We’ve seen this before, the resurgent season leading to a rare playoff berth under a rookie head coach, followed by a lopsided and disheartening loss in the opening round.
The question is whether the 2016 Miami Dolphins will keep it going, building on this sudden turnaround in ways that the 2008 team did not.
Tony Sparano’s first Dolphins team dug itself an early hole, starting the 2008 season at 2-4, but then hit a hot streak to win the AFC East at 11-5. It really seemed at that moment that the new regime, directed by Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, had things figured out. Turns out they didn’t.
Also, the 2008 Dolphins had a quarterback they liked quite a bit in Chad Pennington, but injuries caught up to him early in the next season and the position soon turned into a long-term mess. Ryan Tannehill isn’t supposed to be in for the same kind of trouble now, but quarterback play will remain a bit of a sore issue until he’s back to his old self this summer, and sturdy enough to stand up to more hits.
Gase’s Dolphins have a rising star at running back with Jay Ajayi, and that points to the kind of overall offensive reliability that any playoff team needs. Sparano started losing his momentum in 2009, however, in spite of Ricky Williams rushing for 1,121 yards and scoring 13 total touchdowns.
A defense grown old and thin also contributed to Sparano losing steam. Gase has much work to do in the same area.
Then there’s the draft, another essential component to avoiding the mirage of a one-hit wonder playoff season.
The 2009 Dolphins got an instant starter at cornerback (Vontae Davis) with the 25th overall pick but wasted a second-rounder on Pat White, a quarterback experiment gone wrong. Gase, who picks 22nd overall in 2017, figures to be smarter than that, and he, in partnership with general manager Chris Grier and executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum, will need to be, just as they were in 2016.
This is not a perfectly-matched template between the last two Dolphins playoff teams by any means, just a reminder that stringing together winning seasons is normally the practice of the NFL’s elite. Miami could eventually regain that status, but as a No. 6 playoff seed that just got outscored 65-26 in its last two games, nothing can be taken for granted.
After all, half of the playoff teams from last season failed to make the postseason in 2016, and that includes the two teams that played in the Super Bowl, Denver and Carolina.
For any franchise to make it to double-digit wins, a ton of good things need to happen.
Sparano’s playoff team, for instance, turned the ball over just 13 times during the regular season, an incredibly efficient number, but shot all the way up to 29 the following year and finished 7-9.
In the case of Gase’s Miami debut, think in particular of all those tight wins, including two in overtime and another on a two-touchdown rally in the game’s final five minutes. Playoff teams survive those close calls, but it’s a tightrope act without a net.
Again, no two situations are alike.
This, though, is the kind of thing you want to hear after a bad playoff loss at the end of a 10-7 season, and it came from quarterback Matt Moore on Sunday night at Heinz Field.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he (Gase) is the right guy for the job,” Moore said. “I don’t think there’s a doubt in anybody’s mind. From where we started and the history of this team to how we finished, it’s pretty impressive. His message is week-to-week. He resonates with guys. He has true relationships with everybody and guys love him, and I feel the same way.”
Don’t remember hearing all those same things about Sparano, unless it was during that one exotic run with the Wildcat offense. That wasn’t sustainable.
No guarantees whatsoever, but it’s far more likely that what Gase is teaching, in combination with what Gase is learning, will be.