Greg Cote

Miami Dolphins’ Brian Flores used to turbulence, but Clowney/Tunsil presents a powderkeg | Opinion

Brian Flores’ introduction to NFL head coaching has included losing a defensive tackle to an amputated arm after a truck accident; abruptly firing his offensive line coach in the middle of training camp; enduring the fallout of the club owner’s fundraiser for Donald Trump; and guiding what is expected to be the worst team in the NFL.

Now, as exhibition games cede to the regular season, Flores has made the wrong choice for a starting quarterback and put the mind-set of his locker room at risk amid corrosive speculation about the future of stalwart left tackle Laremy Tunsil.

Coaches have had smoother preseasons. The upside: If you believe that stuff about baptism by fire, consider Mr. Flores fully baptized.

And now the hard work begins.

And the hard decision, too. Choosing Ryan Fitzpatrcik over Josh Rosen was easy. Low risk. But choosing whether to include Tunsil in a trade for Texans pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney? High risk. Huge stakes. And Flores’ grip on his team in the balance.

The Tunsil/Clowney cloud hovers as everything begins for real.

Saturday the roster pares to a final 53 men, and the next game counts. The next 16 do. They will define Flores’ future, deliver an early verdict on the direction of new general manager Chris Grier, and set the state of the Fins’ ground-floor rebuild. This season will funnel into the 2020 NFL Draft, where the Dolphins’ real future will start to be known.

This whole season, the next seven or eight months, this franchise is sort of just killing time until the draft — the idea of a season of wheel-spinning only underlined by the choice of 36-year-old journeyman Fitzpatrick to start at quarterback.

A few thoughts on the state of the Fins as the Sept. 8 season opener vs. Baltimore rushes in like an unblocked defensive end.

Don’t put much real stock or hope in Miami’s 3-1 preseason record, the team’s best since 2014, although I will say it gives a puff of tailwind to my notion that Miami will be slightly better than gutter-low expectations. The betting over/under on wins hovers in the four or five range; I would bet six.

Of course, the higher the win total, the more Miami might have to spend in draft picks next April to move up high enough to land (they hope) Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

That’s the thing about this protracted QB battle that left Miami as the last of 32 teams to name a starter. It was a choice of weakness, not strength, and the eventual combination of Fitzpatrick and Rosen, 22, is extremely unlikely to shift the front office thinking away from targeting that position atop the ’20 draft.

Surely Rosen will get the ball eventually. The likelihood would be after the first four games and the early bye week. Why wait, though? Why not give Rosen that same baptism of fire put to Flores? The first four games are brutal: Ravens, Patriots, at Cowboys, then Chargers. That is a chance to see what you have in Rosen in a way no practices or preseason game can show you.

Instead a plainly rebuilding team goes with the 36-year nomad? Weirdly nonsensical.

I will give Flores this much credit, though: In choosing the veteran to start at QB, and in going hard after a trade for Clowney, Flores is verifying he wasn’t lying about his anti-tanking mind-set, about his intention to be as good as possible in 2019 no matter the impact on the ‘20 draft.

I love the idea of Miami doing due diligence on maybe trading for Clowney. He’s good enough and young enough to have an immediate impact in a position of dire need and also to be a part of the rebuild, the future.

But. But!

Tunsil needs to be 100 percent off the table. Left tackle is one of the NFL’s four essential positions, along with quarterback, pass rusher and shutdown cornerback. It would make zero sense for Miami to sacrifice one to get another. And such a trade would cause a chemistry explosion in the locker room.

Trading Tunsil and getting Clowney as a one-year rental would be a worst-case, nightmare scenario. Even if Houston threw in a first-round draft pick, as reported, it would not be worth it unless you were certain Clowney would sign a long-term deal.

Miami should extend Tunsil’s contract instead. Make it clear he is a major piece of the foundation of this makeover. Make him feel every bit as as loved as the team did in extending cornerback Xavien Howard.

There is enough about this season that lends a bit of intrigue.

That includes waiting to see if Miami can surprise and rise above dismal expectations. And waiting to see Rosen finally get his chance to show us what he has when it actually matters.

The season also will mark an ongoing report card on a rookie head coach who already has impressed with his steady, even keel through a fair share of turbulence — and he faces more of that if Tunsil is traded.

Remember what this season is about, though.

Eyes on the prize.

Fitzpatrick vs. Rosen distracted us, just like the Clowney trade speculation is doing now.

But the reason for this season is to get to the 2020 Draft. To get to a star quarterback. To get to the future.

Eyes on the prize.

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