Imagine if this was the norm, if it was real — so real you could believe it. Imagine if the Dolphins were better, at long last, than nemesis New England. Imagine if Ryan Tannehill was inarguably the best quarterback on the field, not Tom Brady.
When your team finishes a season with a 6-10 record, out of the NFL playoffs for a seventh consecutive season, what you do is dream and look for some hope to hang onto, because it is what you have left.
What you do after a season like this is accentuate the positive when the opportunity presents itself, because those chances have been so rare.
So here was club owner Stephen Ross striding through Sunday’s postgame locker room, pausing before a large knot of reporters, and beginning his season postmortem with this:
“Well, I guess in 2016, we are undefeated!”
And here was Tannehill, after his team’s disappointing season at least had ended with a victory, noting, “You get to leave with a good taste in your mouth.”
And here were briefly giddy Dolphins players as Ross addressed them to promise a thorough coaching search, interrupting the owner with a chant to keep the interim guy.
“Camp-bell! Camp-bell! Camp-bell!”
Miami beat the Patriots 20-10 on Sunday afternoon, and it served as little more than a spritz of deodorizer on top of a fetid year. A cynic might even note the Dolphins sort of lost by winning, falling a few spots lower in the draft order. Hasn’t it been that kind of season?
This 50th franchise year was supposed to be a celebration, a happy anniversary for the team and its fans. Instead it stands as one of the worst in club annals. Only three other times have the Dolphins lost more than 10 games: In expansion-year 1966, when the infant was learning to crawl; in 2004, when the club was finding out A.J. Feeley wasn’t the answer at quarterback; and in 2007, the infamous Cam Cameron experiment.
I’m not even sure how much effort the Patriots really put into winning Sunday. I mean, Brady threw only five passes the entire first half and sat out the last few minutes. Brady swore his team “absolutely” played to win, but it looked more like the Pats were playing to stay healthy with the playoffs, not the sudden offseason, looming for them.
There was something of value to be learned from this otherwise meaningless game, though. It didn’t take the victory or Tannehill’s performance in it to realize it, but it was a needed reminder.
Miami’s quarterback is not the problem moving forward.
Tannehill needs to be better in certain areas, yes, but he still can be the long-term answer for this franchise even after his first four seasons have ended a combined 29-35 and 0 for 4 on making the playoffs.
For what it’s worth (and it is worth something), Tannehill’s self-confidence is unshaken.
Losing has not scared it away.
Being sacked more times than any other quarterback the past four seasons has not battered it.
The lack of faith in him by many Dolfans has not derailed it.
Not even unkind Twitter barbs from a teammate’s wife, Miko Grimes, has shaken Tannehill.
He has the physical capacity and arm strength to be a very good quarterback,
He has the mental makeup, too.
“We didn’t play as well as we wanted to, but I am 100 percent confident we’ll lead this team to the playoffs and hopefully to a championship,” he said, after scorching New England for 350 yards and two touchdowns. “This was the toughest year I’ve had, but I’m still 100 percent sure.”
The Dolphins need two things more than anything else moving forward.
They need to make a great coaching hire — the onus squarely on VP of football operations Mike Tannenbaum and new general manager Chris Grier to hit it big, the pro version of what the Hurricanes landed in Mark Richt across town.
And the Dolphins need a better Tannehill.
The latter is not all on the quarterback. He needs better blocking to reduce the egregiously high sack totals. He also needs to do a better job at avoiding sacks, a skill one can learn with experience. He needs an offensive coordinator who incorporates the tight end and understands how much the balance of a running game helps a quarterback. He also needs a game plan that better utilizes his mobility, as when he ran 19 yards on third-and-12 Sunday, rewarded by a loud cheer from the big crowd.
Tannehill showed signs Sunday that perhaps the biggest criticism of him, a lack of touch on longer passes, also is something he will improve.
He completed seven passes of at least 20 yards, including a 46-yarder to rookie Devante Parker.
“I’m super excited about the future he’s going to have,” Tannehill said of Parker. “He’s going to be one of the best players in the league and I believe that wholeheartedly.”
Parker and Jarvis Landry give Miami two young, exciting receivers who should be a big part of Tannehill’s continuing growth.
As it is, this was his second 4,000-yard season in a row, the first Dolphins quarterback to do that since Dan Marino in the bombs-away ’80s. Tannehill also is plus-33 on TD/interception ratio his first four seasons. That’s good.
No, the problem doesn’t start with Tannehill.
The Dolphins need to continue to build a better team around him and give their quarterback what he hasn’t yet had in the NFL: great coaching to help fully draw the potential from him.
I get why so many fans aren’t sold on Tannehill. The faith any quarterback enjoys must be earned, and it starts with the bottom line. With winning. The playoffs.
What Tannehill has earned is the confidence 2016 will be his best year yet.