The Miami Dolphins have reported back to Davie for a voluntary round of strength training and this is the moment, with another NFL draft coming, when the team hopes to pump up all of South Florida, too.
It’s not working, at least not with me.
Too much momentum has been lost since Adam Gase’s arrival in 2016 as the bold, young Dolphins coach who finally would get things right around here. The constant churn of talented players, some coming, some going but not many truly sticking and rooting in a successful system, has demonstrated that Gase is no 21st-century Don Shula, and not even a Shula Lite.
So we’ll dream of Ryan Tannehill reaching new heights in his return from knee surgery, or of Miami finding that long-sought franchise QB in next week’s draft, or both. That would be a start.
And we’ll hope for free-agent signees Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola and 34-year-old Frank Gore to provide Gase with the ingredients he needs to polish up the play-calling. That, after all, is supposed to be his particular genius.
Oh, and the defense might be better without Ndamukong Suh. It could happen, right?
The whole thing is a reminder that it takes more than a good draft to have a chance of climbing past anyone in the NFL. It takes good coaching, too, and sharp judgment by the front office in stocking and maintaining the roster with sensible contracts. Without all three of those components, you get 6-10, or something equally distasteful, for long periods of time.
Let’s look at the greatest years in franchise history, and what made it all possible.
The Dolphins had some amazing players before Shula arrived in 1970. Pro Football Hall of Famers like Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Larry Little and Nick Buoniconti. Indispensable future Pro Bowlers like Dick Anderson and Bill Stanfill and Mercury Morris.
All were there because Director of Player Personnel Joe Thomas collected them through drafts and through trades, and because Joe Robbie made Thomas his very first hire in Miami before the expansion Dolphins had even signed a player.
It was a good match because Thomas believed in doing all the scouting and player evaluation himself rather than relying on a staff of assistants or one of the early scouting combines of the day. That saved Robbie money at a time when he had too little of it on his own.
Rather than building a training facility, the Dolphins of the late 1960’s conducted morning meetings in their Orange Bowl locker room during the regular season, sitting on benches to watch film. Then, as Anderson once told me, “we’d have two or three hours off for lunch on our own so a bunch of the guys would go to S&S Cafeteria and some of the others would go downtown to watch a movie.”
Later in the afternoon came practice at Miami Stadium, a city-owned baseball stadium used for spring training by the Baltimore Orioles and also for minor league games.
How does an operation like that develop into a Super Bowl dynasty, with a 17-0 season as the highlight? The answer is that it doesn’t, not without a major change in leadership and accountability and vision. The Dolphins didn’t have enough of those with original head coach George Wilson, but they got it all with Shula beginning in 1970 and the results were immediate.
Bottom line, everything has to work together, and keep on working, in order for a team like Miami to escape mediocrity for long. That just hasn’t happened with Gase, and it doesn’t have a chance of happening unless the latest collection of what he calls “Alpha dogs” is more competitive than the last.
Next, if that pans out, the team needs to be committed to keeping them. That’s tricky, too, and always will be.
What happened to the Dolphins at the end of the Super Bowl run was an anomaly. A new NFL rival, the World Football League, signed Csonka, Warfield and Kiick away in an enormous package deal that was many times their Miami salaries and took advantage of Robbie’s unwillingness to negotiate. There’s nothing like that on the horizon now but teams will always have to decide whether to give long-term contracts to their best players a year or two before free agency hits.
Gase, for example, chose Miami over other coaching opportunities because Tannehill was signed through 2020 and he wanted to build his offense around the quarterback. The coach and the front office decided not to give Jarvis Landry a similar extension this offseason, however, and because of it one of Tannehill’s most important connections is lost.
And now comes the draft with all of its possibilities. Trade up. Trade down. Stand pat and look flat.
In the end, it’s just one step in a complicated dance for the Dolphins, and Gase is still trying to get comfortable with how to lead.