Sudden End To 2013 Season Tough To Swallow

Posted Dec 30, 2013

Dolphins try to take stock of the year that was while looking ahead.

Eight months of conditioning, game planning, practicing and then playing games has abruptly come to an end for the Miami Dolphins, and today coaches and players alike were still dealing with that reality.

Miami finished 2013 at 8-8, which was a one-game improvement from Head Coach Joe Philbin’s first year on the job, but fell just short of ending a five-year playoff drought. For some the sting was too prevalent to think ahead to next season, while others were able to balance both.

“It really felt like we were going to be part of the postseason,” said veteran long snapper John Denney, who having just completed his ninth season as a Dolphin is the longest tenured player on the team. “I didn’t expect to be here today with no more football. I really expected to be playing more football, so it’s disappointment for sure to sum it up in one word. But having that feeling that we were capable of being a postseason contender, I think that is a step in the right direction because that hasn’t always been the case in recent years.”

When Philbin was introduced as the franchise’s 10th head coach (including two interim coaches in Jim Bates and Todd Bowles), back in January of 2012 he set reaching the playoffs as the ultimate goal. He acknowledged the fact that with the Dolphins’ history of success highlighted by the 1972 Perfect Season, the standards around here were higher than in other cities.

So the day after his team’s disheartening 20-7 loss to the New York Jets at Sun Life Stadium, Philbin stood at the podium in front of a room full of reporters and put the ending and the entire season into perspective. He didn’t paint any rose-colored pictures, but like Denney he also emphasized the strides that were made while being clear about how many things need to be corrected and addressed heading into 2014.

“Certainly there are areas we need to improve, starting with me,” Philbin said. “8-8 is not where this franchise wants to be, needs to be and should be. That’s an average record. That’s .500 and the performance of the team as I said yesterday starts with me – offense, defense and special teams. The expectations here are high and I understand that, but I have a lot of faith and confidence in myself and the staff and in our players that we can make the corrections necessary to lead this team to play up to its potential and consistently compete for championships. That’s what I said the day I got here, I stand by what I said the day I got here and I’m confident that I can do that.”

In terms of up-and-down seasons, this was about as extreme as they get with the Dolphins starting out 3-0 with the first two wins coming on the road, then losing their next four games. Immediately following that fourth loss at the New England Patriots, the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin story gained traction and Philbin, his coaches and the players were faced with a swarm of national media over a three-week stretch.

Miami alternated wins and losses over the next four games, beating Cincinnati in overtime on a dramatic sack for a safety by three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake on Halloween and losing at the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10 days later. The Dolphins beat a surging San Diego Chargers team at home before losing to the Carolina Panthers on a late touchdown pass by Cam Newton.

The month of December began with three consecutive victories at the New York Jets, 23-3, in the snow at the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-28, and back at Sun Life Stadium in a 24-20 thriller over the New England Patriots. So a 5-6 record became 8-6 and the Dolphins just needed to win out at the Buffalo Bills and in the home finale against the Jets to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008, which is something wide receiver Mike Wallace grew accustomed to in his first four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cleaning out his locker today with no postseason to prepare for still rubbed Wallace the wrong way.

“I don’t think anybody in here on this team thought we were going to be coming in for exit meetings today. It’s definitely a bad feeling and one we’ve got to make sure we don’t feel again,” said Wallace, whose 73 catches this season were a career-high. “We just didn’t make enough plays, especially with the playoffs on the line. Seven points in two weeks is not acceptable and everybody is accountable, but to me it feels like a losing season not going to the playoffs. We have to go back and watch other teams continue to play football, so to me that’s definitely a losing season.”

Wallace finished 70 yards shy of his third 1,000-yard season in terms of receiving yards and his five touchdown catches were the fewest in his career, but he did see progress in terms of his chemistry with second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill on the intermediate routes. Both players admit the deep ball was an area of concern and he pledged to work with Tannehill during the offseason to help fix that.

For Tannehill, his final statistics indicate a marked improvement from his rookie campaign. He doubled his number of touchdown passes from 12 last year to 24 and raised all of his other numbers as well, completing 355-of-588 passes for 3,913 yards compared to 282-of-484 for 3,294 in 2012. Tannehill’s passer rating of 81.7 was 1.6 points higher than last year’s 76.1 and he had a higher completion percentage by 2.1 percentage points (60.4-48.3). But while he admits that he believes he made strides, the way the season ended for the team is what concerns him more.

“Obviously, we want to finish strong and that’s what’s on my mind right now is take advantage of the opportunity at the end of the season,” Tannehill said yesterday after the game. “At the beginning of the season no matter what we went through, in the middle, losing games early, the adversity we faced in the middle, we had the ball in our court at the end of the season and that’s what you want to have. We didn’t take advantage of it.”

That is why Philbin wants to take the necessary time to evaluate all three phases of his team, from a defense that was opportunistic when it came to creating turnovers and getting to the quarterback but struggled against the run, to a special teams unit that produced a Pro Bowl punter but was lacking in the return game. He’ll take a closer look at what went wrong with the running game and in pass protection after watching Tannehill get sacked a franchise-record 58 times.

All of these issues led to the final product – an 8-8 team that was on the cusp of making the postseason when at times that didn’t seem possible, but ultimately came up short.

“It was Week 17 and we had an opportunity to get into the playoffs had we played together and won the football game, and then when you get in the playoffs you have an opportunity to compete for a championship,” Philbin said. “So we’re not there yet. We’re close but we’re not there and we’ve got a ways to go.”

The road to getting where they want to go next season starts now for the Dolphins.
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