What has to happen this season for the 2013 Miami Dolphins to be labeled a success? It’s been all the talk on Twitter this week, as many members of the Dolphins’ blogosphere have disagreed on what would constitute a successful season in year two of the Joe Philbin era.
So, I thought I might as well throw my two cents into the pot.
Improvement is the most basic goal for every NFL team. Obviously, the Dolphins share the same ambition.
But simply improving on a 2012 season where Miami overachieved as a 7-9 team with a talent deficiency at receiver and in the secondary and with a rookie quarterback at the helm, is a rather modest objective to possess for a franchise that underwent a $250 million renovation during the offseason.
Some claim that simply showing progress and a foundation built for the long term would satisfy their appetite this season.
At the very least, the Dolphins must show that in 2013. But this isn’t about the future.
Dolphins fans have been relegated to investing their hope in future forecasts for far too long. There is a season to be played this year. We can talk about the future in, well, the future.
What has to happen for the Dolphins to be successful this season?
Is having more wins than losses enough? How about qualifying for a 17th game? Are those really adequate measures?
The win-loss column never tells the whole story. The Dolphins could finish the season at 9-7 and make the playoffs because the AFC is down or miss them entirely with that same record because the conference features two wild-card teams with 10 wins.
Is there any real difference in either scenario regarding how the Dolphins performed?
Of course not.
Making the playoffs at 9-7 would likely require a considerable amount of scoreboard watching during the final two weeks of the season.
And if the Dolphins got the help they needed and barely sneak into the playoffs would they be deemed a success as opposed to a massive failure if one of the teams they needed to lose, won?
The difference between the two scenarios has nothing to do with anything the Dolphins actually do on the field this season, after all, and will be contingent on what transpires 100s if not 1,000 of miles elsewhere.
But in life, as well as in football, labels are not always fair. And if the Dolphins make the playoffs at 9-7 as opposed to missing them with the same record, they would be labeled a success as opposed to a failure.
And I don’t have a problem with that.
There are no style points in the NFL. The Dolphins could lose seven games by 20 points each and win nine by a field goal and still be labeled winners.
Because the win-loss column, while failing to tell the complete story, defines every team at the end of the day. Making the playoffs at 9-7 or 10-6 or 8-8 would be affirmation for a franchise that hasn’t qualified for the postseason since 2008.
It wouldn’t necessarily suggest they are any better of a team, but it would mean they are a more accomplished one. Just like winning a game thanks to a last-second missed field goal by the opposition is still gratifying, making the playoffs at slightly north of .500 would still inspire elation from the fan base.
Take the Miami Heat for example. They don’t win the NBA Finals in June without the San Antonio Spurs missing two free throws down the stretch in Game 6. On a team as talented as the Heat, that was the difference in achieving the only acceptable outcome to the season.
Nothing short of winning the NBA title would have been considered a success for the Heat, just like nothing short of making the playoffs will be considered such for the Dolphins. The majority of fans just won’t accept anything less. And it doesn’t really matter how the postseason is attained.
Because, frankly put, the Dolphins’ fan base is hungry. Hungry for a winning team. Hungry for the playoffs. Hungry for success, even if that success is achieved by rather fortuitous means.
Playing in a 17th game — a playoff game — changes something for a franchise. It provides validation for that team’s direction. It validates offseason signings, draft selections, hand-picked quarterbacks and coaching hires.
And making the playoffs is a necessary first step for a team with future championship aspirations. Making the postseason would be a confidence builder for quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the entire organization.
The Dolphins and their fans would feel like they belong again. Belong amongst the league’s best teams.
Miami probably isn’t ready to challenge for a run at the Super Bowl, but just making the playoffs as a wild-card seed would provide verification that they are — as a young team — on the right path to eventually doing so.
While the following step would prove much more difficult, you have to crawl before you can walk.
Take this, for example: The last 11 quarterbacks to lead their team to a Super Bowl win had previous starting experience in the playoffs. Tom Brady was the last quarterback to lead his team to the title during his first postseason.
Tannehill’s maturation could use the experience. The Dolphins could use the experience.
You just can’t simulate what it’s like to play in an NFL playoff game. There isn’t an atmosphere or an intensity level quite like it in all of sports.
You just want to see the Dolphins show potential this season to become a very good team at some point down the road?
Fine. But don’t tell me they wouldn’t be better prepared for a future playoff run by, you know, getting their feet wet first.
But like I previously mentioned, this isn’t about the future. It’s about being successful today.
And nothing short of qualifying for the playoffs would be considered a success for this year’s team. Not with a quarterback like Ryan Tannehill under center, who flashed the potential to be a true cornerstone for the franchise as a rookie. Not with key additions like Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller, Dannell Ellerbe and Brent Grimes in the mix. Not with a defense that has all the pieces to emerge as an elite unit.
Is it fair to put those expectations on a young Dolphins team with so many new additions and a much more difficult schedule on paper than last year’s team?
That’s certainly up for debate.
Especially when meeting those requirements is a black and white issue while being good enough to do so is a rather equivocal measure, dependent on other teams and unforeseen circumstances.
Fair or not, qualifying for the playoffs would be the minimum corroboration for the work general manager Jeff Ireland has done over the offseason.
It would provide evidence that quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the right man for the job and that head coach Joe Philbin is the right motivator, the right leader for this team.
At least perceived evidence.
Fair or not, playing in the postseason is the only way to win back an alienated fan base. Spending big bucks to bring in Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe and company in free agency and aggressively trading up to the third-overall pick to nab Dion Jordan has earned South Florida’s attention.
22,000 turning out for a glorified practice early in training camp was a primary example of that. But to maintain that interest, to satisfy it, the Dolphins must succeed in 2013.
To do so, a wildcard spot, at minimum, will be demanded. Missing the postseason, even if by showing promise for the future, would be a crushing blow for a team looking to make noise in a city that has become immersed in the success of LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
If the Dolphins miss the playoffs with seven, eight or nine wins, but look good doing it, many will preach patience. But it’s a message most Dolphins fans have heard many times before.
The franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since 2000. This fan base’s patience is running low. Nobody would be content — even those who say just showing improvement should be the goal this season — sitting on the couch watching 12 other teams battle it out in January.
If the Dolphins can’t become one of the league’s top 12 teams this season, even if the difference between themselves and team No. 13 is inconspicuous, they’ll be considered a failure this season — fair or not.
And if the new additions Jeff Ireland brought in during the offseason are as advertised, if the defense is as talented as everyone says and if Ryan Tannehill is the quarterback most Dolphins fans think he can be, why should the bar be any lower?
Being afraid to raise the bar is being content with mediocrity. And that’s a place the Dolphins and their fans have been stuck for far too long.