By: Chris Dagonas
When I turned twelve years old, I received a birthday gift that would alter the course of my entire sports fandom future. My parents bought me a replica Dan Marino Miami Dolphins jersey. It was teal, with orange and white accents. It fit me like my father’s coat. The plastic lettering and numbers were ironed on, and looked ready to peel from a stiff breeze. It was beautiful.
I loved it. I wore it every chance I could. First day of school, I wore it. Whenever my gang of neighbourhood hooligans played football at the park, I wore it. My middle school did not have a football team, but when we were playing flag football in gym class, you better believe I wore it. I even tried to wear it to church and visits to grandma’s house, but my mom did that thing where her face went all red and she yelled for a while in Polish, and I just went back to my room and hung up my Marino jersey and put on some stupid itchy polo shirt.
Of course, my parents didn’t make that jersey purchase choice out of nowhere. Truth be told, I was a fan of Dan Marino, and by extension the Dolphins, since seeing Ace Venture: Pet Detective when I was eight years old. I told anyone who would listen, usually my older brother or whoever was unlucky enough to sit next to me in school, that I loved the Miami Dolphins and that Dan Marino was the greatest and other such hyperbolic nonsense that kids say when talking about their sports heroes.
But I could have moved past all that as I grew into my teen and adult years, were it not for that jersey. I grew into it and continued wearing it, even after Marino retired in 2000, after which time the Dolphins entered a quarterback black hole from which I’m not sure they’ve yet emerged.
To avoid being labeled a bandwagonner, the lowest of all sports fans, I doubled-down on my Dolphins fandom in 2002 by purchasing a Jay Fiedler jersey. (A brief defense of Jay Fieder: He was a playoff winning quarterback! He managed the game with an excellent defense! He didn’t make big mistakes!) That was it. There was no switching. I was a Dol-fan for life.
My long involved history with the Dolphins makes what I’m about to write tough, but hopefully somehow cathartic. The Miami Dolphins are a broken team. From ownership, through management, coaching, and right down to (most of) the players. This is not just a commentary on this past weekend’s game, where the Dolphins were steamrolled by their division rivals, the New York Jets 27-14, in London. This is not just about this season, where the Dolphins sit at 1-3 and look to be hurtling towards yet another disappointing season, with a now-fired head coach in Joe Philbin. This is about the culture of the Dolphins, and how nothing seems to go right for them.
They could not even manage to win a Super Bowl with one of the best quarterbacks of all time on their roster. Other than an undefeated 1972 season, the only undefeated season in league history, the Dolphins have hardly done a thing to be proud of.
The Dolphins have not made the playoffs since 2008, which is an eternity in the parity-based NFL. That is the seventh-longest active streak in the league, which doesn’t sound too bad, but consider that many of the teams higher on that list have been going through massive rebuilds (like the Titans, Jaguars, Buccaneers, and Rams). The others on the list (Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders) might be in even worse shape than the Dolphins, but I don’t care about them.
In most cases, a team knows it’s out of the playoffs by about week eight. Sitting far below .500, and below the other teams in their division, teams can begin preparing for the offseason, testing out young players, trying new formations. With the Dolphins, at least since 2008, each season begins with hope, undulates wildly from week to week, only to end in bitter disappointment. Last season may have been the worst of all, when the Dolphins needed one win in their last two games, against the hapless Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, to secure a playoff spot. They lost both.
This dysfunction begins right at the top. Team owner Stephen Ross owns 95 percent of the team, and has used the team as an investment opportunity for celebrities like the Williams sisters, Gloria Estefan, and Marc Anthony, rather than worry about building a winning franchise. He has also made suggestions that the team may move to Palm Beach, after having a bid for a new publicly-funded stadium rejected.
Current general manager Dennis Hickey has only been on the job since January 2014, but was hired only after a three-week search period, during which time several other candidates refused the job or withdrew from consideration. The previous general manager, Jeff Ireland, was known for mismanaging several situations, including the infamous Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal, and the 2010 pre-draft interview of star wide receiver Dez Bryant. On top of that, during Ireland’s tenure, the Dolphins repeatedly swung and missed on star free agents like Peyton Manning and Alex Smith, among others.
Now former head coach Joe Philbin had been perfectly mediocre in his time with the Dolphins. In his first head coaching position after serving as offensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers from 2007-2011, Philbin’s coaching record as of Sunday was 24-28. This year, Philbin and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor didn’t appear to trust fourth-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill enough to allow him to audible out of obviously bad situations.
For his part, Tannehill does not look like a fourth-year quarterback in a familiar offense, as he’s supposed to be. Last season, he made a big jump, and many critics expected Tannehill to continue growing this season. Far from that, through four games this season, Tannehill is completing only 56.7 percent of his throws, totalling 7 touchdowns with 5 interceptions. A big step back in a fourth year is not a good sign for any position player, let alone the guy tasked with leading a team to the playoffs, as many projected for the Dolphins this year.
The Dolphins have earned a reputation as a solid defensive team, and rightfully so, in the past. Except, their normally stout defense has also struggled mightily this season. They have given up the second-most yards per game, just shy of 400, and have conceded 101 points through just four games. Newly signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has been nearly invisible, recording just one sack through four games, and doing little to stop opposing running backs, who are gaining an average of 160.5 yards per game against the Dolphins, the most in the NFL after four weeks.
The problems run deep in the Dolphins organization, from ownership right on down to the players on the field. A full-fledged team makeover is long overdue, and it may start with the sale of the team and large-scale re-hiring. I might be in my forties before that happens, but that Dan Marino jersey will still be sitting in a drawer in my condo, waiting.
Observations From Week 4:
Devonta Freeman and the Falcons appear to be an unstoppable offense. Last week, wide receiver Julio Jones ran all over the Dallas Cowboys secondary, and rookie running back Devonta Freeman provided more than ample rushing support, the Falcons were back at it, this time against the Houston Texans. While Jones was quiet, Freeman showed that week 3 was no fluke, as he continues to demonstrate dynamic speed and lightning quick agility in the backfield and when catching passes. In a draft class stocked with running backs, Freeman might end up being the best of the bunch, although St. Louis Ram Todd Gurley showed a lot in his first game, enough to cast some doubt.
NFL games in London are here to stay, it appears. With three games on this year’s slate across the pond, the popularity of the sport in England seems to be growing. By scheduling games on Sunday afternoons in London, the NFL is directly going up against the world’s biggest soccer league, the English Premier League, on its own home turf. The disadvantage of teams that have a short preparation week and time zone switches (even worse for West Coast teams) seems to make the long-term goal of an NFL team in London a bit ridiculous. Other than an obvious money grab, I don’t see why this trend is continuing. Would the Spanish Primera Liga hold a Barcelona-Real Madrid game in New York City? Of course not, and never mind that the Jets and Dolphins are far from the Barcelona and Real Madrid of the NFL. A game that kicks off at 1:00 on the East Coast is on at 6:00 PM in London, a perfect time. The EPL games are done for the day, sports fans might gather at a pub or at home to watch, and still end at 9:00, a more than reasonable hour. More intense fans might catch the 4:30 kickoffs, starting at 9:30 in England, and still be in bed by midnight or so. Unless expansion is the goal, I don’t see the continued point of the London games. It’s 2015. I could be living in Sudan and find a game to watch if I really tried.
The Denver Broncos are looking very strong on both sides of the ball, other than perhaps in the running game. But Peyton Manning has never really had or needed a strong running game to tally up points, as his Colts teams got by on a lot of passes, and his Broncos appear to be doing the same. With a killer pass rush and strong secondary, the Broncos appear to be the class of the league so far, with the possible exception of the Patriots, who might be 4-0 now if not for an early bye week.
The Carolina Panthers are perhaps the team most likely to hit a wall. They’ve started their season with four wins against teams with a combined record of 4-12 (Jags, Texans, Saints, Bucs) and beat the Saints without Drew Brees, and even then only by 5 points. Their next four weeks feature match-ups against the Seahawks, Eagles, Colts, and Packers, and by Week 8 we’ll really have a truer understanding of who exactly the Panthers are.