Say Goodbye. Say Hello. That's what Monday was about for the Miami Dolphins.
They said goodbye to a season that couldn't have ended much better. They said hello to an offseason that couldn't be more important.
It was a cross section of emotions at the Dolphins training facility.
First it was the players packing up their lockers in the morning, stuffing their hopes and dreams in large plastic bags, exchanging one final farewell with their teammates, many of them so uncertain of what their football future holds.
Then it was General Manager Chris Grier and Coach Brian Flores holding a mid-afternoon press conference, still enjoying that victory over the Patriots but now starting to focus on upcoming decisions that will shape the future of this franchise.
Clearly the spotlight is now on them. They each have excellent support staffs. But it is their opinions that matter most and with plenty of salary cap space to work with and 14 draft picks at their disposal – including three in the first round – there is so much to sort through.
My takeaway on what Grier and Flores had to say Monday:
- Grier didn't hesitate calling this season a success. "We improved each week," he said. But more than this season for Grier, it was about the seeds that were planted, a culture that was established and a mindset that took hold. He said he's "very comfortable with the fifth overall pick" and while the money is now there to be players in free agency, he cautioned, "The big thing for us is we're going to be smart about it," he said. "Yeah, we have cap space, that doesn't mean you have to spend it all." Listening to Grier, you understand that the process is in its early stages, that there is still a lot of information to gather and he is going to approach this offseason with what I call the three C's: Care, Caution and Conviction.
- As for Flores, he has now begun the process of evaluating everything that happened this season. Even his own performance. "Probably should have thrown a couple more red flags," he said. Two interesting revelations. The thing he was most proud of with this team is the way it handled adversity. "When you deal with defeat, it either breaks you or makes you stronger," he said. "I think this team got stronger." And as far as a turning point in the season, it was when he inserted Ryan Fitzpatrick into the lineup late in the Redskins' game in Week 5. Yes, they lost that game by a point. But they found a quarterback in the process. Meanwhile, Flores will work closely with Grier as each important decision is being made. But you just know he's going to spend at least a few more days savoring that delightful day in New England.
The final locker room goodbye is always tough, especially when you end the season on a high note because you really don't want it to stop. The harsh reality is that many of these players will never play together again because if there's anything certain about this Dolphins' roster it is that little is certain.
Major changes are inevitable. Certainly there is a nucleus of young players intact, a list that grew during the course of this season, and for them there is a sense of comfort moving forward. But for so many others this is the start of a gut-wrenching waiting game to find out if what they put on tape this season justifies another opportunity.
"Just have to wait to see how everything unfolds," said undrafted rookie cornerback Montre Hartage, sitting alone at his locker. "In this league, you just never know."
On another side of the locker room there was linebacker Vince Biegel whose future with this team is more certain after he played so well this season, arriving here on Sept. 1st after a trade with New Orleans. "I feel blessed to be here," he said. "This is a good day after what happened up in New England. We have a lot of great things to look forward to here."
That was the mindset shared by many of the veterans. It wasn't the 5-11 record they will carry with them into the offseason; it is the way this team played over the final nine games, winning five and punctuating the season with that impressive upset over the Patriots.
"Look around this locker room," said receiver Albert Wilson. "These players fought hard, worked hard and never stopped believing. It was a great group to be around."
A few more observations about the just completed regular season:
- We have chronicled the improvement of DeVante Parker all season long, but only in the last month or so did he elevate his game to yet another level. What he did Sunday against Stephon Gilmore, perhaps the most highly rated cornerback in the league, only underlined what we already knew: Parker has emerged as an elite receiver in this league with his nine touchdown catches, more than his previous four seasons combined. Give this organization credit for believing in him. Give this coaching staff credit for the job it has done refining his game. But give Parker the most credit for finally playing like a No. 1 pick.
- Parker isn't the only example of the individual growth we have seen. Look at tight end Mike Gesicki, who didn't catch a touchdown pass as a rookie, but had five in his second season, including the game-winner against the Patriots. Look at safety Eric Rowe, switched from cornerback earlier this season and steadily improving, capping off his season Sunday with a Pick-6 off of Tom Brady. Go up and down the roster. You'll see the growth that says so much about what this season was really all about.
- Finally, Grier said he anticipates Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Josh Rosen for that matter, being on the roster heading into next season. While Fitzpatrick has said repeatedly that he needs time to discuss his football future with his family, my only concern is whether he would embrace a mentoring role if he weren't starting. See, Fitzpatrick loves to play. Loves to compete. Loves days like Sunday in New England. That's what keeps him in the game at 37 years old. It'll be interesting to see how this evolves. But for right now, let's just appreciate the remarkable season he had and the impact he made on so many of these young players.