I would share two historical nuggets to caution against the folly of attaching any weight to whether the Miami Dolphins happen to win or lose their first exhibition game Thursday night in Chicago. Consider:
A long time ago, the Dolphins once began a preseason 0-2. The year was 1972. The Perfect Season followed.
Much more recently the Dolphins began a preseason 2-0. The year was 2007. A 1-15 embarrassment followed.
In other words, this franchise’s greatest and worst years, as it ushers in its Golden Anniversary season, began in a way that offered no clue as to what lay ahead — closer to the opposite, in fact.
It is well known that the third of four exhibition games is the only one in which you’ll see your “A” team playing a lot and actually trying to win in a bona fide dress rehearsal. Thursday in Chicago? Dolphins starters will play only one quarter, if that, and the final score will matter much less to coach Joe Philbin (as it should to you) than whether, for example, any of Miami’s offensive guards seem to be NFL-quality.
OK, enough with the preseason-openers-are-meaningless disclaimers.
Be excited, anyway.
It’s real football at last. The Marlins, Panthers and even the Heat have let South Florida down, and now the team that once owned this town clamors back on stage. After two weeks of droning training-camp practices against one’s own teammates, it’s finally the Dolphins against an actual opponent. The result might not matter, but the game gets you one step closer to the ones that do.
With Thursday night’s kickoff you begin to see your team appear gradually from a blank slate, by degrees, the way you used to watch an old Polaroid picture develop.
“It’s the first testing ground,” as quarterback Ryan Tannehill described this maiden exhibition. “Thursday is going to be a fun night for us.”
Philbin had been asked whether he was ready to see his team block and tackle an opponent instead of itself.
“It’s time,” he said. “It’s definitely time.”
This is a Dolphins season of uncommon expectations and excitement, more than I have noticed in many years. Part of that is what surrounds Miami in the AFC East.
The Super Bowl champion and division-lord New England Patriots endure the distraction of seeing their quarterback, Tom Brady, in federal court trying to overturn a four-game Deflategate suspension.
The embarrassed New York Jets this week lost their starting quarterback, Geno Smith, to a teammate’s punch that busted Smith’s jaw and could sideline him half the season.
The Buffalo Bills’ presumed starting QB, Matt Cassel, recently was ranked 31st among all starters by a ESPN experts panel, ahead of only Smith.
The most important position is tranquil, not tumultuous, only in Miami. Suddenly the Dolphins are the imprimatur of stability, the steady ship in the roiling AFC East.
Ndamukong Suh’s free agent arrival anchors what should be an improved defense. Call it D.W.A. — Defense With Attitude — thanks to Suh. With due respect to former great Jason Taylor, Suh gives this franchise the most dominant player at his position since the prime of Dan Marino.
On the other side of the line, Tannehill seems poised to continue his ascending career arc with a revamped, improved receiving corps. He is one of four players who adorns the regional covers of Sports Illustrated’s new fantasy football issue, hinting at rising draft stock. Hopes on offense are as high as they are on defense. Philbin has stated the goal is to average 25 points per game — a 400-point season standard not attained by Miami since (believe it or not) 1986.
Tannehill seems to be taking command, an intangible, but something nearly palpable. He is ready to lead. (In practices, he also has shown a much better touch on deep passes, heretofore a weakness of his.)
“He’s throwing the ball better this camp than he ever has,” said Philbin, who, like Tannehill, is entering his fourth Dolphins season.
Said the quarterback: “I feel accurate. I feel comfortable.”
Tannehill was a 12-year-old kid pedaling his bike around Big Spring, Texas, when the Dolphins last won a playoff game on Dec. 30, 2000.
What Philbin said about the arrival of this first preseason game applies even more to the imperative that these 2015 Dolphins climb at last back into NFL relevance.
“It’s time. It’s definitely time.”