Sometime around the early 1990s a very good and underrated Miami Dolphins sack man named Jeff Cross coined a phrase for his unit. He called it the “Make Believe Defense.” OK so it never quite caught on in franchise lore like the No-Name Defense or the Killer B’s, but I thought it was inspired nonetheless.
He meant that game by game, win by win, they were making believers out of doubters.
More than 20 years later, today’s Dolphins are pretty much still trying to do the same thing.
It takes a long time to chip away at such a long time of disappointment. Miami is forever playing more than just its next opponent on the NFL schedule. It is endeavoring to overcome its own recent history of not good enough, not quite, not this year.
I get criticized sometimes for framing the present in the context of the past, but that kind of stuff works both ways. No franchise celebrates its distant past more than the Dolphins with the Perfect Season and halcyon days four decades gone. It is only fair to note that the shortcomings that have defined the club more recently very much inform the view Dolfans have of the current season now even at 3-3.
The optimism is not cautious so much as it is wary.
It’s the state of Show Me. Of “prove it’s different this time.” We have been here before.
I’m no math freak or slave to stats but I found interesting the results when I broke down what the Dolphins’ record after six games portends historically.
When Miami has had four or more wins after six games it is 20-6 on making the playoffs.
When Miami has had two or fewer wins after six games it is 1-13 on making the playoffs.
No big surprises there.
It is the in-between I found illuminating – what has happened from the 3-3 position the team is in now.
The odds of making the playoffs should be close to even, but Miami is only 1-7 on reaching the postseason when .500 at this stage.
The only time it happened was 1983 when rookie Dan Marino made it so. The seven times it has not happened include three occurrences close enough to still hurt, in 2010, 2012 and 2013 – each involving miserable results suggesting a collapse or choke.
In 2010 that included four consecutive home losses to end the season.
In ’12 that included a 37-3 home loss to Tennessee.
Last season that included a loss at Tampa Bay and season-ending losses at Buffalo and to the New York Jets by a combined 39-7 score – when a win in either game would have clinched a playoff spot.
The Dolfans’ Lament is that so many times being disappointed has left calloused wounds that make it tough to trust this team and hard to believe in it.
Part of that is the history of 3-3 that suggests when a season is teetering and could tip either way, Dolphins fans are bracing themselves mentally for it to head south.
And part of it, more broadly, is that not having won a playoff game since the 2000 season puts Miami in the bottom 10 percent among all teams in the Big Four sports. Of 122 NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL teams, only 12 have gone longer than the Dolphins since last winning a postseason game or series.
Coach Joe Philbin on Monday, discussing his team’s big Sunday win at Chicago, noted his players seemed “hungry on the field.”
This team’s fans are hungrier. Starving.
But still wary.
Is there a self-respecting Dolfan out there who would be shocked if the team followed its upset triumph at Soldier Field with an unexpected loss to Jacksonville next?
We are seeing indications of a playoff-caliber team.
The exhilarating opening victory against New England. The rollicking win in London. Taking Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay down to the last play. The domination in Chicago. This team should be 4-2.
Likewise we are seeing indications of progress in quarterback Ryan Tannehill, hints that when he is good, he can pretty great. The second half against the Pats. The first half against Oakland. Starting Sunday’s game 14 for 14.
“There are specific signs of him getting better,” offensive chief Bill Lazor said Monday of his QB.
The running game, the defense overall, the increased depth that relegates receiver Brandon Gibson to an afterthought and makes the return of defensive end Dion Jordan no big deal – these are other indications that Miami, right now, to me, looks playoff-caliber.
Denver, San Diego, New England, Indianapolis and Baltimore are better right now in the AFC, but the Dolphins have as good a shot as anybody else to sneak in.
But will they?
This franchise’s recent history makes skepticism the starting point. It means trust isn’t easily given and must be earned, game by game, win by win.
Jeff Cross said it a long time ago. It’s still true.
Make us believe, Dolphins.