Greg Cote

Brady's suspension is fine, but Dolphins are on their own to escape rut, change perception

Miami Dolphins defensive line sacks New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the fourth quarter at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, Jan. 3, 2016.
Miami Dolphins defensive line sacks New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the fourth quarter at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, Jan. 3, 2016. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

It should matter. It should be a big deal. A federal appeals court upholding Tom Brady’s four-game suspension on Wednesday should have registered as a seismic quake that emboldened the Miami Dolphins (among others) to see a door flung open — a big chance.

Nah. Who are we kidding!

This is the AFC East, the NFL’s most-lopsided division. These are the New England Patriots, who, to the Dolphins, Jets, Bills and fans of each, by now must seem as unstoppable as Daenerys Targaryen and all her ships and dragons from Game of Thrones.

Telling Bill Belichick he can’t have his starting quarterback for one-quarter of the regular season is like informing Bill Gates he’ll have to scrape by for three months with no new checks coming in. Somehow, you think he’ll manage.

It was a big victory for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, an affirmation of the broad sweep of his authority, when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld his four-game “Deflategate” suspension of Brady after it had earlier been overturned.

If only it was as big a triumph for the Dolphins, Jets and Bills, who still look to be playing for second place, none seen as playoff-likely even with the bump from Wednesday’s ruling. Just two weeks from the start of NFL training camps, King Sport chugging ever nearer, the news on Brady doesn’t figure to shift the power paradigm in the AFC East.

This 19-month saga might not be over yet, with a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court still a theoretical possibility for Brady, although the plain absurdity of that makes us wish very hard the franchise not used to losing might finally accept its legal defeat and move on.

Imagine this loony case reaching the nine — eight at the moment — Supreme Court justices? Consider the five cases the highest of all courts heard in 2016. They involved women’s health, a landmark challenge to affirmative action, a president’s authority on immigration, voting districts and birth-control mandates.

Now imagine the Supreme Court being introduced to this case:

Clerk of the Court: “Your Honors, before you now involves an allegation of involvement by a professional football player in the infinitesimal under-inflating of footballs prior to a game.”

Supreme Court justices, in unison: “Say what!?”

If “Deflategate” reaches the Supreme Court, so should my dispute with the neighbor over the nuisance of his areca palms bending over the fence and dropping fronds into my backyard.

No, it ends here. Finally. Brady will serve his sentence, watching backup Jimmy Garoppolo start the first four games vs. the Cardinals, the Dolphins (on Sept. 18 in New England’s home opener), the Texans and the Bills.

The question is: Will it matter? Those last three affected games all are at home for the Patriots, who’ll still be a clear favorite in each. Only the Sept. 11 season opener at Arizona is likely to see a real impact with Brady’s absence. (Brady’s season debut would then come in Week 5 vs. the Cleveland Browns, whose franchise luck could only be worse if a conspiring swarm of locusts, killer bees, Zika mosquitos and Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons devoured its entire stadium and roster.)

Brady missed the whole 2008 season, you’ll recall, after injuring his knee in the season opener. New England plugged in Matt Cassel and went 11-5.

Miami also went 11-5 that year, surfing the serendipity of Chad Pennington, and actually won the division crown over the Pats on the fifth tiebreaker after the teams split their two regular-season games.

The thing is, that has been the Fins’ only playoff season since 2001. Miami has misplaced the franchise compass that makes you believe it can parlay a four-game Brady absence in any meaningful way. Likewise, Ryan Tannehill has yet to prove he can be as good as Pennington was in abberant ’08.

That’s the thing here.

It isn’t that Brady missing four games won’t hurt the Pats. It’s that the Dolphins, Jets and Bills haven’t earned the faith to think any is poised to fully seize the opportunity to reshape the division.

I think Miami will be OK this season, decent, maybe with an oustide playoff shot. I think new coach Adam Gase seems a promising hire. I have not given up on Tannehill.

There is so much doubt, though, hardened like the scab that leaves the scar. Just this week, ESPN.com ranked all 32 NFL teams based on who’s in the best shape for the next three seasons. The five categories factored were quarterback, remaining roster, drafting, front office and coaching. The Dolphins were ranked 29th overall.

That broad perception of the Dolphins still rutted in mediocrity will be there until the team wins its way out of it. Tom Brady missing four games won’t matter. No outside help will.

Miami changing perceptions and redefining itself is all on the Dolphins.

  Comments