Every year we have the same tradition in South Beach. June comes and all the Dolphins fans decide whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about the upcoming season for another average Dolphins team. Today I decided, rather unlikely, to take the optimistic approach.
1. Roster Additions
Let us start with the obvious, rational reason to be believer: The personal on the 2014 Miami Dolphins is better than the personal on the 2013 Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins addressed almost all of the major holes in a middling team this offseason. In most cases, better on field talent produces more wins, right? The team went 8-8 last year, just missing the playoffs at the very end of the season. And with the addition of a couple better players in 2014 the team should be able to vault to 9-7 or 10-6 and have a playoff birth, right? Sounds so simple. (Note: I know “pessimistic guy” would say I could switch the dates and stats, and this exact paragraph would suffice as a reason to believe the 2013 Dolphins would have made the playoffs. I know)
The Dolphins, like four other AFC teams, came tantalizingly close to a playoff birth last season. With the addition of a top left tackle, two dependable, veteran cornerbacks, and multiple key players in the draft, Miami looks like 2014 is they year they could finally get over “the hump.” Even the WR position has become much more dependable in the last couple of months with the addition of young, talented receivers. Guys like Jarvis Landry, Damian Williams, and Kevin Cone could step in to provide impact on what was a mediocre unit last season. Specifically in wide receivers, unlike any other position, players come out of nowhere to completely change a team in the pass obsessive NFL. (See: Victor Cruz, Wes Welker, Randall Cobb, Miles Austin)
2. Success Can Be Controlled
The NFL, more than any other league, seems to have complete parity to the point where no one knows actually how good each team. I always thought mental preparation and luck, over talent and ability, is a constant theme each week throughout an NFL season. Fans and reporters completely change on who they think the competent NFL teams are week to week. Why is that? May it be because every team is so similar when it comes to player talent that teams are separated by something else? I know teams like the Broncos and Seahawks win almost every game because there talent is just so far above everyone else. But after that, is it really about who has the better players?
I always thought mental toughness, something impossible to calculate, is the primary factor in winning in losing in the NFL. What does everyone say is the key stat for who wins and loses? Turnovers. What causes the offense to turn the ball over? Poor mental judgments from the quarterback or ball carrier. The NFL has turned into a game less about making the big throws than making the safe throws. More often than not, when a quarterback or running back turns the ball over it is because they weren’t focused mentally on that particular play. They thought they could try something that the more mentally capable would not. It takes mental toughness to win the turnover battle. It takes mental toughness to win a game.
Sure guys like Tony Romo and Matt Stafford put up huge numbers every game. But would you take one of those guys to lead team down the field in the fourth quarter? The average NFL game is decided by less than a touchdown. That means most of the time each team has an opportunity to win late in the fourth quarter. The NFL has had such a substantial amount of parity in recent years that after almost every game people question whether the winning team actually “deserved to win”. This means that both teams are so close it is impossible to even conclude whether the winner should have won. The truth is, most of the time both teams deserve to win, it is just that team that avoids making a fatal mistake that is actually the one who wins. And what do you need to avoid a fatal mistake in the fourth? Mental toughness.
The good news for the Dolphins is that, for the most part, mental toughness can be controlled. It is all about having the fortitude and intelligence to prepare week in and week out to win a game. The Patriots don’t have better players than everyone else. They have smarter players than everyone else. That roster mentally trained and prepared for every situation and circumstance by Bill Belichick. How about the 2012 Colts, 2013 Chiefs, or 2013 Chargers. Did they really improve that much solely because of on-field additions? No, there was a change of philosophy and instruction throughout the organization. If a similar thinking can be produced in Miami, and all signs point that way, success will follow.
3. Outside Factors
Speaking of parity in the NFL, how did the Dolphins stand on most power rankings after Week 3 last year? The team was 3-0 with wins over the Colts and the Falcons, the team that owned the league’s best record the previous season. The Dolphins didn’t do so well from then on, losing their next four and falling back to their usual NFL mediocrity. But still, heading into Week 4 that Dolphins team was thought of to be one of the best in the league. The team that is heading into Week 1 of 2014 does not seem that far off from the team that started 3-0 to start 2013.
Week 4 through 7 was death sentence for the 2013 Dolphins. Week 4 was a matchup against the Saints in New Orleans on Monday Night Football, and the Saints are winning that game against any NFL team 9 out of 10 times. From there, the team hit a slide with losses against the Ravens, Bills, and Patriots. Of course not all of this can be contributed to on field incompetence.
The Jonathon Martin and Richie Incognito scandal was a black hole for the Miami organization. People love to talk about how incompetent the Dolphin franchise has been the past couple of years. But is any team really going to win in the middle of a scandal like that? More people cared about the Dolphins on Monday-Friday than Sunday in 2013. You know, the day when they actually played football. The scandal didn’t just bring numerous unwanted media attention, it resulted in the loss of two starting offensive lineman. Despite this, the team still managed to finish 8-8.
It wasn’t that they just finished 8-8 either; the Dolphins competed with some of the NFL’s best. Four of the teams eight wins came against future playoff teams. Think back to last year. What player would you say really had a good season? Mike Wallace? Ask any Dolphins fan and they would say the wide outs first season in Miami was a disappointment. Lamar Miller? He averaged 4.0 yards per carry and finished with two rushing touchdowns. People were high on Ryan Tannehill after last season, but he even threw 17 interceptions and had an 81.7 QBR.
Last year’s team was filled with high-risk, high-reward guys that for the most part didn’t pay off. You don’t think some of those guys will rebound for this upcoming season? That’s usually how football works; a guy who really underperforms in the previous season comes back strong in the next one. (See: Phillip Rivers, Brandon Marshall, Andre Johnson) They also added guys like Branden Albert, Cortland Finnegan, and Knowshown Moreno- more high-risk, high-reward guys. If some of these breaks start going Miami’s way, the 2014 season may just be a memorable one.