DAVIE—Whether they admit it publicly or not, the Dolphins are chasing New England. Ending the Patriots’ nearly 14-year stranglehold on the AFC East is the first step toward Miami establishing itself as a contender.
Moments after the season ended with a playoff loss to Pittsburgh, owner Stephen Ross stood in the visiting locker room at Heinz Field and made clear that merely reaching this point wasn’t enough. However ambitious this might sound for a team that hadn’t been to the postseason in eight years, only a championship will satisfy Ross’ demands.
He made another thing clear, too: He thinks he has “the right people” in charge to get that done. Everything about the Dolphins’ future centers on Adam Gase, a first-time coach who proved more than capable of steering the organization. He’s got strong allies in the front office with vice president Mike Tannenbaum and general manager Chris Grier, and after a full year working together, their cohesion will benefit Miami as much as any that forms on the field.
“It has been a great year,” Tannenbaum said at a season-ending press conference Wednesday. “In terms of where we were a year ago — Chris getting promoted to the GM position and working with Steve on the coaching search — I do feel like we’re, obviously, a lot further ahead, because now the foundation has been laid.
“Everything is in place, and now we’ve got to get better. From that standpoint, our fans should be encouraged. There should be excitement. With Adam back and most of the staff back, that’s definitely progress. Now it’s up to us to take advantage of that and give ourselves the best chance to win in 2017.”
Look what this triumvirate accomplished on the fly. Gase inherited a roster that he had little say in constructing, got hit with a barrage of injuries and still got Miami to the playoffs at 10-6. Imagine what he might do next as his vision continues to blend with Tannenbaum’s and Grier’s.
They landed key free agents together last year, including safety Isa Abdul-Quddus and defensive end Andre Branch. They traded down in the draft and got starters Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso out of the deal, then caught a big break with Laremy Tunsil sliding to them at No. 13.
Even their misses weren’t bad. Right guard Jermon Bushrod struggled this season, but was better than any other option Miami had at that position. Mario Williams was a dud, but the team can free itself from that contract this offseason with little damage.
Now the brain trust begins the task of determining which parts of the roster can actually compete with a team like New England. Tannenbaum, Gase and Grier did their best to maintain secrecy about the team’s offseason plans, but they revealed a core principle of their thinking.
“Adam always likes to roll his eyes, but I always say our plan is firmly etched in pencil,” Tannenbaum said. “Things are gonna change, we’re gonna acquire players, there are gonna be unexpected opportunities, so I feel like we have to bring all the information to the table. What does the draft look like? What does free agency look like?
“But with that said, we’re gonna try to lean heavily towards keeping our own and building our program here and drafting and developing our own, getting coached by our guys. We are in lockstep in terms of philosophically that’s gonna be our approach.”
Gase agreed and said the 2017 season starts soon with a precise assessment of the current roster after staffers get back from what will certainly be a brief vacation.
“We’re going to evaluate really what happened throughout the entire year,” he said. “We want to make sure we give all our guys that fair shake of not just focusing on the last couple games, but the entire season and what they accomplished…to where we really do a good job of evaluating our own roster. That’s really our No. 1 priority.”
That seems like a good sign for the bank accounts of safety Reshad Jones and receiver Jarvis Landry, both Pro Bowl talents when healthy and both approaching the final year of their contracts. The Dolphins know Landry is their best player offensively, and it’s hard to rate anyone but Ndamukong Suh above Jones’ impact on their defense.
So if they have those guys in the building and calculate them as high-value assets, there’s little reason to doubt they’ll get paid. Miami needs to address that this year rather than let it turn into a holdout situation or allow either of those prized players to become free agents a year from now.
Tannenbaum didn’t give a direct answer when asked about Landry and Jones’ future, but he hinted that the team intends to keep those two happy.
“We have to go through the evaluation process, but one thing that’s really important to us—Steve Ross, Chris, Adam and myself—that we talk about constantly is to have sustainability, we want to take care of our own,” he said. “And we want to take care of our locker room.”
Continuity is crucial in a long-term building project, and it’s eluded this franchise for years. Cam Cameron tried to run his system with Nick Saban’s players, then Tony Sparano inherited what was left in 2008. Joe Philbin tried to win with what Bill Parcells and Jeff Ireland left him.
Gase looked pretty good operating an offense in which he didn’t have a hand in choosing nine of the 11 projected starters. Ryan Tannehill made strides. So did DeVante Parker. Kenny Stills was a spare part in Philbin’s offense, then led the team in touchdowns under Gase.
The encouraging news for the Dolphins is not merely that the team performed so well in the first year of Gase, Tannenbaum and Grier working together, it’s also that those three seem intent on developing the type of synchronization that’s made the Patriots the class of the NFL.
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