If you rewind three months in time to when the Miami Dolphins were slogging through an 0-4 preseason and looking relatively dreadful to boot, a 4-6 record through 10 games would have been on the high end of where a reasonable fan could hope to be. However, with the Dolphins sitting at that mark after a second straight no-show from the offense last Thursday against the Buffalo Bills, the team’s record is oddly unsettling. Even the most wishful of fans, myself included, probably understood that the team’s playoff hopes when sitting at 4-3 while perhaps decent on paper, were being cobbled together with some level of smoke and mirrors. But what we did see were pieces that seemed to be capable of forming the foundation of something the team could build on in future years.
Since then, the Dolphins have instead laid two of the bigger eggs of the entire NFL season league wide over the last two weeks, and as we know the most recent results always shape the opinions of the present. While the defense came to play against the Bills, at least in the red zone, the remainder of the last two games has been shockingly poor in all facets for the Dolphins. Going into the fourth quarter against the Bills, the team had run only 34 offensive plays, generating no points. That will happen when your team doesn’t convert a single third down without the assistance of a defensive penalty.
Regression has been the name of the game for the team in its last two contests and it really isn’t all that clear why. While the Dolphins offense was never particularly explosive this season, the team made a point to take some shots downfield with WR Brian Hartline in most of the early season victories. This past week, with the exception of a 4th quarter pass to Rishard Matthews which drew a PI call, there were only two moderately deep passes the entire game, and those went to Davone Bess. While Bess is a very valuable player on any football team, throwing the ball down-field to a relatively slow, relatively short wide out is not a recipe for success.
QB Ryan Tannehill, once so poised both in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage, is suddenly not checking the Dolphins out of plays which opposing defenses are primed to blow up. RB Reggie Bush, once the explosive weapon whom was capable of breaking a long gainer and firing up the team with a single jump cut, is now no longer even able to see the field. LG Richie Incognito, once the brash bully playing on the edge but earning his keep as a starting guard is now just over the edge. LT Jake Long, once the preeminent player at his position, now looks as beatable as John St. Clair and Damion McIntosh from seasons past.
These are all good players; good players who showed in the first half of the season that they are still (or in the case of Tannehill – going to be) capable of playing at a high level in the NFL. While it certainly is understandable when players see a drop in the quality of play year-to-year, be it due to age, conditioning, or some sort of personal issue, in season, outside of injuries and fatigue, it is rare to see individual performances plummet. Football is not a sport particularly prone to a traditional “slump”, as something more mental like golf or baseball would be. While scheme and coaching can certainly adapt to make a particular unit struggle or even to marginalize one player, it doesn’t usually contribute to players failing in one-on-one match-ups that they previously would win.
Yet confusingly, this seems to be what has plagued the Dolphins in recent weeks. A young team with all the motivation in the world and a coach with a strong attention to detail is flat out getting beat around by seemingly inferior talent. The Dolphins were never the best roster in the league, but it’s also hard to believe that the performances in the first eight games of the year were entirely a mirage.
That leaves the team at the crossroads they face today. In a year they were not supposed to even sniff contention, they did, but they also snuffed out any whiff of the playoffs just as quickly and turned their arrow from pointing up to pointing sideways. With six games left, the team is realistically not a contender, but they are right back to where they were at the beginning of the season – show me something mode.
We thought that they did show us something in weeks 2 through 9, but they threw that away in weeks 10 and 11. Now the team, starting with HC Joe Philbin and right down through the end of the roster, and even the front office, must show us which version of the Dolphins is the real 2012 version of the team. Is this a roster filled with hope in the form of promising young stars like Tannehill and OT Jonathan Martin and accomplished veterans like Long and CB Sean Smith? Or is it a roster with numerous overpaid and under-performing players with little to no foundation in need of another comprehensive overhaul?
There’s plenty of time left for this team to define their season and how everyone will feel about the organization’s future. Fans can only hope that the first half of this season was not just another in a long line of teases.