Consider the 2016 Miami Dolphins’ current résumé:
1) A 2-point loss in Seattle, one of the toughest places to play in the NFL, to the NFC West’s leader.
2) Nearly overcoming a 24-point deficit in Foxborough, Mass., against the conference’s juggernaut and their chief rival for the AFC East title.
3) A thrashing of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that came in averaging just under 28 points and 400 yards per game.
Add to that a win in Week 3 and the Dolphins’ opening six weeks can be spun as encouraging, if not bright, for a franchise that recently hired its fifth head coach in 14 years and hasn’t reached the postseason since 2008.
But anyone who thinks the Dolphins’ win over Pittsburgh last week marked a watershed moment in the new Adam Gase era is misguided.
Give the Dolphins credit for the huge win over Pittsburgh. Prior to kickoff, the Steelers were considered the best threat to New England and quite possibly the best offense in football. But the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger — or even a Roethlisberger playing on a bum left knee that clearly affected his throwing — are not the same team that came into Sunday’s game leading the NFL in touchdown passes.
And while the Steelers defense hasn’t been one of the better units in football for quite some time, they have been — and were again last Sunday — decimated by injuries. The absence of Ryan Shazier and Cameron Hayward, coupled with injuries that sidelined Stephon Tuitt and Vince Williams, greatly contributed to the Dolphins’ enormous rushing totals. It’s no coincidence that the Dolphins’ 222 yards on the ground were more than three times their average output heading into the game.
Still, even if the Dolphins’ victory over Pittsburgh was as impressive as it looks on paper, that’s not enough to suggest they have climbed out of the cellar. Neither are the near wins over New England or Seattle; the Patriots were down to their third-string quarterback as their huge lead was evaporating and the Seahawks offense was greatly hampered most of the second half because of Russell Wilson’s ankle injury.
Terrible losses to Cincinnati and Tennessee also temper the Dolphins’ victory over Pittsburgh, as does their previous lone win — needing overtime to beat the hapless Cleveland Browns in Miami is nearly as embarrassing.
But let’s forget, or at least look beyond, the first five weeks of the regular season and pretend the Dolphins’ season rebooted with their win over Pittsburgh. Assuming 10 wins is enough to earn a playoff spot, the Dolphins are definitely not out of the race for a wild-card berth. And they do have a handful of seemingly favorable match-ups; they play the New York Jets twice, the San Francisco 49ers and the San Diego Chargers, three last-place teams that have a combined record of 4-14.
But Gase was brought in to resurrect a passing game that — despite Jarvis Landry’s great individual numbers — has been at best mediocre, at times putrid. And that really hasn’t changed, even with the win over the Steelers. Ryan Tannehill, for the first time in more than a month, didn’t turn the football over multiple times in Sunday’s win, and his overall numbers were efficient: 24-for-32 with 252 yards and zero sacks. But he only completed two passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air.
More concerning was, despite the tremendous final running totals, how bogged down the offense became in the red zone or when given great starting field position. Three times in the first half they settled for field-goal attempts deep in Steelers territory.
Even with the win over Pittsburgh, the presence of one of the game’s top receivers in Landry and one monstrous game from Jay Ajayi — his 204 yards against Pittsburgh were more than four times his previous career best — the Dolphins still rank in the bottom third in points per game and yards per game, are third-worst in third-down conversion percentage, and are last in the NFL with an average of 16.2 first downs per game. Not having a reliable downfield passing game is not an insurmountable flaw, and neither is failing to consistently move the chains. But together it’s a recipe for bad offense.
So is playing against an aggressive, disruptive defense, as they will this Sunday when Buffalo comes to town. The Bills are second in the NFL in sacks (20), tied for the lead in forced fumbles (9) and have yielded the fewest touchdowns through the air (3) of any team in the league.
Given their defense and the strength of Buffalo’s ground game — something Pittsburgh largely abandoned last week, only running the ball 16 times — the Dolphins should have a hard time turning their victory over the Steelers into a winning streak. And that, like all the losing seasons, coaching changes and failed big contracts, is another reason why no one should buy into the Dolphins. The last five times the Dolphins won a game, they followed it up with at least a two-game losing streak.
That’s the wrong kind of consistency.