Nothing is Given: Examining Miami’s Future Based On the Volatile Nature of NFL Success

Of the many contributing factors that have led sports to become one of the world’s most towering cultural institutions, uncertainty sits closest to its core.

What’s the fun in something that you know to be a given? There’s a reason that people root for teams like the 2007 New York Giants or the 2016 Clemson Tigers: When a team begins to dominate a sport in such a way that it generates predictability, the instinct is to root for a force that can put the game up for grabs once again.

Dynasties like the Patriots, Lakers, Crimson Tide and Yankees are not common. While the MLB and NCAA can be identified as leagues that don’t limit the ability to achieve sustained success, rules exist in football and basketball to make it hard for a team to maintain sustained dominance. In the NBA, the lack of a franchise tag and soft salary cap mean that players can freely roam amongst the association’s 30 domains, taking their talent to the city of their choosing. In the NFL, the hard salary cap combined with a rookie wage scale create circumstances in which teams can reap the benefits of only so many star players, who then hit the open market four (or five, for first-round picks) years after being drafted.

Windows close and open in sports with immense quickness for this very reason. As a team develops talent and realizes that they stand on the precipice of success, they then only have a few years to capitalize on that progress.

In 2016, a window shot open for the Miami Dolphins. A team that started out 1-4 had its season salvaged by a coach who many feel should be among the top vote getters for NFL Coach of the Year. In addition to a revelation on the coaching staff, the team had players burst onto the scene and help supplement a depleted roster; the team’s most notable overachievers were Jay Ajayi, Byron Maxwell, Kiko Alonso and Kenny Stills.

However, now the real battle begins for the Dolphins. In the coming offseason, the team will have to battle two forces that stand to be as formidable as any foe they could face on the gridiron:

Uncertainty and the institution.

When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2013, their restraint on time was obvious. They had players like Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Doug Baldwin, Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor all on cheap deals. Based on the fact that all of those players remain on the team, one can see that these rules within the NFL aren’t designed to rip stars away from their teams. However, the depth of Seattle’s roster has suffered (a fact that became obvious against Atlanta in last weekend’s Divisional Round clash).

The Dolphins’ issues will not reach a point anywhere close to Seattle’s. However, there will be obstacles.

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Kenny Stills: In overachieving throughout the 2016 season, and helping the Dolphins win several close games, Kenny Stills saw his value skyrocket. Slated to become a free agent, Stills will be commanding a hefty salary on the open market. As is intended in a league with free agency, the Dolphins will be forced to cut corners in other areas to retain the talented receiver.

Jay Ajayi: Jay Ajayi’s breakout season came in year two of his four-year rookie deal. In addition to working against the Jay Train’s injury concerns (coming out of Boise State), the Dolphins will now need to capitalize on the fact that they’re seeing top-RB production from a player still on a cheap deal.

Cameron Wake: As the Dolphins continue to climb towards success, Cameron Wake will continue to age. How long do the Dolphins have before one of their most effective defensive players loses the unwinnable the clash with father time?

Jarvis Landry and Reshad Jones: When a team has success, pressure grows to lock up the core of its progress. The Dolphins will most likely look to extend Reshad Jones and Jarvis Landry this offseason, which could hinder their ability to acquire more depth.

This comes off as a doomsday approach to the Dolphins’ season. However, these are things that must be considered. As success grows on the field for a franchise, life gets much more difficult for the front office. So, considering the fact that the Dolphins’ progress should be attributed almost entirely to the coaching staff, it makes sense to wonder about the ability of the front office to keep up.

Had Vance Joseph not emerged as an excellent teacher and defensive coordinator in 2016, the Dolphins might have gotten no production out of Kiko Alonso or Byron Maxwell. An even scarier thought: What if Laremy Tunsil hadn’t fallen to pick No. 13?

Everyone gets lucky, and it wouldn’t be fair to fault Tannenbaum & Co. for having a top OL prospect drop into their laps. However, they are now entering an offseason that will set the course of the franchise moving forward.

If Mike Tannenbuam and Chris Grier are able to negotiate deals and select players that help build around the core that Miami established in 2016, then the Dolphins will be in good shape. However, it’ll be a tough road to travel. Project players like DeVante Parker, Jordan Phillips and Xavien Howard can’t be the profile for early picks in 2017; the Dolphins will need instant impact.

Why is instant impact necessary? Because NFL rules are designed to close the window for success as quickly as it opens. The Dolphins need reinforcements, and if they want to replicate the success they saw in 2016, it’ll mean finding players who can step up right away and contribute to a core that won’t necessarily be there forever.

All of the factors discussed above are those that the team has control over. The much scarier entities are those that the Dolphins couldn’t prepare for or expect.

Throughout NFL history, there are several examples of teams, coaches and players that showed immense promise only to see their projected success never come to fruition. It isn’t necessarily a factor of human error; there is absolutely no way to prepare for the fact that trends in the NFL have the potential to seemingly reverse course overnight.

These are the scariest things to consider as a sports fan. Hindsight is 20/20, so it’s easy to look back and explain the reasons that situations with upward trends ended up dipping to historic lows. However, at the time, it would have been impossible to predict some of the cruel twists of fate that NFL history took.

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(Mark Humphrey/AP Photo)

 

Two-Time Pro Bowl QB Matt Schaub: Nobody thought Matt Schaub was a great QB. However, his 2009 season with 29 TDs and over 4,700 yards, followed by a 2010 campaign with over 4,300 yards and 24 TDs provided plenty of reason for hope. Houston had its QB and was moving into the future, hoping to develop a defense and compete with Peyton Manning in the AFC South.

Didn’t exactly end like most expected it to.

RGIII: The Washington Redskins had gambled, and it appeared to pay off. Robert Griffin III made play after play, leading the team to the playoffs as a rookie. All was well in D.C., as it seemed that the team found their long-awaited answer at QB.

Injuries weren’t the only thing that derailed RGIII’s career. A player who was once believed to be a positive locker room presence ended up clashing with coaches and ownership, seeming to let the star power go to his head. The Redskins, luckily, had Kirk Cousins on the backburner but ended up wasting a king’s ransom to get a QB who fizzled out with remarkable quickness.

The 2015 Jaguars: After a strong close to 2015, many expected the Jaguars to take the next step. The team had a star-studded draft class and a QB who appeared to be primed for progress.

Did anybody expect Blake Bortles’ mechanics to worsen greatly in a single offseason? Didn’t think so.

Chuck Pagano, Andrew Luck and the Colts: This situation should be most worrisome to Dolphins fans. While Adam Gase is a superior coach to Chuck Pagano, we can make up for that with the fact that Andrew Luck is (brace yourselves) a superior QB to Ryan Tannehill. The Colts started the Pagano/Luck era with three consecutive 11-5 seasons. They became the perennial next-year darlings.

While Pagano and Luck continued to do their jobs, Ryan Grigson was exposed as someone who sometimes struggles to do his. The team’s talent dropped, and the GM’s historically poor drafting record in the last half-decade has caused the Colts’ decline into back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

The 2016 Panthers and Cardinals: At this time last year, the Cardinals and Panthers were preparing to battle it out for a trip to Super Bowl 50. In 2016, neither team came close to the playoffs. Sure, there were personnel losses here and there but, for the most part, the core of each team remained in tact.

Gary Kubiak and the Broncos: In 2015, Gary Kubiak became the first head coach to win the Super Bowl in year one with a team. However, the beloved leader in Denver was forced to retire for medical reasons after just his second season with the team.

There’s a reason that I did not include the 2008 Miami Dolphins on the list of sudden disappointments. First, Tony Sparano was a motivator who leaned on coordinators for Xs and Os expertise. Second, Sparano succeeded with a gimmicky offense in year one. Third, the Dolphins had no QB stability at the time.

So, what are the things that could lead to a sudden decline for the Dolphins? Maybe it’d be regression from Ryan Tannehill, poor personnel decisions in the front office or simply losing a few bounces that went their way thanks to good fortune in 2016. However, the point is that we don’t know.

If I were to submit my prediction about the future of the Miami Dolphins right now, I would bet on progress. I believe in Adam Gase’s ability to lead the team forward, and I feel that Chris Grier’s impact on the front office will continue to be positive. While the success might not be linear (a regression in 2017 wouldn’t surprise me, followed by more progress in 2018), the Dolphins finally have a leader in place who’s more than capable of leading the charge not only as a motivator, but also schematically.

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(Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports)

In 2016, all but two of the Dolphins’ 10 wins were by one possession. Seasons like that don’t come around often and should be appreciated. Those who have watched Miami toil in mediocrity since 2008 shouldn’t assume that 2016 is simply the prequel for an upcoming era of dominance. Last year, Adam Gase’s team achieved something special; they made electric plays in close games, closing out the season with double-digit wins.

Few stories throughout the 2016 season were as compelling as the 1-4 team that turned it around, sweating out close games on the road to an unexpected ending of a playoff drought.

Don’t live in the future. If your interpretation of the 2016 season revolves around the 2017 season, you could be robbing yourself of a rare chance that NFL fans are granted: to enjoy a season with as much excitement an energy as the Dolphins’ most recent effort had.

Exist in the moment and live within their current success because there’s no telling what’s going to happen between now and the time when it will come again.

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