Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and his aides-de-camp stood watching at his team’s Davie headquarters Thursday as his players completed their first practice of training camp. The lid had officially lifted on this club’s 50th anniversary season, and it is different this time. The franchise so good at celebrating its ever-distant glory days expects finally to create some new ones. Not hopes to. Expects to.
“There is a different buzz,” Ross said. “You can feel it. You can sense it.”
Ross watched as more than $200 million worth of why stood 15 feet away speaking with the media just off the practice field. To the owner’s right stood Ndamukong Suh, the mammoth, menacing defensive tackle Miami spent $114 million to acquire in free agency. To his left was quarterback Ryan Tannehill, on whom Ross invested $94 million on a long-term contract extension.
Only one year ago, expectations were modest and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ross had been asked his goal for the season and he’d said, “To see improvement” – not exactly a rallying cry to fire up the troops or excite the populace.
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This year, for a pleasant change, the NFL team that has come to represent stuck-in-the-middle mediocrity is publicly challenging itself to do more and isn’t afraid to say it. The Dolphins are raising the bar on themselves. The playoffs are an unequivocal expectation. “Super Bowl” no longer is a taboo phrase no one dares utter.
Patience has marked Ross’ seven seasons as owner.
It has run out.
He was asked Thursday if he is “antsy” for results.
“You’re goddamn right!” he said.
His goal this season?
What did he mean? Winning record? Super Bowl?
“All of the above,” he said.
There is a sense everything is in place now. The Dolphins had a fruitful offseason, hit big in free agency, had a strong draft. The club has immersed itself in technology, advanced nutrition and sports science. Players wear GPS devices in practices to track their every movement and measure its efficiency. A massive renovation is giving Dolphins stadium a facelift and making it like new.
There is a belief that everything is coalescing, that this has become a team ready to win. I didn’t get that feeling, or hear it, a year ago. .
“We’re looking to win now, to be best-in class,” Ross said Thursday. “And players feel that.”
One year ago Tannehill was asked if he thought this was playoff team and he hedged and equivocated.
To the same question Thursday:
“No doubt,” he said, quickly. “I’m really excited about this team.”
Part of that attitude is a belief that the retooled receiving corps is better suited to Tannehill’s skills and to the offense that Miami runs.
“These guys have all the weapons we need,” said Tannehill of his targets.
Miami’s quarterback has improved each of this first three seasons, with another leap forward expected.
Ross said he thinks Tannehill has “all the ingredients to be an elite quarterback.”
Receiver Jarvis Landry praised Tannehill’s “focus,” and said, “It’s critical for him not only be a leader but to get better every year, which he has.”
Ross addressed the team this week and emphasized his hunger to win championships. Coach Joe Philbin said the same. Modest, small goals – practice well, get better – have given way to broader, bigger aims.
“’We’re hear to win championships.’ That’s what you want to hear from your owner and head coach,” Tannehill said. “We’re not just here every day wasting our time sweating. I love the confidence. It’s contagious throughout the team.”
There is a tone of bravado now that may be a bit presumptuous or surprising coming from a team that last won a playoff game in 2000 and hasn’t even made the playoffs since ’08 – and yet it is refreshing. It should be sweet music to Dolfans who’ve been listening to a dirge for too long.
Sack-man Cameron Wake, who’ll be a beneficiary of Suh’s presence inside, spent part of his offseason vacationing in Thailand, where he posed next to a massive tiger, and that same bravado is expressed in a new T-shirt players had made that Wake wore Thursday.
‘Take Everything,’ it reads. ‘Leave Nothing.’
Ross, especially, it seems, wants to raise the bar. He wouldn’t directly say Philbin must make the playoffs to save his job, but that reality seems clear.
“This is the best roster we’ve seen in Miami in many, many years,” said Ross.
You wouldn’t be wrong to think that part of the Dolphins’ motivation now is to take back the city. Ross left little doubt. He sees an opportunity.
“The Heat is a different organization now that LeBron James isn’t there,” he noted. “The Dolphins are a team that’s going to capture the imagination of the entire fan base in South Florida.”
A couple of thousand Dolfans braved the heat and humidity to watch the first practice and one of them yelled down to Ross, “Steve, you’re my favorite owner!” as players left the field.
Later Ross laughed about that, saying, “I think early in the season I’ve always heard that.”
He wouldn’t mind hearing it Super Bowl week.
This 50th anniversary year will make for an interesting juxtaposition of past and present. It will be a proper homage to Dolphins history, and there’s nothing wrong with embracing that. Players now walk through the players parking lot and enter the Davie facility past a montage of the club’s Hall of Famers, something to motivate and inspire.
But with that is a renewed imperative to help put the past in its place by giving a new generation of Dolfans something of their own to cheer.
The new HBO series, “Ballers,” starring Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, is based in Miami and NFL-themed, liberally using the Dolphins logo and colors and frequently referring to “Mr. Ross” – none of it with the Dolphins’ blessing.
The Mr. Ross who owns the Dolphins is not a big fan.
“I saw one episode. I wasn’t overwhelmed,” he said. “I don’t think the show is going too far.”
I suspect Miami fans like the show more than Ross does, though. It makes the Dolphins seem like the center of the football universe, and this team hasn’t been that in real life, or event relevant, for a long, long time.
This season is about being that again. Not maybe someday. Now.