The Miami Dolphins are sitting at 3-0 heading into their Week 4 clash with the undefeated New Orleans Saints.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has improved. New additions such as Brent Grimes, Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson have clearly made the Dolphins a better football team. And in only one other season since the turn of the new millenium has the franchise been able to stay unbeaten this late into September.
To it all, I say, “so what?”
What has transpired in the first three weeks of the season in Miami has been encouraging. The quarterback looks the part of savior and the overall direction of the organization appears to be on the right track towards resurrection.
But the Dolphins will have nothing to show for the strides they’ve made until they either clinch a division title or playoff berth, and until they do, it’s no time to celebrate for the players or fans. No time to become content with the 2013 season.
Of course, the Dolphins have done what they had to do in the first three weeks — win all three games. Saying they have nothing to show for their improvement isn’t an allegation of fault, but it should be a realization that shapes the team’s mentality going forward.
These Dolphins cannot afford to let complacency set it. They must remain hungry. Hungry for sustained success. Hungry for more than just relevancy.
There’s a reason the Dolphins are Week 4’s third biggest underdog, as the Saints are favored by nearly a touchdown on Monday night. The majority of pundits are impressed with Miami, but they haven’t bought into them as a legitimate contender yet.
Most, undoubtedly, believe a reality check is inevitable for the Dolphins on Monday Night Football. But the only reality that needs to set in, at least from the Dolphins’ perspective, is that Joe Philbin’s team isn’t just a nice story — they’re here to stay at the forefront of league discussion.
I’m not saying Miami’s matchup with New Orleans is a must-win by any stretch of the imagination. The Dolphins will play a more important game next week against the Baltimore Ravens — a conference opponent and prime playoff competition — and will have the opportunity to head into their bye week with at least a 4-1 record.
But I do believe what happens on Monday night will tell us a lot about this team. Will the Dolphins just be happy to be on the big stage, playing in a big game? Will they be content with all of the eyes, all of the attention on them? Or will they be eager to prove to the entire country they belong?
A team that is ready to emerge as a contender, ready to be great this season, seizes this opportunity. Doing so wouldn’t necessarily equate to a Dolphins’ victory. The Saints, when Sean Payton is their head coach and when Drew Brees is his quarterback, have already established themselves as a great team. Beating them, even with a superb effort, isn’t guaranteed.
But if Miami shows up in a big way on national television, playing in a manner that cements their accomplishments in the first three games and indicates future success is looming, it will become evident that this team possesses the fortitude of a winner, perhaps even a champion.
If they don’t, well, chalking it up as a learning experience for a young team will certainly be understandable and there will be no reason to believe the Dolphins have begun their annual fade to obscurity.
But it will be a missed opportunity.
And it will perhaps reveal that this team isn’t as hungry as they need to be. At least, if their ambition is to be more than just an above average, potential wild-card qualifier.
Look around the AFC, the Dolphins don’t have time for a letdown. In their own division, Tom Brady and the Patriots are quickly showing the NFL that they aren’t about to go quietly into the night. New England is 4-0 and Brady is finally getting into sync with his receiving corps. Oh yeah, Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski is on the verge of returning to the lineup.
Winning the AFC East remains a tall order.
If the Dolphins aren’t ready to catch the Patriots this season, a wild-card berth would be joyous consolation. But that won’t come easily either, as their competition for one of the two available spots is proving much stiffer than originally anticipated.
The Chiefs are 4-0, the Titans and Colts are 3-1 and the Ravens, Bengals and Texans are all 2-2 with plenty of winning on the horizon.
To make something special of this season, the Dolphins cannot afford to let up on the gas pedal. Not in the Patriots’ division. Not in the parity-stricken AFC.
The Dolphins have started the 2013 season the right way. And that start has given them this opportunity — to play in front of a national audience with a chance to solidify themselves as the real deal.
Are the Dolphins satisfied with just having this opportunity and potentially having more like it throughout the season? Or will they be starving to capitalize?
We could find out on Monday Night Football in New Orleans, when the true identity of these Dolphins just might be revealed.