By: Chip Turner
The Dolphins have a winning record, and even the most jaded NFL pundits are taking notice of what’s going on. The rebuild looks to be going well, the team is full of young, high-energy players, and there’s a highly-touted rookie QB just getting his feet wet in the league.
The thing is…we’ve all been here before. We saw this in 2008, when the Dolphins went on a Wildcat-led tear to an 11-5 record, a division title, and a playoff berth. Chad Pennington gave us hope that Miami was a genuine contender and led the team against the Ravens in the playoffs.
We saw this in 2016, when Ryan Tannehill, Jay Ajayi and Adam Gase took Miami to a 10-6 record. Matt Moore took over for an injured Tannehill and started a playoff game against Pittsburgh.
Is this time different? Is this Miami team getting ready to take the next step toward being a playoff contender? Or is this another mirage conjured by a weak schedule, unsustainable play, and players who peaked at the right time?
2008 and 2016 left the Dolphins bruised and battered, and the fan-base’s collective liver was equally abused in empathy. So is that going to happen again in 2020? Arizona might be a legitimate litmus test as to how good this team really is.
To date in 2020, Miami has been competitive in every game, and the defense has arguably gotten better every game. But there are still doubts. They handled the Jaguars and the Jets easily, but those two teams are a combined 1-14. They put a thorough beat down on the 49ers, and while that was impressive, that team has been banged up all year. This past weekend, they handled the Rams with a masterful performance on defense and special teams, but as I’ve stated, the Dolphins simply aren’t going to put up that type of defensive and special teams performance every week.
This Sunday, Miami travels to Arizona to face an ascending, dynamic QB in his second season, with a slew of dangerous offensive weapons at his disposal. The Arizona defensive backfield is talented if inconsistent, and while they’re not particularly good at stopping the run, Miami’s rushing attack doesn’t exactly strike fear into anyone’s heart at the moment.
So why might this team be different that the 2008 and 2016 teams that drove liquor sales in South Florida? The key is that there doesn’t seem to be just one facet of this team that opponents can neutralize to ensure a victory.
Miami is very solid on defense, consistent on special teams, and does just enough on offense (when needed) to keep opponents off-balance. They also don’t beat themselves; they’re one of the least-penalized teams in the NFL. All of this points to the one major difference between this team and the Sparano and Gase-led teams that last made the playoffs:
Sparano was a solid coach fundamentally, but didn’t often make in-game adjustments well. Gase, in retrospect, might have been far more of a detriment than an asset. Flores not only coaches and schemes well, he also makes in-game adjustments as well as any coach the Dolphins have had since Don Shula. Yeah, I said it.
Make no mistake, Kyler Murray will test Miami’s ability to contain him on pass rushes. They must remain disciplined and stick to their assignments. Likewise, DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk will present a tremendous test for Miami’s secondary, and Kenyan Drake proved last week that he’s still dangerous against a shaky run defense.
But even if the Dolphins lose this Sunday, make no mistake about one thing: This Dolphins team is not a mirage. It isn’t a flash in the pan, like the 2008 and 2016 squads. It’s a well-coached team headed in the right direction, with a bright future full of draft capital and salary cap room.
So even if Miami gets trounced Sunday, remember that Arizona a full year ahead of Miami in their rebuild. Ease up on your liver, put down the pitchforks, and show patience. This Miami team is for real, and the question isn’t if it will be ready for prime time.
The question is when.
Please welcome Chip Turner to PhinManiacs and please check him out on Twitter @ChipTurnerPA
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