The matchup was historically awful.
The season has been just as bad. —
The game? That was pretty damned great Sunday. And the fight we saw in it, the heart, was even better.
The word “tanking” has covered this whole Miami Dolphins season like a corrosive cloud, but there was no evidence of it in the Dolphins’ 17-16 loss to the Washington Redskins at Hard Rock Stadium.
It was a competitive, exciting game, for a change. The Dolphins were giving it all they had -- right down to the 2-point conversion try in the closing seconds -- and Dolfans were on their feet, as if the stakes were greater than the consolation of a first win. Fans weren’t thinking of tanking or Tua Tagolaviloa or the 2020 NFL Draft at the end -- but rather of leaving the home stadium happy for the first time since last December 9.
This was not a team tanking, it was one trying with all its might. And its fans were right there, cheering for a win as if order had been restored to this upside-down season for at least an afternoon.
“Trying to win the game,” coach Brian Flores quickly answered why he’d elected to go for a winning 2-point conversion with six seconds to play, rather than a tying kick. “We were going for two all the way.”
It was the right decision, unequivocally. When you are winless, at home, playing an opponent that also was winless, you take that chance.
The play call we can question. The misfire to Kenyan Drake inside the five appeared unlikely to reach the end zone even if he’d caught it. But the decision to go for it was spot on.
“It was the right move,” agreed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a hero off the bench even in narrow defeat. “I love the fact we went for it.”
Miami trailed 17-3 entering the fourth quarter. At that point the Dolphins had been outscored 91-0 in second halves this season.
It was then we were reminded that this tanking thing -- the idea of wanting to lose in order to secure the No. 1 draft pick and the grand prize QB -- is an external phenomenon fomented by media and some fans. It is nothing heard or felt inside the Dolphins lockerroom. It does not exist there.
“Because of the competitors we are,” said Drake.
The veteran Fitzpatrick replaced struggling Josh Rosen to begin the forth quarter after Rosen had been intercepted twice, and delivered exactly what the point of the change was.
“We needed as spark,” said Flores, saying Rosen was still his guy moving forward. “We had to get something going.”
Fitzpatrick would throw for 132 yards in the quarter, leading a pair of TD drives, one ended by 11-yard scoring strike to DeVante Parker.
The atmosphere in the stadium then was a pleasant change.
Mark Walton whopped a towel overhead, exhorting a crowd that needed no encouragement as the defense held the Redskins in check.
The TD to Parker to make it a one-point game sounded like Dolfans were cheering for a playoff game, not one quite the opposite.
Miami entered 0-4 and Washington 0-5.
ESPN’s computerized Football Power Index has been assigning every NFL game a “matchup quality” score since the 2008 season. Dolphins-Redskins was the first -- ever -- to have a 0.0 rating, making it, somewhat officially, the worst matchup this league has seen in at least the past 12 years.
This was epic badness. The Game of the Weak. The Winless Bowl. Movable Object vs. Stoppable Force.
Miami’s minus-137 points differential was the worst in the NFL through four games since 1940. Washington was so bad it was the first team to fire its coach.
Cannot confirm this matchup was required watching in federal prisons as an alternate punishment to solitary confinement.
The press box menu included turkey, known for sleep-inducing tryptophan. Like media covering a Dolphins-Redskins game needed any help getting drowsy?
All of the jokes fit a matchup that was a joke, an NFL embarrassment.
And the Dolphins, down 17-3 entering the fourth quarter, were doing everything possible to underline the narrative that this was far and away the worst team in football, a clown car careening to 0-16.
That was before something nearly remarkable happened.
The team that America has spent months making of fun of let its pride show. It stood up and fought. Its fans stood up, too.
In the end Sunday, every faction of Dolfans had a something to feel a little bit good about.
The fans whose priority is the 2020 draft and Tanking for Tua saw that probability come into sharper focus with yet another loss.
But the fans tired of embarrassingly lopsided losses and hungry to win again saw that their team wants that, too.
“There’s a lot of frustration in there,” said Fitzpatrick of the home lockerroom.
There should be. But maybe a little bit of hope now, too.