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.500 Seasons, Bad Drafts Haunt Dolphins

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Ravens v Dolphins X

So, here we are. It’s the midpoint of the 2018 NFL season and the Miami Dolphins are 4-4. We can argue that most of us didn’t expect a record a whole lot better than this after eight games, but the manner in which the Dolphins arrived at this mark has to be at least a little disturbing for even the most ardent of the team’s followers. Miami ranks near the bottom of the league both offensively and defensively, and doesn’t appear to have many game changing players on either side of the ball.

In short, the Dolphins aren’t much better today than they were seven years ago, before Tony Sparano was fired, Joe Philbin took over the team and Ryan Tannehill was drafted. Which brings us to my next point: during the seven year period that began in 2011 and ended after the 2017 season, the Dolphins averaged 7.29 wins and 8.71 losses per year. In other words, a shade under .500 for most of the past decade. And therein lies the problem; unlike many other teams, the Dolphins have never really enjoyed any ‘glory’ type years but also haven’t endured any truly abysmal stretches, such as the Browns, Buccaneers, Jaguars, Titans and other frequent ‘doormat’ type teams in the league.

I don’t want to get into the whole ‘franchise quarterback’ debate, because at any given time, only about a quarter of the teams in the National Football League have what could be considered a franchise QB. Unfortunately, those guys are hanging around longer and longer these days. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger can’t play forever; it just seems like it right now. Lest we forget, teams have won championships without having a future Hall of Famer lining up under center. The Eagles did it just last year, although their backup QB, Nick Foles played out of his mind in the postseason for Philadelphia. Peyton Manning was a shell of his former self when the Broncos won it all on the strength of their defense a few years ago. What does matter, as far as Dolphin fans are concerned, is that without any top 5-8 draft picks on the roster, other than Tannehill, it figures to be a long slog for the Dolphins to get back to any kind of relevancy in the AFC.

One of the best things that ever happened to the ‘exceptionist’ type folks here on this site was when the Dolphins traded up to select defensive end Dion Jordan in 2013. This gave at least a grain of truth to their argument that even a top five draft pick doesn’t guarantee a team will land a future star. Perhaps, but top five picks are what helped get the Jacksonville Jaguars into the AFC Championship game a year ago, and what figure to make the Cleveland Browns an annual contender in another year or two. Top five picks are what brought quarterbacks Jared Goff to the Rams, Carson Wentz to the Eagles and Marcus Mariota to the Titans. Of course, the 2013 draft has been called the worst draft of the past twenty years by NFL.com, but don’t tell the exceptionists that; they’re the same ones who will line up to buy lottery tickets, because, you know, somebody always wins. Just because Jordan washed out in Miami doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hope for another high pick next Spring. Is it possible that the Dolphins could assemble a championship quality team without the benefit of any high draft picks? Sure it is, but like winning the lottery, we shouldn’t bank on it.

In fact, if we look at Miami’s won-lost record over the past three years, we can see that their two best draft classes in recent memory, 2018 and 2016, came after ten loss seasons the previous year. The worst Dolphins draft class, 2017, came after Miami eked out ten wins and a sixth playoff seed in 2016, resulting in two probable busts in the first and second rounds in ‘17, Charles Harris and Raekwon McMillan. In sum, a successful season fits into one of two categories: ten wins results in an almost certain playoff berth while losing ten or more games, although humiliating, at least carries a silver lining in the form of a high draft pick the following year. To me, that’s been the problem for the Dolphins; they don’t win enough games to be able to play any games at home in the postseason, yet never consistently lose enough games to land a future star in the draft. The worst possible record a team can finish with in the regular season is 8-8, because as we all know, or should know, 8-8 is ain’t and ain’t -- not good enough to qualify for the postseason and not bad enough to earn themselves a high draft pick.

Think a team’s record is overrated in regards to draft position? Until Matt Moore led the Dolphins to an improbable overtime victory at Buffalo in December 2016, Miami hadn’t won at Ralph Wilson Stadium since 2011, when running back Reggie Bush ran for 203 yards. That victory would prove exceedingly costly, however; the Bills snapped up stud offensive lineman Cordy Glenn in the second round the following Spring, one pick ahead of the Dolphins, who settled for Jonathan Martin. Martin would end up inflicting unspeakable damage on this franchise that’s still being felt today, and the Dolphins are 1-5 at Buffalo since then. In 2013, the Dolphins and the Cowboys finished with identical 8-8 records. However, the Dolphins had to play the New England Patriots twice, as they do every season, which resulted in their having a greater strength of schedule that year. This allowed Dallas to select four time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Zach Martin with the sixteenth pick of the 2014 draft, leaving Miami to settle for Ju ‘Wuan James at number nineteen.

The point of all this is that we shouldn’t necessarily be upset that the wheels have come off the Dolphins’ season. To the contrary, we should hope Miami loses a couple of extra games the rest of the way. Cutting DT Jordan Phillips when there was virtually no one behind him was a stupid move, in my opinion, but I’m not really that angry about it, because it might result in another loss or two this year, which would help the longer term prospects for the Dolphins. Using all that draft capital in 2014-16 on wideouts to try and get Tannehill over the top, which is more picks than any other NFL team has ever spent on receivers in a three year period, was also ill-advised. Just imagine where this team might be today if they had taken the first, second, three thirds and a fourth rounder they spent on Parker, Landry, Stills and Carroo and simply selected the best defensive player or offensive lineman available. However, if not having enough guys who can hold the point at the line of scrimmage contributes to yet another losing season for the Dolphins, maybe it will have been worth it. Sometimes you have to get worse before you can get better.