sunday’s opening win, all but alone on that. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure until I saw it for myself.
You never know with the first game of a regular season. Pats coach Bill Belichick had been asked whether any other game brings with it so much uncertainty.
“No, and I’d say by a wide margin,” he replied.
So it was that the favored Patriots went into Sunday roundly expected to continue their stranglehold over the AFC East and their role as chief roadblock to Dolphin dreams. Just as the Dolphins entered the opener roundly expected to reprise their role as the Little Brother in this relationship.
Instead, roles reversed, and Dolfans were reveling in it.
“They came out in full force,” receiver Brian Hartline said.
Players supped on the energy, making plays that in turn fed the crowd.
“The Dolphins played their tails off,” veteran Patriot Vince Wilfork said.
Miami not only flexed strong defense and a potentially great ground game Sunday but also displayed a hunger indicative of youth. The 13 rookies on this team (of 53 players) are the most Miami has had on an opening-day roster since 1979.
One of the rookies was Chris McCain, a linebacker from the University of California who properly introduced himself with an early blocked punt that led to a fast 7-0 lead and later had a sack.
Afterward, he was the last Dolphin player still in uniform in the post-game locker room, his No. 58 jersey stained with grass, dirt and sweat. It’s as if he didn’t want the afternoon to end.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” McCain said. “Just being here. Just being able to pull on this uniform. It’s just a blessing, man.”
It is necessary, of course, to temper enthusiasm, even as the sound of those thunderous “Let’s go Dolphins!” postgame chants echo in the mind. Recent history is sobering. Very recent history. Recall that last season the Dolphins started 3-0 and also won at home over New England, yet the year still ended out of the playoffs. Again. (There is surely a little devil on every Dolfan’s shoulder whispering that a loss next week at Buffalo would reconfigure everything and dump rain on Sunday’s sunshine.)
Last year’s fast start, however, didn’t show the strong ground game and balance we saw Sunday. Or the ability to hector an opposing QB with only a four-man pass rush. This team feels fundamentally better.
Wallace, who caught seven passes in the opener and out-fought cornerback Darrelle Revis to turn a contested pass into a touchdown, was asked afterward what he thought Sunday’s message was to the rest of the NFL.
“We want people to take us seriously,” he said.
The first step toward being taken seriously is for people to notice you.
Sunday did that for the Dolphins.
Now let’s see how they deal with the changed pressure that comes when expectations are raised, and when the rest of the league is paying attention.