Greg Cote

Greg Cote: The state of Miami’s Big 5 teams finds three headed right, two not so much

Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is all smiles at his introductory press conference Wednesday, March 11, 2015.
Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is all smiles at his introductory press conference Wednesday, March 11, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

This week is the closest thing we have to a dead zone on the time line of our Big 5 teams on the top tier of Miami sports. The Dolphins and Hurricanes football are getting close but still a couple of weeks away from even practicing. The Heat and Panthers don’t get back at it until later in the fall. The Marlins, with a long road trip following the All-Star break, are in the midst of a season-long, 16-day gap between home games.

It’s the perfect time to take stock with our annual “State Of” address on the teams South Florida cares about most. What is the outlook for each? How should fans be feeling about where their team is and where it is headed?

DOLPHINS

The optimism: Signing premier free agent defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and locking up quarterback Ryan Tannehill with a long-term deal were major (and costly) offseason moves conveying owner Stephen Ross’ commitment and the club’s clear direction. An improved receiving corps that includes exciting No. 1 draft pick DeVante Parker and even the refurbished stadium add to reasons to look forward to the season.

The hesitation: Tannehill must continue to build on his steady progress and make a move from solid to stardom. The guard play looks suspect on an otherwise promising offensive line. The linebacking unit must prove itself above average. And is Joe Philbin the coach to lead Miami to its first playoff spot since 2008?

The outlook: Encouraging. The run of mediocrity has grown tiresome. The excuses are gone. Tannehill has more weapons than ever. The Suh-led defense could be fearsome. This had better be a playoff team. Period.

HURRICANES

The optimism: Brad Kaaya passed for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns as a freshman and could prove to be UM’s best quarterback since Ken Dorsey. Hurricanes football is accustomed to high expectations. Now, coming off a 6-7 season and projected (based on most Las Vegas over/unders) for another six-win season, maybe the humbling role of disrespected underdog will provide some sort of a spark?

The hesitation: The offense lost major pieces such as Duke Johnson, Phillip Dorsett, Clive Walford and Ereck Flowers, and the defense moves on without leader Denzel Perryman. UM will be counting on a lot of players who still must prove themselves.

The outlook: Anxiety. This does not feel like the season that will see Miami narrow the sizable Atlantic Coast Conference gap between itself and Florida State. This does not feel like the season that will lighten the pressure on coach Al Golden, who could be working (perhaps against odds now) to save his job.

HEAT

The optimism: Chris Bosh, healthy. Dwyane Wade, back. Goran Dragic, re-signed. Hassan Whiteside, rising. Justise Winslow, drafted. Oh, and an owner/architect/coach trio as good as any in the NBA in Micky Arison, Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra. Riley has had his best offseason since 2010.

The hesitation: The league’s power base still starts out West, and Cleveland and LeBron James still top the East, so Miami, though much-improved, could be a ways from title contending. The club also must think long-term of life after Wade, which could rely on Whiteside proving worthy of a big contract and Winslow becoming the team’s biggest drafted star since Wade.

The outlook: Solid. The Heat’s post-LeBron lull figures to end at one year out of the playoffs. Miami should be a top-four Eastern seed this season and arguably be the conference’s biggest threat to the Cavs.

PANTHERS

The optimism: Florida and proven architect Dale Tallon are building something real, and something to last. The Cats have had two of the past three NHL rookies of the year in Jonathan Huberdeau and last season’s Aaron Ekblad, have emerging young centers in Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad, and made a 25-point standings leap last season.

The hesitation: Florida has made the playoffs a meager four times since its inaugural season in 1993-94, so optimism around here always feels a bit like naiveté. Also, the Cats appear to still lack that 30-plus goal scorer they haven’t had in a long while.

The outlook: Ready to rock. The Panthers have impressive, coalescing young talent balanced by a nice mix of veterans led by the jackpot signing of ancient Jaromir Jagr and still-solid goaltending with Roberto Luongo. It’s time for that potential to be realized. Florida is poised to both make the playoffs and do something in them. Finally!

MARLINS

The optimism: Thirteen games below .500 at the All-Star break makes this year close to hopeless, but a nucleus of superstar Giancarlo Stanton, ace pitcher Jose Fernandez, Christian Yelich and (based on this year) middle infielders Adeiny Hechavarria and Dee Gordon gives Miami an enviable core moving forward. Signing Stanton long-term and Fernandez’s return from Tommy John surgery together are enough to create hope.

The hesitation: Rotation questions beyond Fernandez lead what are still too many roster concerns. Gordon’s sub-.300 on-base percentage his past 200 at-bats puts his future leadoff role in doubt. Dan Jennings is a front-office guy pretending to be a manager. And Jeffrey Loria is still ultimately in charge.

The outlook: Fragile hope. If Stanton and Fernandez stay healthy, if Henderson Alvarez and Marcell Ozuna bounce back — if all of the ifs turn right, the unlucky Fish could be solid next season. A great, inspired managerial hire would help.

Summer’s bottom line for South Florida’s Big 5 teams?

It could be a while before local civic leaders need to plan another championship parade. No ticker tape on the immediate horizon. But the Heat, Dolphins and Panthers seem headed right, at least — and in the latter two cases, at last. The wavering Marlins and Hurricanes bear more of an onus to still prove they are headed right.

As for where the most pressure is aimed?

That’s easy.

Football.

Dolphins and Canes.

Philbin and Golden.

One had better meet expectations. The other had better exceed them.

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