The Test of Time: Why the Miami Dolphins are Still One of the NFL’s Glory Teams

As the Dolphins near their 50th season, the organization has prepared multiple tributes to the winning teams of the 1970s & 80s, leaving fans wondering where that tradition has gone in the last decade. This article breaks down how some of the NFL’s other “Glory Teams” have fallen off from the pinnacle of success, and what Miami has to do to rejoin them at the top of the mountain.

Reasons for the Collapse:

Imagine- your team has had the same leader for 25 years, and he has won more games than any don_shula_1990_01_01head coach in NFL history. Behind his winning ways, your team became one of the league’s marquee franchises. Now, he decides to step down. Just 5 years later, a man who shattered the league’s passing records, and forever changed the game of football decides to follow suit, and retires. The Miami Dolphins were not blindsided by the departures of Don Shula or Dan Marino. Despite having fair warning, Miami was unable to find suitable replacements from within for either of the team’s cornerstone figures. Nobody was drafted as an understudy to Marino, and there were not assistants who could carry on Shula’s winning traditions. This left Miami in desperate need of a new identity, and it still eludes them to this day.

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The Miami Dolphins then entered a dark era of football, highlighted by bad coaching hires and big time draft busts. The team also made a bad habit of dishing out big money contracts in free agency, which stunted their growth for years. Hindsight is 20/20, so it is easy to see some of the mistakes made by the Parcells and Ireland front office combo in retrospect. Well, even Jeff Ireland’s hindsight could fall a tick short of 20/20. And Bill Parcells doesn’t care about your high tech new-fangled eye doctors, or their conspiracy to steal your money. In this situation, it also helps to picture Parcells on his front porch in a rocking chair, with a strand of wheat sticking out of his mouth, grumbling about some stupid Apple Pad his granddaughter tried to teach him to use. Keyword is tried.

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Turning the Corner:

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The most notable way that the team has been turning around the team culture is through the draft. Miami has spent the last 4 years growing around players they have selected, and have gone down the route of safe first round picks to avoid massive busts (example of a risk: Dion Jordan). Big money free agents have been brought in to help enhance the team, but the anchors of the Miami Dolphins have been the team’s draft picks. Most notably, these picks have included Ryan Tannehill, Mike Pouncey, Reshad Jones, and Jarvis Landry. The team has also made smart moves in free agency, signing veterans like Brent Grimes and Branden Albert to help fill in the gaps. The decision to sign Albert to a big money deal seemed to be paying off for the Dolphins, until he was lost for the season to an injury against Detroit. Overall, fans have to be happy with the direction Miami is trending in, as they slowly assemble the pieces necessary to make a true run at the division rival New England Patriots.

The Time is Now:

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Based on the atmosphere within the city of Miami pertaining to sports, there hasn’t been any true support for the Dolphins in years. Ever since Shaq and Wade won the NBA title in 2006, Miami has been a basketball town. But, considering the fair-weather nature of Miami sports fans (not talking about everyone, but let’s be real people- it’s bad) now is the best time for the Dolphins to reclaim some of their fan base. With the Dolphins trending up as Dwayne Wade and the Heat slowly begin their descent, Miami sports fans could slowly begin the pilgrimage west of the Florida Turnpike, towards Dan Marino Boulevard and Sun Life Stadium, the home of Miami’s original sports love, the Dolphins.

The Proof is in the Past:

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Fans also need to regain perspective on the Dolphins; people seem to have lost the fact that they are still the fourth best team in NFL history in terms of winning percentage. The best way to put the recent era of losing into perspective is by comparing the Dolphins to other historically great teams who fell off of the map for a number of years. Examining teams like Green bay, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, and Pittsburgh, here’s what I found:

  • The Green Bay Packers had a very rough time through the 1970s and 80s following the vince-lombardi-2departure of Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr. From 1968-1991 (pre-Favre), the Packers only managed 5 winning season in over 20 years. This included just one playoff win. The team did not return to relevance until the arrival of Brett Favre from Atlanta, and the hiring of head coach Mike Holmgren.
  • Similarly, following Mike Ditka’s golden age, the Chicago Bears only managed 3 winning seasons in 12 years (1992-2004) before Lovie Smith took them to the Super Bowl (actually held at Sun Life Stadium).

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  • Up until this past season, the Dallas Cowboys suffered a similar streak of poor seasons,
    with only 7 winning seasons in 16 years, most notably with zero playoff wins. This was sparked by the loss of head coaches Jimmy Johnson (who actually left for the Miami Dolphins) and Barry Switzer.
  • The worst fate was suffered by the San Francisco 49ers, when the golden age of quarterbacks in the bay with Montana and Young came to a screeching halt. From 1999-2010, the team only won 1 playoff game, with just two winning seasons. That’s more painful that watching Vernon Davis cry in a press conference. Or looking at Mike Singletary’s play calling.

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Now the most important part of this analysis: stacking these losing eras up against Miami’s cold streak. From 2000-2014, the Miami Dolphins had only 6 winning seasons, with just 1 playoff win. When this is compared with the losing eras of the Packers, Bears, 49ers, and Cowboys, it is easy to see how it could be a routine drop off in a team’s ability to win. I compare the team’s recent fate to driving in rush hour traffic to meet a beautiful date for dinner. Before and while you are stuck in traffic, it is an impending rain cloud over the entire evening, and is seemingly the most annoying and unbearable delay of your entire life. However, once you arrive at dinner, you will have a great time and be glad that you went. Maybe the solution to this is to tape your date’s Facebook profile pic to the dashboard. I guess in Dolphins’ terms that would equate to taping a picture of Don Shula up in your line of sight, but that might warrant strange looks. And your hot date from the previous hypothetical might be a little bit turned off too. But hey, I’m not your life coach.

And Finally- What it Means for The Dolphins:

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My goal here was to figure out what it is that takes one of the NFL’s most highly regarding franchises from eras of unrivaled success, into complete collapse. Even more interesting is what forces it will take to drive the team back into relevance. The easiest explanation for a team getting derailed is losing their head coach. The Packers lost Lombardi, the Bears lost Ditka, the Cowboys lost Johnson and Switzer, and the Miami Dolphins lost the great Don Shula. Usually after about 10-15 years, teams see these tides gradually turn. The Steelers found Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin. The Packers managed to draft Aaron Rodgers as Favre’s understudy, and hired head coach Mike McCarthy. The Seahawks have found Carroll and Wilson. While these teams managed to find consistent success with new faces, some teams just see a flash in the pan in this quest to revive success. The Chicago Bears did not win consistently after Lovie Smith brought them to the Super Bowl in the mid-2000s. The 49ers are entering more uncertainty after completely botching their relationship with outstanding head coach Jim Harbaugh, who led the team on consistent deep playoff runs. It is also still unknown if Jason Garrett will be able to revive the Cowboys’ winning ways with Romo, Bryant, and a dominant offensive line. The goal for these teams in order to attain their previous success is to establish a winning culture, which starts with the head coach and front office. That is why the team’s leading man is the main force that decides between eras of success, or a painful period of mediocrity.

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Only time will tell if the Miami Dolphins have found their recipe for success. Is Ryan Tannehill the team’s savior? Will Joe Philbin finally turn it around, much like Tom Landry did after several losing season to begin his career with the Dallas Cowboys? Can Ndamukong Suh be Miami’s Reggie White, who helped Green Bay win a Super Bowl after signing a rich deal in free agency? These are not questions that can be immediately answered. The only definite through all of this lies in the history of the NFL, and the great franchises that have followed up an era of great coaches and players with underwhelming efforts for years to come. Teams face ups and downs, and it is impossible to say when one era will start and another will end. While history is in favor of the Miami Dolphins returning to relevance soon, the only true advice I can give comes from the words of the great George Harrison: “It is not always going to be this gray. All things must pass.”

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