Let’s not mince words: This would be the worst collapse in Miami Dolphins history if it plays out. There is no close second, too. Not when you consider the big picture at work, though you might prefer considering fireworks, rainbows and other happy thoughts right now rather than the big picture.
Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said in the moments after Sunday’s loss in New England what he said after the previous Sunday’s loss to Green Bay: He didn’t expect to be standing in this situation. No one did, really, hip-deep in despair.
Five straight losses. Playoffs hopes in doubt. Stars losing their shine.
Sheesh. Did sitting 8-3 in November and dreaming of a Super Bowl really happen?
None of that’s the worst part of being one final Sunday from the coldest of offseasons. That comes when you consider the expense of reaching this same point this franchise has been for most of two decades. That’s the big picture of why this team teeters on suffering the franchise’s biggest collapse.
This final game represents the finished product of four years of sacrifice and pain, of this odd blueprint of tanking (but not tanking), of stockpiling losses and draft picks, of firing a coach, having the owner suspended and building and rebuilding this roster to deliver … what?
The chance to sneak in the playoffs?
That beats the wretched alternative of not sneaking into the playoffs. But no one’s claiming any significant progress has been made when you haven’t won a game since November and you’re now approaching the second weekend of January.
It’s not just about the playoffs but avoiding a calamity at this point. Even that’s not in their control. The Dolphins have to hope the New England team that beat them Sunday loses to Buffalo next Saturday. They first have to hope Buffalo has something to play for in that game, too.
All that’s just to make the Dolphins game against the New York Jets on Sunday have consequence. And then what? Does anyone really know if this team has a win left in them?
The other Dolphins collapse that comes within shouting distance was in 1993. Coach Don Shula lost quarterback Dan Marino in the fifth game of the year to a torn Achilles, won a few games with Scott Mitchell, won his record 325th game with Doug Pedersen and was 9-2 after the infamous Snow Bowl game on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas.
They then lost five straight games and missed the playoffs.
“It’s something we’re going to have to live with and won’t be able to erase from our minds,’ Shula said after the final, overtime loss to New England.
Here’s the difference: Those Dolphins were in the AFC Championship Game the previous season. They made the playoffs the following season. So that 1993 season was a one-off collapse due to Marino’s injury.
This season is a byproduct of years of decisions. There’s no need to go chapter-and-verse on ground that’s been plowed over again and again. Just look at the past five losses to understand how it’s a full, organizational collapse:
— At San Francisco, 33-17, on Dec. 4: Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa missed wide open receivers for the first time since October. For the first time since October, he also faced a strong pass rush.
— At Los Angeles Chargers, 23-17, on Dec. 11: Chargers coach Brandon Staley tried a new scheme of defending receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle and taking the middle of the field away. McDaniel never adjusted to throwing shorter passes as the defense offered.
― At Buffalo, 32-29, on Dec. 17: Buffalo traded up ahead of the Dolphins in 2017 for quarterback Josh Allen — a player the Dolphins didn’t want — and his fourth-quarter drives won the night.
— Green Bay, 26-20, on Dec. 25: Tagovailoa’s three interceptions, later believed to be thrown with a concussion, changed the day.
— At New England, 23-21, on Jan. 1. Xavien Howard, Terron Armstead and Bradley Chubb join Tagovailoa on the injured list, showing the risk in investing heavily into players with injury histories. Those problems are compounded by repeating issues of late: turnovers and penalties.
During this losing streak, the Dolphins are a minus-7 in turnover margin and have had at least eight penalties in four of the games. They now rank fourth-worst in the league in both penalties and turnovers. Is it coaching? Discipline?
There were three pre-snap penalties Sunday against New England, including an illegal shift by Hill that negated a third-and-9 conversion by rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson. On the next play, Thompson threw an errant pass that Hill batted to cornerback Jonathan Jones for an interception.
On such small, dismal stretches do big, dismal stretches continue. McDaniel didn’t expect to be here. No one did. But the goal after five straight losses isn’t to make the playoffs so much as not have the worst collapse in team history.
It’s a modest idea. But a season that once had big dreams is down to this modest idea.
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