Uh, what just happened? The Miami Dolphins welcomed a playoff desperate Philadelphia Eagles team to Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday and promptly squeezed the life out of the Eagles — playing bend but don't break defense and throwing the ball all over the field en route to a 37-31 victory.
The result dropped the Eagles to 5-7 but more importantly moved the Dolphins to 3-9. And, after expectations in August and September suggested that the Dolphins were the worst team in the history of the NFL, Miami is suddenly on the fringe of the top-five in the 2020 NFL Draft — an event that has been earmarked as a pivotal turning point for the Dolphins' revival as a franchise.
There was much talk about tanking in South Florida all summer long. Now? The fanbase is worried that the Dolphins have won their way out of premiere positioning for a franchise-changing selection.
Not so fast. Because the Dolphins' progress is a bigger mark of hope for the future than picking first or second in the draft ever could be. This Miami team, the same one that started the season 0-7, is 3-2 in its last five football games and the Dolphins have successfully done so while simultaneously bidding many of their best players farewell via trade or the injured reserve list.
By Miami head coach Brian Flores and company stiff-arming the concept of a "tank" and developing their players into budding performers, it signifies that South Florida, for the first time in a long time, has a head coach that is capable of developing players.
For a decade, the Dolphins' philosophy was to "buy" finished products in free agency, paying them premium dollars in free agency, and hoping they would be enough to move the Dolphins over the mark of mediocrity. It rarely, if ever, worked. Now? Wide receiver DeVante Parker has logged a career-high in receiving yards in two of his last three games and sits at 854 receiving yards and six touchdowns through 12 games. Both of those marks? Career highs. He is on pace for a 1,100-yard season in Miami after four underwhelming seasons in South Florida to start his career.
Tight End Mike Gesicki? He logged his first career touchdown as an underwhelming second-round pick in the 2018 draft last weekend. He got another one against the Eagles and now has 401 yards on the season, on pace for nearly 600 and three touchdowns.
Defensive end Taco Charlton? He has five sacks through nine games with the Dolphins after logging four sacks in 27 games in two-plus seasons in Dallas as a former first-round pick in 2017. Defensive back Eric Rowe? Thriving with a move to the safety position, Rowe played a critical role in the win over the Eagles, breaking up a critical target to Eagles TE Zach Ertz in the end zone in the final minutes of the game. The Dolphins' roster is littered with players that many tabbed as unacceptable to be on an active NFL roster — and they have won three of their last five ball games.
Do the Dolphins' draft plans get murkier as the team moves up the draft order? Sure. But the assumption that Miami getting the top-overall pick would provide them with a layup is asinine, as there is absolutely no such thing as a layup in the draft. Rather, player development is what mitigates risk for teams as they add prospects to their roster each season. And Miami is showing signs of life in that department — something the Dolphins have not seen in decades. It is a huge deal. And it transcends the need for the top pick in the draft.
So do Miami's assets. The Dolphins currently own three first-round picks in the 2020 draft. The average rebuild does not possess that kind of surplus in assets — but the Dolphins are not an average rebuild. An average rebuilding team would be timid to the idea of trading a young standout in offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil for two first-round picks and a second-round pick over the next two seasons. An average rebuilding team would balk at the concept of trading a talented player who exudes negative energy, as the Dolphins did when they traded disgruntled second-year defender Minkah Fitzpatrick to Pittsburgh in September. The bold conviction that general manager Chris Grier has attacked this season should be applauded because it has built escape routes for the Dolphins to climb back up the draft order if they feel it is necessary.
Remember, it was two months ago that the Dolphins' season would be viewed as a colossal failure if they did not acquire the top pick because it was the only way to ensure the team could draft Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Now? Tagovailoa has suffered a hip injury and in all likelihood would still be on the board when Miami picked with the fourth overall pick based on the current NFL draft order.
Miami has decided to do something drastic with such an aggressive rebuild. But that approach makes the job Brian Flores and the rest of his staff have done all that much more exciting for those who are able to see the big picture.
What is the big picture? Coaching will be the vehicle Miami calls upon to climb back into competitiveness. This is as depleted roster as you will ever see on an NFL field. And Flores' Dolphins have won three games with the potential for three more like the 4-8 Jets, 2-10 Giants and 1-11 Bengals loom on the remaining schedule. Coaching can draw results out of talent, more so than being a higher pick in the draft can. And with that variable materializing for the Dolphins in the second half of 2019, the placement of Miami's picks becomes less important than choosing to commit to the right players to mesh with the coaching staff. Add in the volume of Miami's draft selections and the surplus of salary cap credited to Miami in 2020?
No, the Dolphins have not tanked their tank. This is the only fact because they have chosen to fully commit to their "process" in positioning themselves to rebuild the roster. The Dolphins will continue to have every desired opportunity to attack the NFL draft and their roster rebuild. No amount of wins will take the foundation of assets they have worked so hard to acquire away. And that, just like Miami's progress, should be celebrated for falling outside the realm of "normal" expectations.