There's a line from the 1990 comedy classic movie "The Freshman" that I often think of: "There's a kind of freedom in being completely screwed...because you know things can't get any worse"
While I'm well aware that things can certainly get worse for the Dolphins these days (we're not the Jags, after all), we're not far from it. And it's been a steady descent over most of the last four weeks. I was baffled and angry for that first week, but that has all faded into a weird, detached, near calm.
After all, we've been here before. Not in exactly this way, with this particular cast of characters, but we've been here. The Dolphins spend a season or two getting themselves together, then enter a third season looking like they're ready to take that next step into being a truly relevant team, only to have it all blow up in everyone's faces. Reports increase about locker room discontent, and then it's just a matter of time before we're staring yet another regime change dead in the face. It all has that sad but familiar feeling of eating a frozen Totino's pizza.
All that said, I'm in a strange, almost relaxed place with this team right now. Like most of you, I'm about 95% sure of where this team is headed this season, and what the fallout is going to look like. And I accept it.
At the same time, I'm enjoying an escapist fantasy inspired by Disney+'s enjoyable "What If...?" series. For me, instead of "What If...Ultron Won?" or "What If...Marvel Had an Original Story Arc?", I've been considering what a miracle turnaround to the 2021 season would look like. But I'll get to that later.
What Will Probably Happen
We've all been watching the last four weeks. Four straight losses, with the Dolphins putting up an NFL-worst point differential. The offense has been absolutely atrocious for the vast majority of the 16 quarters (plus an overtime period), despite having a ton of 1st and 2nd-round draft picks on that side of the ball. True that our starting QB has been out for nearly all four of these games, but the offensive line and play-calling were so abysmal that even a sad, battered Colts team limped into Miami and got a W.
The defense had actually been playing fairly well for much of the time, but with the offense hanging them out to dry again and again, they eventually broke in each and every one of the first three losses. Then, in this most recent loss against the Bucs, the tables turned a bit. The offense actually looked functional enough to hang with an outstanding Buccaneers squad, which of course meant that two of our very best defensive players - Jerome Baker and Xavien Howard - turned in arguably their worst performances in two or three seasons. This highlighted a generally bad showing by the defense, an absolute death sentence against an insanely talented Tampa Bay offense that is firing on every cylinder.
Sitting at 1-4 and watching the Bills disappear over the horizon is bad enough. But then you look around the AFC and it gets even more painful. Several teams who the Fins were supposed to zoom past this year - the Bengals, Chargers, and Broncos - are all clearly better than the Dolphins. And in the case of the Chargers, much of it is driven by the second-year QB whom the Fins passed on to take Tua Tagovailoa. Seeing Justin Herbert look like a budding Hall of Famer just rubs gallons of extra-salty lemon juice into all of our wounds. It feels way too much like the Drew Brees/Daunte Culpepper goof, which still haunts us all.
And now we're hearing multiple whispers and leaks about how head coach Brian Flores is losing, or maybe even has already lost, some or a lot of the lockerroom. We're now once again seeing proof of the old adage "winning solves everything." Flores's mild caginess and unwillingness to be open with the media, and his cold, calculating decisions about roster moves was all acceptable when the team's arrow was pointing up. And it wasn't even a thought on his way to a 10-6 record last season. Now, though? All that "my way or the highway, and don't question my authority" stuff wears crepe paper thin when you're going 1-4 and getting embarrassed week after week.
With all of this swirling around, along with rumors that team owner Stephen Ross is furious about how things are going, and it's not at all hard to see Flores and many others in the organization not making it to the 2022 season in Miami. It all sucks, but any of us who are over 25 years old have been through this at least once in the past two decades. And if you're 46 years old like me, you've been through it five times since 2000.
It's old hat, really.
The Aqua-Tinted, Crazy Optimist View
But what are spectator sports if not a realm where we can dream and fantasize about miracles to come? I actually feel really sad for the fans out there who are completely addicted to their own negativity. We see them in some of the posts and comments here, on social media, and out there in life. There is nothing to them but doom and gloom, and they derive joy from shooting down anything that even whiffs of hope from their fellow fans. To me, it seems exhausting and unhealthy.
Look, I'm not unrealistic. My previous section should make it clear that I'm not some blind optimist. I know what we're looking at with this team, and I know where this is all likely headed. Still, sports are a strange place where amazing things can happen. And when they do, it's that much more satisfying for those of us who stuck around during the really tough times. With that spirit in mind, I've been finding a modicum of joy in imagining what a wild, against-all-odds turnaround for the 2021 Dolphins might look like. And believe it or not, there are actual ingredients there for it.
Reason #1: Tua Comes Back Next Week. No, I won't pretend that Tua is some savior, given that he's not played a whole lot in his young NFL career, and hasn't been consistent. But I think we can all agree that he is better than Jacoby Brissett. Brissett was a likeable warrior for these past four games, but I think we all saw why the Pats and Colts let him go. He's not a great processor and his accuracy is, shall we say, iffy at best. I think that if Tua had been under center these past four games, the Fins probably would have won against the Raiders and Colts. Those games were close enough that some of those worm-burner passes that Brissett throws so often would have been receptions. And those would have made the difference.
Reason #2: The Schedule Gets Tremendously Easier: I realize that the Dolphins are now the "easy win" that other teams are looking at on their schedules, with good reason. However, it bears remembering that the two teams that waxed the Dolphins - the Bills and Bucs - are right now looking like juggernauts who are likely to meet in the Superbowl (more on the Bucs loss in a later point). In the remaining 12 games on the schedule, we play the Jets twice, along with the Jags, Falcons, Texans, and Giants. Those are six games against teams that are at least as bad, if not worse, than the Fins. And then there are other pretty shaky, mediocre opponents like the Panthers, Saints, and Titans, all of whom could have a day of vulnerability. A team trying to right itself like the Fins can hardly ask for an easier slate of opponents to do it against.
Reason #3: So Help Me God, the Offense Looked OK Against the Bucs. Really. It did. And I think a large part of this is that Brian Flores and/or the offensive coaches gave up the ghost and finally replaced Austin Jackson at left tackle with Liam Eichenberg, sliding Jackson inside to left guard. And you know what? They actually looked OK. Against an insanely good Tampa defense, they held their own and allowed a certain offensive flow on multiple drives. Jacoby Brissett had enough time to have his best day in a Fins uniform, despite being on a gimpy leg and still making some head-scratching decisions. I feel like the team should have run the ball more (only 9 run attempts), but it was quite promising into the 3rd quarter. If they keep the O line as it is and give them some time to cohere a bit more, we may just get something that resembles a real, grown-up, 21st-century NFL offense.
Reason #4: The Defense Should Rebound. It's one thing when journeymen and 7th-rounders like Brendan Scarlett and Justin Coleman look confused and get abused on defense. You expect that to happen, especially against a jet-fuel offense like Tampa's. But seeing Jerome Baker look like he did 20 Jaeger shots right before kickoff? Seeing Xavien Howard get roasted repeatedly? That was just weird. So weird that I have no reason to think it will happen again. Those guys' resumes are too good to think that the Bucs game was anything more than an ugly anomaly. I suppose that maybe this could be proof that Flores is losing the lockerroom, and that the once-reliable defense is losing its focus as a result. But I won't declare that as truth until we see it happen for multiple games in a row. Chances are very good that they get right and look more like their normal selves starting next week in London.
I think that all of these are reasonable observations and assumptions. They probably won't all pan out the way we want, but I won't be shocked if we see a team that looks more like what we were hoping to see coming into the season.
Self-Preservation Dictates Certain Expectations
But like any psychologically healthy sports fan, I know to never expect all or even most of the best-case scenarios to emerge. Also, there are the troubling red flags around Flores' management of the offense. It feels as if we are at a sharp crossroads in this regime, where the next one or two games could have massive impacts on the rest of this season and perhaps the seasons beyond 2021. If the Fins get Tua back, start playing closer to their full potential, beat the Jags and the Falcons, and sit on a 3-4 record, then I think we all have reason to hold back a bit. I'm willing to hold off calling for the heads of everyone in the front office, just because I know that there's little good that would come from it at this point in the season. If they lose to the Jags or Falcons and look bad doing it, then I would understand, but I won't cross that bridge until we get there.
In the meantime, my excitement about the Dolphins is in deep hibernation, perhaps not to reawaken until the 2022 Draft. I'm watching this current team mostly removed from my feelings about them. Yes, I get excited when they look spry for a little over a half against one of the best teams in the league like they did on Sunday. And yes, I feel some disappointment when they fall apart in the final quarter and a half in that same game. But the anger and confusion I felt after seeing them get shellacked by the Bills in Week 2 and then look flat against the Raiders the following week is no longer a part of my perspective. Against the Jags, I will in no way be surprised by any result. They could continue to fix their issues and blowout a Jags team that looks like it's completely falling apart under Urban Myers' dysfunctional leadership. Or, the nightmare could continue, with the offensive line regressing and the defense continuing to lose focus, resulting in a truly back-breaking loss. Neither of those, nor anything in between, would shock me. I'll be watching on with the same sort of detached curiosity with which I would watch Ninja Warrior. There are some ups-and-downs, but I'm not losing any sleep or extra energy over any of it.
Here's hoping that this changes in the coming weeks, and that the Dolphins earn our deeper emotional investment back. For now, though, clear boundaries are healthy for all of us.