First: Are nine games enough?
Nine games don’t seem like much to crown the Dolphins. It’s not even nine games, really. The Dolphins started 1-3. So it’s actually over the past five impressive games that the Dolphins have played so well to ignite the debate if they’re among the NFL’s top five teams.
Second: Are three games enough?
Three games also don’t seem like much to anoint rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. It’s not even three games, too. He did so little in his first start even he said, “Thank God we have a great defense.” So it’s actually the past two starts where he’s shown a precocious mix of smarts and playmaking ability that some are calling him rookie of the year material.
Third question: “Have you looked at some crucial stats?’' an NFL assistant coach texted this week.
“Look at what their defense gives up in yards-after-catch,’' he said. “That tells you how well they’re covering, how well they’re tackling — how much they’re defending the whole field. I bet they’re great at it.”
They rank 20th.
“Never mind,’' he texted.
By any reasonable and rational view, the Dolphins are a good team. An improving team. The kind of smart and disciplined team that has made you sit up and notice by going 3-1 against the tough NFC West, having a fourth-best plus-69 in point differential and ranking in the top five defensively in points allowed.
But starting Sunday in Denver, the next three games will define if the first hurdle to being a consistently good team is passed. That’s because the first rule in winning is not to beat yourself, and none of these three teams are going to beat the Dolphins on merit. Here’s the quarterbacks:
1. Denver’s Drew Lock (or Brett Rypien, if Lock is hurt).
2. The New York Jets’ Sam Darnold (or Joe Flacco).
3. Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow.
You can put an asterisk on Burrow, considering the prized rookie is disproportionately carrying a bad team. But these are three quarterbacks that a good team beats. If they’re ready to handle success. If they’re at that stage of development.
Dolphins coach Brian Flores mentioned this week how the media hadn’t asked much about Denver. There’s a reason for that. This game isn’t so much about 3-6 Denver. It ranks 27th in scoring (20.1 points a game). It’s 1-3 at home despite its altitude providing one of the two great home-field advantages in this pandemic season (South Florida’s heat providing the other).
Even the big question framed as important for Sunday, about whether Lock plays with a sore shoulder or not, isn’t that important. He had four interceptions last week against Oakland. Does it matter that much if he plays? Wouldn’t the Dolphins be fine with him playing?
The issue right now is the Dolphins. Handling success is just as important as handling failure. It’s trickier, too.
“We definitely understand that we’re in the mix and everybody’s excited that we’re in the mix,’' Dolphins safety Bobby McCain said. “But as a team, we try to preach to guys just have a one-week season and don’t think so much of 13-3, think more of 7-3.”
“If you can do that each every week — go from 7-3 to 8-3 to 9-3 — if you can do that each and every week, that should be the goal. We’re not thinking hindsight and we’re not thinking down the road of ‘we can beat this team’ or ‘what if we don’t beat this team?’
No, nine games aren’t enough to anoint the Dolphins. Three games don’t mean Tagovailoa has a great career. But you’ve seen the style of play in this stretch you haven’t seen around the Dolphins in years. Decades, even. That’s what matters. That suggests something different is in the works.
Starting last week with a win over the Los Angeles Chargers, the Dolphins are in the mushy part of the schedule. Games like Sunday aren’t about Denver. They’re about the Dolphins. Who are they? And what are they capable of this year?
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