What are odds of the Dolphins rising from 5-11 to playoffs? What recent history says.

Barry Jackson
·5 min read

So what’s realistic for the Miami Dolphins in 2020 coming off a 5-11 season?

Incremental improvement or a significant jump?

Here’s what recent history tells us about NFL teams coming off 5-11 seasons:

Nineteen teams finished 5-11 between 2010 and 2018. Of those 19, only three became playoff teams the next season, with two of those teams (Washington, Arizona) finishing 10-6 and one (Chicago) finishing 12-4.

Of those 19 teams, only four had winning records the next season: the three mentioned above and the Chargers, who went from 5-11 to 9-7 in 2017.

Of those 19 teams, two finished .500 the following season. So that means 13 of the 19 teams that ended with a 5-11 record between 2010 and 2018 also finished with a losing record again the following season.

Seven of those 13 actually regressed, with two going 2-14, one going 3-13 and four finishing 4-12. Two again went 5-11, three closed 6-10 and one finished 7-9.

So historical precedent — which obviously pays no heed to Miami’s significant improvement in personnel — suggests it’s more likely that the Dolphins will have another losing season in 2020 than become a winning team.

Las Vegas oddsmakers appear to agree, with the Dolphins’ over/under for wins generally falling between 5 1/2 and 6 1/2 even though Miami has augmented nearly every position this offseason.

But there is precedent for appreciable one-year improvements from 5-11. Here was the recipe for three teams that did that last decade:

The 2012 Washington Redskins, who went 10-6. Just like the Dolphins are now, they’re coming off 6-10 and 7-9 seasons. Just like the Dolphins are now, they drafted a ballyhooed rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III in Washington’s case.

Washington parlayed a dynamic rookie season from Griffin, a strong offensive line, and an incredible 1,613-yard rushing season from rookie sixth-round pick Alfred Morris into a five-win improvement. The Redskins finished fourth in the league in total offense.

Here’s what else helped: A three-time Super Bowl winning coach in Mike Shanahan and a strong staff with five men who were or would become head coaches, including Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Jim Haslett, Matt LaFleur and Raheem Morris.

But Griffin regressed, and his body began to betray him, in his second season and Washington slipped to 3-13 in 2013, prompting Daniel Snyder to fire Mike Shanahan. The Redskins have been largely irrelevant since.

The 2013 Arizona Cardinals, who went 10-6.

New coach Bruce Arians helped lift a 5-11 team, buoyed by solid quarterback play from Carson Palmer, dynamic rookie defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, free agent pickup John Abraham (11.5 sacks after coming over from Atlanta this season) and a strong pass rush fueled by Abraham and Calais Campbell (nine sacks).

They went 11-5 and 13-3 the next two seasons but haven’t had a winning record in four years since.

The 2018 Chicago Bears, who went 12-4 under first-year coach Matt Nagy after going 5-11 the year before.

The Bears rode the league’s No. 1-ranked defense, a Pro Bowl season from quarterback Mitch Trubisky (who has since regressed), a huge trade for All Pro linebacker Khalil Mack (who had 12.5 sacks in his first year for Chicago after being dealt from Oakland) and strong contributions from several other 2018 offseason pickups: Roquan Smith (their first-round linebacker) and free agents Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Aaron Lynch.

But Chicago regressed to 8-8 last season.

And here’s what else stands out from our study: Of the 19 teams that went 5-11 between 2010 and 2018, only two - the 49ers and Ravens - had winning records last season. (Both were 5-11 in 2015.) So this decade, it has been difficult to rise from 5-11 to sustained playoff relevance.

For Miami, those two franchises — San Francisco and Baltimore — would be the model of how to build a team after going 5-11.

But the field of 5-11 teams last decade is littered with franchises still trying to rise above recent awfulness or mediocrity: Cleveland, Arizona, Jacksonville, Washington, the Jets and Giants, Denver and Tampa Bay.

So the odds are very much against dramatic one-year jumps from 5-11. But such a jump would be far from unprecedented, and the Dolphins upgraded their talent significantly, as much or more than any team on this list.

That gives the Dolphins a real chance to buck the odds.


The Baltimore Ravens announced Wednesday that stadium capacity for their home games this season will be less than 14,000.

With COVID-19 cases in South Florida at disconcerting levels, the Dolphins said they are not ready to make a decision on how many fans, if any, will be permitted, at Hard Rock Stadium this season.

Before the spike in local COVID cases, the Dolphins discussed the possibility of allowing 15,000 to 20,000 fans to attend home games, with the most-tenured season ticket holders getting first crack. Dolphins CEO Tom Garfinkel said last week that he’s optimistic there will be some fans at Dolphins games this season.

Here’s my Monday piece on the myths and realities of the Ryan Fitzpatrick/Chan Gailey alliance.

Here’s my Tuesday Dolphins 6-pack, including the hesitance of some players to move here, the offensive line plans and more.

Here’s my Wednesday Heat piece, with news on Pat Riley.

Here’s my Wednesday UM piece, with an update on the state of college football season.

Here’s my Wednesday Marlins 6-pack.