To take next step, Dolphins need defensive upgrades
DAVIE, Fla. (AP) Laughter broke out in one corner of the Miami Dolphins' locker room Monday, briefly lifting the gloom as players packed their belongings and headed into the offseason.
The cause for mirth: the Alabama-Clemson national championship game and trash-talking between Dolphins teammates from the two schools.
Anything to change the subject.
The Dolphins aren't accustomed to losing in the playoffs, because they're not accustomed to reaching the playoffs, and so they took Sunday's 30-12 loss at Pittsburgh hard. The drubbing wasn't a surprise to outsiders, but rookie coach Adam Gase had his young team optimistic about leaving a more impressive mark on the postseason.
''We truly believe in this room that we could make a run, a serious run, and we still truly believe that,'' receiver Kenny Still said. ''We feel like we didn't do what we were supposed to do.''
There was cause for consolation because the loss came in Miami's first postseason game since 2008. That's progress, Dolphins style.
More improvement is needed for the franchise to earn its first playoff win since 2000. Here are things to know as the Dolphins begin looking toward the 2017 kickoff:
DEFENSE: Miami finished the regular season 10-6 and earned an AFC wild-card berth despite allowing a franchise-record 6,122 yards, and most of the offseason moves will likely involve the defense. Changes could include finding a replacement for first-year defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who is being considered for several head coaching jobs.
Kiko Alonso is the only linebacker certain to return, and a secondary decimated by injuries needs attention. Miami also faces decisions at end, with Pro Bowler Cameron Wake turning 35 this month and Andre Branch becoming a free agent.
OFFENSE: The Dolphins looked mighty when center Mike Pouncey was healthy and paving the way for back-to-back 200-yard games by running back Jay Ajayi. But Pouncey played only five games because of recurring hip issues. Now 27, he hasn't made it through a full year since 2012, but said he plans to play several more seasons.
''I'm not retiring until 10 years. Trust me,'' Pouncey said with a smile.
Keeping the team's five best blockers together is a tantalizing prospect, guard Jermon Bushrod said.
''It would be something special,'' he said. ''The times we did play together we were rolling. We had a good thing going.''
But Bushrod will become a free agent, and the Dolphins must decide whether to keep 32-year-old left tackle Branden Albert, who hasn't played a full season since 2011.
Stills, who led Miami with nine touchdowns, is also due to become a free agent.
QUARTERBACK: Five-year veteran Ryan Tannehill had a career-high passer rating of 93.5, but still hasn't appeared in the playoffs. He missed Sunday's game due to a sprained left knee that sidelined him for the final three weeks of the season. Surgery hasn't been ruled out, and it's uncertain how much the injury will compromise Tannehill's mobility, one of his strengths.
HIERARCHY: For the first time in several years, the offseason begins with franchise leadership entrenched. Football operations chief Mike Tannenbaum and general manager Chris Grier deserve credit for a solid 2016 draft and the acquisitions of Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell.
Gase led a turnaround from a 1-4 start and earned raves from his players.
''He is 100 percent the right guy for this job,'' said quarterback Matt Moore, who started the final three games. ''From where we started and the history of this team to how we finished, it's pretty impressive.''
THE ROSS TAKE: Team owner Stephen Ross had to change coaches four times since 2011 to find a winner. He said he's happy with the direction of the franchise, but not satisfied.
''I'll only be satisfied when we win the Super Bowl,'' Ross said.
How close are the Dolphins to that?
''Three games away,'' Ross said. ''That's how close we are.''
For more NFL coverage: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL
Follow Steven Wine on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Steve-Wine. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/steven-wine