MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — It’s a little after 9 a.m. at the tailgate lot at Hard Rock Stadium, and Cyle, John and Roach, three Dolphins season-ticket holders, are hanging out underneath an E-Z up tent pitched over the back of their pickup truck. It’s what they have done before almost every one of Miami’s home games on Sunday for as long as they can remember.
Roach sports brownish-blonde dreadlocks that partially cover a custom teal Dolphins jersey (Roach, No. 6) and a pair of solar-protective, side-shield sunglasses. He fires up a Swisher cigar and defends the good vibes that keep him here despite the fact that his team, amid a planned freefall to to the bottom of the NFL, is hosting quite possibly the second-worst team in the NFL this afternoon.
Cyle and Jon agree. Maybe it would be fun to be a Patriots fan, but the Patriots aren’t this. They aren’t here. And besides, what else would they do—watch the game at home and put a bunch of holes in their walls?
“Win or lose, we still booze, man,” John says. Again, the three are in lockstep over the sentiment.
I came to Miami to find out whether or not that was actually true. Will Dolphins fans keep hanging around?
On paper, Washington at Miami is one of the worst regular-season matchups of the past two decades. The last time two winless teams faced off this late in the season was in 2004, when Drew Bledsoe and the 0–4, Mike Mularkey-led Bills played Jay Fiedler and the 0–5 Dave Wannstedt-led Dolphins.
Given the blasé matchup, this Sunday was either going to be a naked depiction of fan indifference on a grand scale, or it was going to be a strange sort of victory for the NFL—proof that they could turn even the most heinous product into a well-attended curiosity of its own.
The tailgate is starting to slowly wake up, with about 50 cars settled in and a few hundred fans spilling out to assemble their various mobile cooking appliances and makeshift bars. Near the front gate, Ever Dinarte was waiting for friend Mickey Pettitt to turn over the chicken wings on the grill. They’d all just taken shots from small white paper cups. A Washington fan, he refused to buy a ticket in a general sort of protest but ended up coming anyway when one of his friends gave him one for free. Everyone meeting up for the game connected on a WhatsApp group chat called “The Loser Bowl.”
“I refused to give the Skins any of my money whatsoever,” Dinarte says, clutching a Miller Lite. “I’m not going to be one of those fans who gives a team money that does nothing for us.”
Consider him on team indifference (kind of).
A few cars down, a different group of friends huddled around a cooler of beer in their car trunk. When I asked what they were doing at one of the worst matchups in modern NFL history, Moshe Simon jokes “that’s what we’re here for!”
Though they are too young for the Fiedler era, the hard pivot from prolonged mediocrity to systematic teardown has already caused a tangible shakeup in their lives. Moshe bought his friend, Josh, a Minkah Fitzpatrick jersey for Josh’s birthday figuring it would be a safe investment. Fitzpatrick was traded a few weeks later to the Steelers, though there were discussions on Sunday of figuring out a way to repurpose the jersey as a Ryan Fitzpatrick replica.
They talked about how it was better to be bad like the Dolphins than bad like Washington because Washington was trying to be good. Though, Moshe wondered what the Dolphins would actually look like with an opponent who was closer to their level of ineptitude.
“I mean, are we actually the worst NFL team there is, or are we just not that good?” he says.
He’s on team curiosity.
* * *
Four hours before kickoff, tickets on StubHub are down to $18.60, or, about half the price of the cheapest ticket for the Dolphins-Jets matchup at Hard Rock Stadium in two weeks. I bought one as a backup, but really, I was hoping that I could crystalize the ultimate meaninglessness of this matchup in a chance encounter with a desperate ticket scalper trying to give them away for free.
I met one as he dangled secondary-market parking passes over a metal partition on Northwest 199th Street, hoping to force one of the cars whizzing by to slow down.
“You got tickets?” I asked.
“$125 for two.”
“That seems like a lot.”
“Ok $50 apiece.”
“I mean, both of these teams are really bad.”
At that moment, the scalper’s associate burst out laughing. The three of us smiled at each other and agreed to go our separate ways. The cheapest price I could find came from a scalper who lurked underneath the tunnel just ahead of the security line and main entrance—he wanted $35. For some of the Jets games I used to cover, deep into November and early December, prices for weeknight games would dip below the cost of a MetLife Stadium hot dog. Apparently, Dolphins fans and ticket resellers had not reached such a low.
Spend enough time at a Dolphins tailgate underneath a mixed aroma of weed, overcooked meat and, oddly enough, perfectly cooked seafood, and you’ll hear just about everything. I passed a man explaining the Dolphins’ grand plan to another fan, noting that many people don’t realize this, but acquiring Josh Rosen will allow Miami to spend all of their future draft capital on non-quarterbacks. He seemed all in.
Then, there was Allison Goodman, who wore a pink sequined construction hat and carried around a stop sign, also painted pink, that had “Stop Tanking” written on it. She was as militant an anti-tanking representative I could find in the parking lot.
“We’re not OK with it, as a fan base we’re not OK with it,” she says. “We pay to come here every week, so if they’re going to tank on purpose why are we going to continue spending any money here?
“Just being a Dolphins fan in general is really hard, but no matter what we love the Dolphins so much that we’ll show out every single week. A lot of us are superfans here. We work on our costumes together. Trying to inspire the team is what it’s all about.”
At that moment, I was full of hope for the loyal consumer of this product. People like Goodman or Dinarte who, while still here, can grasp the attempted grift afoot. It’s this kind of attitude that can actually shake the foundation of callous franchises who see us all as marks in a scam; the kind of people who know we will largely show up through all kinds of schematic slop and still pay $14 for a domestic beer without anything in return.
Then I actually walked into the stadium…
* * *
My seat in Section 301, row seven, seat 21 provided a bird’s eye view of the modern NFL experience.
Hard Rock Stadium went from being empty to half-full right before kickoff. But as beer-seeking customers eventually migrated to their seats, the stadium felt more than 75% full (the paid attendance number released by the Dolphins was 59,808 out of a total capacity of 65,326).
Despite the fact that the actual football was dreadful for 45 minutes, the game held its own as an event, which is really the unshakable advantage the league still has over so many of its professional counterparts. It’s a place where you can go to chug little airplane bottles of Fireball or dance to Chicken Fried by the Zac Brown Band (please God fire this song into the sun) or scream stupid things or eat horrible things that aren’t good for you. You can do all of this at home, sure, but it’s what you’re supposed to do here in the stadium. Everyone else is doing it, too.
It’s difficult to see this environment (unless you’re the territory-less Chargers) going away entirely, no matter how far a team sinks into obscurity.
And then when the football suddenly improves, as it did on Sunday, it’s simply an added bonus. Something to watch or listen to outside of Twist and Shout blaring over the loudspeakers or a three-plane flyover. For 45 minutes on Sunday, this game was a schematic masterclass in pop screens and runs straight into the line of scrimmage. A 34-year-old Adrian Peterson gained more than 100 yards on what felt like 200 carries. Had it not been for the occasional brilliance of Terry McLaurin and the high-decibel music, a person could have peacefully drifted to sleep in the first quarter and bagged a solid three-hour nap.
As the game reached the fourth quarter, Ryan Fitzpatrick came in for an ineffective Josh Rosen and led the Dolphins to their first second-half touchdown of the season. Then he did it again, hitting DeVante Parker in the end zone with 11 seconds remaining to bring the Dolphins within one point.
Head coach Brian Flores opted to go for two, and a few dozen people in my section eagerly pulled out cell phones to film themselves watching the moment Miami might get their first win of the season. But what ended up happening was so uniquely 2019 Dolphins. Fitzpatrick uncorked a quick pick pass to Kenyan Drake which seemed doomed from the moment the ball was snapped. But no one got to find out, because Drake dropped the ball. Miami lost 17–16.
One man a few seats down immediately went conspiratorial, screaming “They wanted to lose!” A few others shrugged and trudged into a long line for the escalator to take us back to ground level.
On a walk around the spiral ramp after the game, one tattooed fan in a grey sleeveless shirt started clapping loudly to no one in particular before yelling: “Way to go Dolphins, way to f------ suck at life.”
Another fan in Dolphins Zubaz pants turned and offered a different way to look at the situation.
“Hey man, it’ll be better in a couple of years.”
Long live team curiosity, one thing that will keep the Dolphins fans coming back for another week.
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