There are three seasons in Miami: humidity season, football season and Dolphins-under-construction season.
We must be in the latter, as the team undergoes another so-called culture change. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry was shipped off to Cleveland for little in return, linebacker Lawrence Timmons was let go, and reports coming out of the 305 say defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will be released this week. Suh was supposed to be the ballast for the franchise, but Miami should have known when the former Detroit Lion risked his own team’s season in 2014 that he wasn’t going to be the leader they needed.
The hard truth is that the Dolphins had no real North Star during the Suh era, and they have no clear North Star now. They’ve had no reliable foundation since … the Jason Taylor era?
Consider the headlines coming out of South Florida over the years: bullying scandal and the ensuing maelstrom; the reports and retractions over Ryan Tannehill telling scout players to “enjoy your practice-squad paycheck;” Jay Ajayi getting shipped after a rumored tantrum over playing time; and who could forget former assistant coach Chris Foerster videotaping himself snorting white powder?
All of these incidents point to a need for internal self-policing, and that seems to have been lacking since before the Joe Philbin era. The fact that reports about Suh’s possible departure have been met so far with silence from the team indicates that there isn’t much loyalty to his way of leading.
What’s especially jarring about all this is the franchise used to be known for steady leadership. Even after Don Shula’s legendary run, Jimmy Johnson led the team to the playoffs and Dave Wannstedt won a division title. Since his departure in 2004, though, there has been one head coach with an above-.500 record: Todd Bowles at 2-1.
The Dolphins made a statement when they guaranteed $60 million to Suh, but just as in Detroit, he has been an elite tackle and not a transformational player. His work ethic has never been questioned, but a lot of NFL players show up early and leave late. Miami needed something more. After all, Suh was acquired at a quarterback’s price – and the team still has no franchise quarterback.
Speaking of which, it’s still hard to gauge what Tannehill adds. He looked like he turned a corner before his injury last season, but a lot of that was because of the improved running game. Is Tannehill the kind of quarterback who can consistently turn a fourth-quarter deficit into a victory? We still don’t know.
There are other reasons for the team’s mediocrity, most notably the continued excellence of the Patriots. But that again highlights the lack of leadership in Miami. Players come and go in New England, but personalities don’t seem to clash there – at least not in a way that affects wins and losses.
From the draft to free agency to the season itself, the Dolphins’ direction has been consistently inscrutable. A few hours up the Florida coast, the Jacksonville Jaguars have become a run-and-defend contender despite their youth. What is the Dolphins’ identity? It changes directions as abruptly as an Interstate 95 driver on his cell phone.
In 2016 it finally seemed clear: all aboard the J-Train. Ajayi and his 200-yard games behind a potent offensive line looked like the path for the future. The team made the playoffs. Now, however, Ajayi is a Super Bowl champion in another city, and that stalwart offensive line doesn’t look as imposing anymore.
The identity issue goes all the way to the top. Team owner Stephen Ross is financially committed to building a winner, but he’s brought in head coaches without much experience at the top of an organization. When the bullying scandal spiraled, he recruited an “independent advisory group” consisting of NFL legends who didn’t all have strong ties to the franchise. At some point, someone is going to have to take the reins and execute a vision. Is it head coach Adam Gase? That’s the best hope for now, but it’s looking like another reset and a collection of mostly new parts.
Perhaps one of those parts can provide a steady voice in the locker room for less than $60 million.
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