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The most momentous, consequential and exciting training camp the Miami Dolphins have conducted in two decades begins Wednesday when coach Brian Flores and his new team run onto that new field at their new $135 million training facility and begin work on a new season.
And, if you didn’t pick up the hints in that first paragraph, there’s going to be a lot that’s new about the 2021 Dolphins season which will make training camp compelling.
But this training camp the excitement starts with, well, you.
Because after a year away from your team, other than those once-weekly long-distance connections on television, you are welcomed back to the Dolphins’ facility in 2021.
Training camp practices begin Wednesday but fans will be able to attend those practices starting Saturday. And Hard Rock Stadium will be open for business to a full house for the first time since 2019.
So the sport’s full-throated fan support is back!
That’s just in time for you to see the most complete Dolphins roster in the Flores era. And just in time to witness a run at the team’s first playoff berth since 2016.
Playoffs is, of course, me speaking because postseason is not likely going to be on the Flores agenda — at least not publicly — when training camp begins.
Flores learned his trade within the New England Patriots organization that never addresses January playoff chances in July or August. So if he sticks to form, he will open this camp talking about making the team better one assignment at a time, one practice or meeting at a time, one day at a time.
Flores might have a vision for the season but he will leave it to others to ponder publicly.
Enter Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who obviously has been doing some pondering.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new training facility last week, Ross, addressing alumni players, staff, Flores, general manager Chris Grier and dignitaries, looked around his shiny new building and joked if the Dolphins cannot win a Super Bowl now that they’re training in state-of-the-art surroundings, they will never win it.
And I remind you he was jesting. And I remind you the Star in Dallas is the most amazing training facility in the entire NFL and the Cowboys didn’t make the playoffs last year.
But I also remind you that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
So Miami’s 81-year-old owner, who bought into a complete tear-down of the roster in 2019 and paid approximately $120 million in contract guarantees in the 2020 offseason — more cash than any offseason in club history — is thinking about winning it all.
And he has every right to expect a postseason berth this season as a modest dividend for his investment.
That leads to the importance of this looming training camp.
Flores months ago spoke to Sports Illustrated about how the “crux of the team” that will make his tenure a success (or not) is present now.
“The guys we got in ’19, the guys we got in ’20, the guys we got in ’21, that we get in this draft, that’s the team,” Flores said. “As we move forward, that’s going to be the crux or the big chunk of our team. They’ll be the reason why we make noise or don’t make noise.”
Well, if they’re the reason for success or failure, this training camp will be the reason they’re prepared or not.
That’s the importance of this camp.
The Dolphins spent the last couple of seasons tearing down the roster and then laying a new foundation. This training camp is meant to build success atop that foundation. It’s meant to show us something more than a gray slab of promise.
It’s meant to hone a successful club.
And NFL success, by the way, is largely determined in the postseason. It’s not about winning enough in the regular season to merely watch the playoffs from a couch.
So what must this training camp deliver tangibly for the Dolphins to enter the regular season ready to chase a postseason berth?
The first order of business has to be to get the team ready to start fast. That’s been a problem under Flores.
Even if you ignore 2019, last year’s Dolphins were 0-2 and 1-3 the first quarter of the season.
That’s an early-season hole most playoff teams avoid.
So as the Dolphins begin 2021 against New England and Buffalo, the same two teams against which they started 0-2 last year, Flores must find a way to get this team so well tuned in training camp and the preseason as to avoid a repeat of last year’s stumble out of the gate.
Can the Dolphins do this and be not only competitive against the defending division champion Bills but also against the refurbished Patriots early and throughout the entire season?
Three factors to determine success
It will depend on three key factors:
Factor No. 1: Tua Tagovailoa.
Factor No. 2: Xavien Howard.
Factor No. 3: Pass rush.
The Tua factor is ridiculously simple to understand. All we need is an answer to the question whether he’s consistently great or not?
If Tagovailoa is, as the Dolphins expected when they drafted him No. 5 overall in 2020, an elite quarterback, then Miami is not only going to be in the playoffs but will actually make some noise.
It’s as simple as that because this roster with a great quarterback is a contender. If you disagree, imagine Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes on this team and get back to me.
It would obviously be unfair to expect Tagovailoa to produce like Rodgers or Mahomes because those guys didn’t roast NFL secondaries right away. It took a minute — like in his second year for Mahomes, and in his second year as a starter for Rodgers.
So Tua needs to show us some signs in his second year.
Last season left Tagovailoa at a crossroads because he neither proved he’s great nor a terrible mistake.
So forget last year, please.
This year Tagovailoa has enjoyed an entire offseason to prepare, will have a preseason to hone, play with offensive talent the Dolphins say is much improved, have a new offense that has been schemed around his skills, and know that the hip injury everyone worried about last year happened 20 months ago.
So it’s Tua Tagovailoa’s year to shine, folks.
And with this comes a request: That Tagovailoa either blossoms or wilts.
Because somewhere in the middle would be quite frustrating and not good for the Dolphins long-term in their chase of a championship.
Somewhere in the middle, probably resulting in an inconsistent season, would leave everyone weighing what to do next about Tagovailoa: Show patience and hope he improves the following year, or move in a different direction.
That place in limbo is the recipe for wasting seasons. We did that with Ryan Tannehill — waiting for the breakout year in which he would show his complete self as a great NFL quarterback.
The Dolphins hired and fired two head coaches, one interim head coach, and five offensive coordinators who worked with Tannehill to make him great.
And in 2018, Tannehill’s seventh season in the league, Adam Gase still wasn’t certain what Tannehill’s ceiling was or if he would ever reach it.
The Tennessee Titans at this very moment think Tannehill, much better than he ever was in Miami, still is reaching for that elusive mark of greatness.
Meanwhile, nearly a decade has passed without Tannehill being Super Bowl elite.
Good, no doubt. But not good enough to lead a team to its ultimate goal.
Not able to overcome Mahomes, Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and now apparently Josh Allen.
Let there be no doubt that Tagovailoa playing well this season would be a good sign. But it wouldn’t be the best sign because the Dolphins have been through the good-but-not-great QB exercise before.
Repeating that isn’t the goal. The goal was finding elite.
Because elite and very little else wins championships.
The Xavien Howard issue
Don’t be surprised if the Dolphins’ best player of 2020 doesn’t report to training camp the first day unless he has gotten a contract adjustment.
Howard, the NFL’s interception leader a year ago, wants to be the highest-paid cornerback on his team (he isn’t) and the highest or second highest-paid cornerback in the league (he isn’t).
That hasn’t changed.
So if Howard sits out for a while, how does this help the Dolphins be better in 2021? How does this make the team ready to start fast?
The Dolphins, meanwhile, must be wondering how renegotiating a contract with a player still under contract for four more seasons helps their cause in future negotiations? Because it really doesn’t.
It’s a difficult situation. And even if Howard reports without a renegotiated deal it’s going to be interesting to gauge how that affects chemistry when everyone in the locker room knows the team’s best player is not happy with his contract.
The pass rush issue
The Dolphins defense was very good last season under first-year defensive coordinator Josh Boyer.
But while so much offseason attention has been on Tagovailoa, the new offensive coordinator(S), their new offense, and all the additions on offense, there’s been significant change on defense.
The Dolphins effectively jettisoned 10 sacks in the offseason when they cut Kyle Van Noy and traded Shaq Lawson.
That shouldn’t be a concern if Andrew Van Ginkel, likely given more pass rush opportunities, makes a leap. Or if first-round pick Jaelan Phillips, Miami’s No. 18 overall selection in the April draft, is the pass-rusher everyone hopes. Or if someone else such as Jerome Baker, Benardrick McKinney or Vince Biegel turn in career sack numbers.
But none of that changes the fact the Dolphins felt they needed more pass rush help late in the offseason and didn’t get it.
The club in recent weeks pursued free agent former Pro Bowl defensive end Melvin Ingram up until the moment he decided to sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers. And that tells you the Dolphins go into this training camp needing someone to shine as a pass rusher or they’ll continue looking around.
Count that looming search as yet another reason this training camp will be the most interesting and fun the Dolphins have had in years.