For Miami Dolphins fans, this time of year has become a ritual.
It is 3:59pm. The TV is on, Twitter is open, and you’re in position.
The clock strikes 4:00pm, and the impending news finally becomes a reality.
A 4:01pm press release comes through as it did at the same time the year before.
The Miami Dolphins have signed a big name free agent to a blockbuster contract.
Year in and year out, this has been the pattern. Whether it is Branden Albert, Mike Wallace, or Ndamukong Suh, we know that when the league year opens, the Dolphins have been the first to fly off of the starting block.
While many consider Stephen Ross to be a bad owner, he uses this time of year to prove his doubters wrong. With the swagger of a starting quarterback on game day, he whips out his checkbook and casually gives players tens of millions of dollars to play for the Miami Dolphins.
Usually, this is a pretty good feeling for the team’s fans. Hindsight is 20/20, but at the time of these moves, they all seemed solid. Even when it is clear that the team is overpaying for a player, the thought of filling a key need ahead of the draft is very attractive.
In 2013, the Dolphins just needed a downfield threat and to get younger on defense. In 2014, they just needed some help on the offensive line. In 2015, they needed that one addition to push them to the next level.
In 2016, any attempt to list the team’s needs in one sentence would lead to a run-on. So, we’ll leave it with this: they need a lot.
With that being said, the Miami Dolphins’ organization should break from their usual behavior in 2016. There should not be a 4:01pm press release. There should not be a rush to sign players before they can interview somewhere else. There should not be players overpaid simply to avoid the riskiness of filling needs in the draft.
The Miami Dolphins, while big spenders and often the winners of the March Bowl, have severely lacked one major factor in the offseason that the great teams exhibit when making moves:
It is a cliché on the field, but a much needed element of any front office. In recent years, the Miami Dolphins have been plenty confident heading into August, but do not have the same level of self-assuredness when they make moves in the offseason.
One area in which they failed to exhibit resolve in the front office is in the decision to make moves through free agency instead of in the draft. Great NFL teams are built in the draft. This is not to say that free agency is not a solid aid for constructing a roster. The Denver Broncos dominated on defense last season with TJ Ward, Aqib Talib, and DeMarcus Ware on defense. All of these players were high profile free agents.
However, they have showed the resolve to build the core of their team in April.
There is no question that the NFL Draft is more difficult than free agency in terms of evaluation. In free agency, teams have tape of the player against NFL level competition. The goal of the team is to simply evaluate how that player will fit into their system, and what level of compensation their abilities warrant. When players emerge from the draft, not only do you still have those two considerations (scheme fit and, instead of contract value, where the player should be taken), but you also have to work on determining if the player will be able to compete at the NFL level.
There is a reason that people get paid small fortunes to evaluate talent and make roster moves: It isn’t easy. However, as we have all been taught since we were children, you do not shy away from something just because it isn’t easy. That same cliché usually expands itself to include the fact that if you never challenge yourself, you never grow.
Well, that could explain why the Miami Dolphins have not posted a winning record in their last seven seasons.
The team needs to be willing to take risks and fill their needs in the draft. Based on the way the NFL structured itself in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the advantage is given to teams that draft well. Rookies are cheap, brought to teams on four-year contracts that pay them fairly sparingly considering the potential upside. For free agents, they reap the riches of the multi-billion dollar industry that is the NFL. The salary cap is constantly rising, allowing for more and more mega deals every year.
Teams that are currently dominant in the NFL do it through the draft, bringing in players with valuable contributions on lower wages. Yes, it is a greater risk. If the GM misses on the evaluation, then you have gone through the offseason without filling the need at a certain position. However, the probability that it goes wrong should not dissuade the team from trying to build in the proper way.
The Miami Dolphins need to bite the bullet, and avoid spending big on a free agent just for the sense of relief that they are getting a finished product. It is clear how NFL teams are best suited to be built in 2016, and the Dolphins’ front office should be looking to switch gears and focus on the draft rather than high priced free agents at the onset of the annual "frenzy."
The next instance in which the Dolphins have to show resolve is in their ability to allow players to leave their visits with confidence that they will come back.
Cool. Calm. Collected. Three things the Miami Dolphins have not been since the 2012 season at the onset of free agency.
The Miami Dolphins have fallen victim to bidding against themselves. This means that a player can seem disengaged, and the agent can use a smokescreen to make the team believe that they need to pay more for a player than they really do. This is not the instance for a player like Suh, who was going to be paid a fortune no matter where he signed. However, the bill fits for other moves the team has made.
The Dolphins have not been confident in their organization’s ability to sell itself, and rightfully so. The way that they reel in the big fish is through breaking out their checkbooks and paying above the market value. This is often not due to a player’s merit, but thanks to the potential threat of them picking another team.
In recent years, this lack of confidence has been warranted. If you bring in an NFL free agent and parade them around the facility, culminating in a meeting with Joe Philbin, would you be confident? The presentation was a losing team with a head coach that does not necessarily inspire great hope. Clearly the Miami Dolphins did not want to let their free agents out of the building because, if given the choice, many would not have returned…
…If not for the money.
However, the 2016 offseason is a different story. The buzz around the facility is not due to big name signings or a blockbuster deal. The buzz is about how our existing players have been buying in to the mentality of head coach Adam Gase.
The team appears ready to embrace the plan laid out by Gase. This is how developing a football team starts. The Dolphins’ players never bought in to Joe Philbin’s system. Why was it such a chore for them to go through training camp or put in extra work? Because they had no faith in their leader to make it worth their while.
The Miami Dolphins now have a plan in which they can sell themselves to players: Playing in Miami is what gets their attention, and the young, advanced thinking of Adam Gase and Vance Joseph is what will get their signature.
The team needs to feed off of this newfound respect for their coach, and stop bidding against themselves at the onset of free agency. A player wants to leave the building? Let him. If he would like to return, don’t make it because you are paying them well over their true value. Make it because they want to be a part of what the team is building in South Florida.
There is no doubt that the 2016 Miami Dolphins will be different than the unit we have seen in recent years. Will they win? If someone acts like they have a definitive answer, they are guessing.. However, they will certainly be different. Chris Grier and Mike Tannenbaum need to ensure that the Dolphins are not only different in September, but also different in March.
If the Miami Dolphins are serious about their culture change, and about improving as an organization, we will all know very soon.
It will be 3:59pm. The computer will be on and you will be checking Twitter.
The clock will strike 4:00pm.
And if the Miami Dolphins have changed, absolutely nothing will happen.