Down to the Wire: Interpreting the Dolphins’ Spellbound Season, Playoff Chase & Future

Back in mid-April, I sat down at my desk to undergo one of the most ridiculous, and strangely exciting, exercises that anyone who loves the game of football will put themselves through during the period between free agency and the draft.

I refreshed my Twitter feed frantically, waiting to see a stream of images from official team accounts with the upcoming slate of games for 2016.

Obviously, the predictions thrown out at this time mean nothing. Who knows how a team will form in the draft or what could happen in the seemingly endless (and simultaneously all-too-short) NFL season? However, it was impossible to feel much optimism looking at the Dolphins’ lineup of opponents.

Upon examining the schedule, I wrote this about the 2016 Miami Dolphins:

“…If Adam Gase can even salvage some semblance of success from next season (7-9 would be a huge showing), it will send a strong message. If he can rally the group based on the struggles the NFL schedule has placed in their future, he could show the leadership and motivational ability that many are looking for from the team’s head coach.”

Early in the 2016 season, my prediction of 6-10 seemed generous. After almost falling to 0-3 in Week 3, barely squeaking out a victory over the now 0-14 Browns, hope was largely lost. A “TNF” embarrassment against the Bengals, a blowout at the hands of the Titans in Miami, and 1-4 never felt worse.

However, the NFL season is long. The cliché says that it is a marathon and not a sprint. Sure, that’s partially true. In reality, you don’t have a successful NFL season purely based on talent, skill, coaching, upper-management decisions or health.

You need to combine all of those with a little bit of luck if you want to make it to the promised land of meaningful December football.

Only one of the Dolphins’ wins this season came thanks to pure luck, and it was against the Browns. However, when the team’s miracle streak of victories began, there was some luck involved in each of their conquests.

In Week 6, Ben Roethlisberger hobbled out for the second half, attempting to play effectively on one leg. Sure enough, he didn’t get the job done.

Leading up to the Dolphins’ showdown with the Bills at Hard Rock Stadium, LeSean McCoy injured his hamstring in practice. He played the game at 50%, if that.

When you have a punt return TD called back for a penalty, the player called for that penalty doesn’t usually get a chance to return a game-winning kick of his own to settle the score. However, Kenyan Drake found redemption against the Jets, securing a third-straight win for Miami.

Great Play - Kiko Pick 6.gif

In all but one year of his career since 2011, Philip Rivers has had a game with at least three interceptions. The Dolphins caught him on his off week in San Diego. Compounded with an incredible showing from Ryan Tannehill and a game-winning play from Kiko Alonso, the Dolphins capitalized on Rivers’ annual one-week-slump.

Against the Rams, the Dolphins were lucky enough to be the benefactor of Jared Goff’s first NFL start. They played strong defense, and Ryan Tannehill was able to lead the team on two late touchdown drives to secure a victory.

Back in Miami the following week, the team was inches away from surrendering a fourth-quarter comeback to the Kaepernick-led 49ers. However, Kiko Alonso and Ndamukong Suh stopped him just feet from the goal line.

After a brutal loss to the Ravens that snapped the win streak, the Dolphins faced the sloppy Cardinals in conditions that merely exacerbated the road team’s woes. Arizona couldn’t generate enough offense, and the Dolphins managed to win the game.

None of this was entirely thanks to luck. There is, however, some element of chance involved in every single victory Miami has in that column for 2016.

It hasn’t been all good luck for the Dolphins either.

If Kenny Stills hangs onto that one fateful pass in Seattle, the Dolphins could already be sitting at 10 wins. It also certainly isn’t good luck that the Dolphins lost one of their best defensive players for the season in Reshad Jones and are proceeding without starting QB Ryan Tannehill.

Based on everything that has happened to this point throughout the 2016 season, consider yourself lucky.

The Dolphins are no longer unwatchable. The team is playing an entertaining brand of football and challenging opponents thanks to intuitive coaching and a crop of young talented players. They’re leaning on playmakers and in the biggest moments they’re delivering.

Regardless of how the next two games play out for the Dolphins, it has been a pleasure to be a part of the rollercoaster 2016 season. Compared to the mediocre, slow-moving, painfully mindless teams of years past, this was a high-octane joy ride.

But, was it a success?

Benchmarks are moving targets in the NFL. Back in April, I wrote that 7-9 would be a strong showing for Adam Gase in his first year. Now, the timetable has been accelerated.

Based on the team’s performance to this point, it’s fair to readjust what can be expected based on the opponents that separate the Dolphins from the ever-so-elusive playoff berth.

Even after the showing we’ve seen this year, nobody can reasonably expect Adam Gase’s squad to go toe-to-toe with Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Soon enough, it could be fair to expect some level of competition between the two squads; but if the Patriots have anything on the line in terms of home-field advantage, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a bloodbath in South Florida.

However, the Dolphins’ most important game of the season doesn’t come against the Patriots. It comes against a vastly different foe.

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(Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Facing Rex Ryan’s Bills in the polar vortex of Western New York is not an easy task. The team’s hard-nosed defensive line will pose a challenge for the Dolphins’ currently slumping OL. On offense, Buffalo’s combination of Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy will represent a threat that exploits Miami’s vulnerability to speed and bursts Vance Joseph’s defense open.

Since it’s Christmas time, let’s call the statement above the Ghost of Dolphins Past.

The Ghost of Dolphins Present would have a very different sentiment heading into this matchup. Cold? Miami just played in it, and that turned out just fine. Facing an explosive offense on the road? Remember their trip into San Diego. There’s a big-time running back on the opposing sideline that could take advantage of the Dolphins? Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson weren’t enough to singlehandedly beat Miami.

Personally, I’m pulled towards the Ghost of Dolphins Past. I believe that going on the road to face a fully-healthy LeSean McCoy-led offense will prove to be too much for a Dolphins team that isn’t quite ready to shine in the biggest moment with a playoff spot on the line.

However, it’s hard not to be swayed by the past. Yes, it’s a new regime in Miami with new players and a new mentality. Even then the memories remain fresh from pathetic performances at New Era Field.

Since we’re dealing with sports, nobody will straddle the line. Everyone is going to find themselves either with the Ghost of Dolphins Past or the Ghost of Dolphins Present.

However, while many remain divided on that subject, there’s one thing that everyone can agree with:

The Ghost of Dolphins Future.

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(Allen Eyestone/Palm Beach Post)

With Adam Gase at the helm, the Dolphins have a path. There is a leader for the franchise who can chart a course towards success and put players in a position to succeed. Gone are the days of positional misfits and unbalanced offensive attacks. While it’s impossible to know anything with certainty, there’s an abundance of evidence that lends itself to optimism in Miami.

A win on Sunday would give even more reason to believe that Adam Gase’s efforts to bring winning ways back to South Florida have succeeded ahead of schedule.

Even if the team doesn’t come out as the victors at New Era Field, fans can appreciate not only the incredibly surprising success that came during 2016, but also the knowledge that it won’t be the last time that Adam Gase leads the team into playoff-shifting showdowns in the month of December.

Right now, the future is much closer than the past.

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