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With Hope Waning, Who Can the Dolphins Blame?

Tua Tagovailoa seemed to be the key Miami needed. Now, the young quarterback and his team are left in disarray after a dismal start to the season.

Tua Tagovailoa’s situational excellence on Sunday—which, yes, was countered by moments of erraticism and what looked to be pre-rookie errors in coverage diagnostics—provided a paper-thin layer of hope that could keep the decision-makers in Miami from considering the true depth of this question: What if the rebuild was all for nothing? What if a 10-win non-playoff season is the best that ever comes of this experiment, and what if, at the end of the day, you are no better off than any of the other teams in your division that also started out with new quarterbacks who seem to be better than, or have a higher ceiling than, the one you selected No. 5 overall?

While the answer is obvious, that the effort is almost always worth the risk; it does not take the sting out of the notion that so much of their draft and free agency capital could have been spent better elsewhere. No matter how horrifying Sunday’s loss to the previously winless Jaguars appeared—especially considering the fact that their head coach spent the last few weeks sulking around like a partially deflated balloon and prior to Sunday had not ever won an NFL football game—the alternate universe for the Dolphins would have included forking over more power to Adam Gase and trying to microwave their middling roster.

Hope, even in small doses, is better than condemning yourself to a situation that was always going to be middling at best.

That said, Miami is in a strange position. If you’re the owner of the Dolphins, how do you factor last year’s 10-win season into the equation against what is happening now? Do you care that Justin Herbert is still ascending while Tagovailoa is limited to these frantic stops and starts when healthy? Do you care that Brian Flores coached the team well above their capabilities the year that they were tanking if the team finishes 2021 as arguably one of the worst in football? Do you panic the way other owners panic when the potential of a franchise quarterback is not realized? Or do you blame this particular (relative when comparing Tagovailoa to Herbert) failure on factors outside of the coach’s control?

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To be clear, Flores still seems to be the right coach for the job. He still seems like a coach who has command of a team that has followed him through some strange highs and lows. There are few head coaches in the NFL who could have deftly pulled off a situation like Flores did a year ago, occasionally benching the first-round pick quarterback to re-insert Ryan Fitzpatrick. There are almost no head coaches who would have survived a planned demolition of a roster and made it out the other side. Ask Hue Jackson what that process is like. Outside of Flores’s one, ultimate failure, which is an inability to install the correct offensive coordinator after three tosses at the dart board, this is not a coach worth abandoning.

But that was always the danger for both Flores and general manager Chris Grier when you enter into a situation like this. By stripping the roster of all its value—let’s not forget that Minkah Fitzpatrick and Laremy Tunsil were on this team in 2019—you are by default guaranteeing expectations above and beyond the recent past. You are pointing a finger at what previously existed, labeling it as a pile of rubble and saying if we only had better, we could be up there with the Patriots (now Bills). And when that happens, someone inevitably, ultimately takes responsibility.

The Dolphins’ upcoming schedule before Thanksgiving is fascinating in that it contains games against teams which we’d assume they’d demolish but may not be competitive against, like the Falcons, Texans and Jets. It also contains games against teams like the Bills and Ravens, who we thought they’d be competitive against but are not in the same league with. And that, regardless of the glimmers of hope, is the most damning part of where Miami finds itself right now. 

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