The Miami Dolphins look doomed to languish in NFL’s lower middle-class

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It’s not yet November and the Miami Dolphins have lost five of their six games and their season is effectively over – again.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Midway through last season, it looked like the Dolphins may have finally have cracked this whole football thing. They hoarded first-round draft picks and cap space like a squirrel preparing for winter. They moved on from Minkah Fitzpatrick and Laremy Tunsil, high draft picks with top-five-at-their-position type talent, in the name of culture. They were happy to be bad in the short term for the hope of tomorrow.

But when a team is so public in pursuit of winning tomorrow, it raises expectations when tomorrow inevitably arrives.

Cleveland’s long-term rebuild worked. The Browns put together one of the finest rosters in the league. They have a high-level player in every room, sans, maybe, the most valuable room of them all. That’s not true for the Dolphins. They stripped their roster to the bone and rebuilt it back into a puddle of blah. Where are the difference-makers? Where is the Myles Garrett? Where is the dominant position group? What if culture and coaching smarts and wins on the margin are meaningless if you select the wrong quarterback in the first-round and the three linemen you drafted stink?

The Dolphins have been one of the league’s sneakily miserable franchises for 20-odd years. Owner Stephen Ross has run things for 12 full seasons. Over that span, the Dolphins have had two winning seasons, and reached the playoffs once. Think about how incompetent a franchise must be to poop out such a run in a league where almost half the teams make the postseason and the entire ecosystem is built to sustain parity. Even Daniel Snyder is mildly impressed.

Related: ‘What’s up, babe?’ How the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wooed Tom Brady

In the early stages of Ross’s reign, the Dolphins botched draft picks, hired the wrong executives, and chased short-term wins. That’s why it felt like a smart move when Ross opted to go all-in on a burn-it-all-down rebuild. He empowered general manager Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores to remake the roster and organization in any way they saw fit. The process was smart; the outcome, the same as always.

Given the league now operates with a 17-game season, it’s plausible that the team could get back into the playoff discussion this season through a wildcard, but it’s unlikely given the depth in the AFC North and AFC West. The moment the Dolphins are formerly dumped from the playoff proceedings, the franchise will stand at a crossroads. There is an organizational tug-of-war between the patience preachers in the front office and the win-now mantra of the 81-year-old Ross, who realizes that Father Time (outside of Tom Brady) remains undefeated. In such disputes, there’s only one winner – the person who writes the checks.

The problem is that there is little the Dolphins can do on the margins to get significantly better in the immediate future. They’ve already invested a ton in their offensive line – three first or second-round picks over the course of three seasons. They spent two first-round picks on Jaylen Waddle, a wide receiver who was supposed to bring a spark to a flat offense. Nineteen percent of the team’s salary cap is tied up in wide receivers, the fattest mark in the league. They’ve spent more than any team in the league on defensive reinforcements at all three levels over the past two seasons. Three of the Dolphins’ five highest-paid players (Byron Jones, Xavien Howard, and Eric Rowe) are cornerbacks. They’re 10th in the NFL in the total cap hit spent on their defense this season.

And yet the highly touted defense that carried the team last season has flatlined in 2021. The Dolphins currently rank 27th in expected points added per play (EPA/play), putting them behind the Houston Texans, who are actively trying to field a bad team. Last year’s Dolphins finished seventh in EPA per play, and they were fourth against the pass. Success in passing situations, thanks to that expensive cornerback room, helped cover up a bunch of cracks in the roster last season. This year, those cracks have been exposed.

The Dolphins are not good; they’re not terrible. They’re stuck where they’ve been for the better part of two decades: the lower rungs of the NFL’s middle class.

That leads us back to their second-year quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa. Despite the talk of all-round roster building, a huge amount of success in the NFL is still down to placing your chips on the right quarterback. Is Tagovailoa that guy? It’s still too soon to tell. But there’s mounting evidence that he’ll fall into the good-not-great camp. The top-line numbers are OK, but sift through the rubble and there are worrying signs.

Tagovailoa has now played in 13 NFL games. He has yet to show any sign of possessing a game-breaking skill. He doesn’t have a strong arm. He isn’t a good improviser. He doesn’t have the kind of zip on the ground to be a true threat in the quarterback run game.

The Dolphins knew that when selecting him ahead of Justin Herbert in 2020. But they bet that while Tagovailoa may never be elite in one of those three crucial traits, he would be a plus in all of them. So far he’s been a minus. Over the course of his starts, Tagovailoa has completed just 39-of-90 passes when pressured, throwing zero touchdowns to four interceptions. He has completed just three passes over 20 yards. Among 53 eligible quarterbacks over the span of the last two seasons, he ranks 35th in per-play value, behind such luminaries as Jared Goff, Nick Mullens and Mitchell Trubisky.

Of all his traits, rhythm and accuracy define Tagovailoa. He wants to get the ball out fast, and he’s accurate if he can do so. But that requires building a near-perfect infrastructure around him, rather than having the quarterback create it by himself.

That was the whole point of the Dolphins’ long-term strategy. They didn’t plan to just land a savior-quarterback but to surround that quarterback with top-tier talent all over the field, of comparable ages. They wanted to build a championship core, not stumble into a middle-to-upper tier quarterback with ill-fitting pieces around him.

It’s been a whiff. Given the surrounding, umm, talent, Tagovailoa has been asked to do a lot of the heavy lifting this season – to use quick passes to make up for a woeful run-game; to consistently drive down the field in 10 to 15 play increments, so lacking is the offense in explosive plays. That’s not a winning model, not with a fractured offensive line and creaking defense.

What Miami do next is intriguing. Brian Flores, the team’s head coach, did a delightful job navigating the murky waters of a Tagovailoa-Ryan Fitzpatrick quarterback competition last season. He leveraged the promise of tomorrow to explain away any issues Tagovailoa had; he used Fitzpatrick to rack up enough wins to garner coach of the year consideration, buying him extra capital inside and outside of the organization.

What happens when tomorrow arrives and you fall flat on your face? Murmurings of a Deshaun Watson trade – led by the owner – refuse to go away. Could Miami jump into the Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson sweepstakes this offseason? Could they find another young quarterback in the draft? What will that do to the team’s carefully calibrated timeline?

Fans want hope. If you can’t offer proof of concept, offer some vagaries that point to the potential that it could maybe, possibly, happen someday soon.

But six weeks into the season, and the Dolphins look once again all out of hope.