Last weekened, in what was supposed to be a completely off-the-record conversation, Miami Dolphins executive vice president for football operations Mike Tannenbaum told local sportscaster Steve Shapiro that given the improvement of the coaching staff, and the tweaks he's made to the roster, he (Tannenbaum) believes the 2016 Dolphins could whip the 2015 Dolphins.
The message got out when Shapiro repeated it on air on WSVN-7s Sunday night sports show.
And folks at the Dolphins cringed because the conversation was supposed to be confidential.
And I cringed for different reasons.
One: Why is anyone at the Dolphins wasting time thinking like that?
Two: It is probably not true.
Three: Even if it were true, it suggests the Dolphins are aiming at the wrong goal this offseason.
Four: If it were true and being better than last year's team is the goal, the Dolphins are about to embark on a wholly wasted season -- one they must already know is going to lead them, well, nowhere.
So let's consider these things.
Firstly, I understand the desire of the Dolphins football czar to want to measure his current (if incomplete) work against that which he knows best, which is last year's disaster of a team. I get that. It's an easy exercise, especially when you are as intimately familiar with the subject matter as Tannenbaum obviously is, having constructed significant parts of both the 2015 and burgeoning 2016 rosters.
But how does one look at this team and think it is better?
This team has no starting running back. Well, if it has a starting running back, his name is Jay Ajayi. And Ajayi was last year's backup to Lamar Miller, who has left via free agency. So has the running back position improved or regressed so far? It has regressed.
This team addressed the guard position by adding veteran Jermon Bushrod, who has never been a guard by trade in the NFL, and he is so far the upgrade at the position. Otherwise the position sits exactly where it was last year, with Billy Turner and Dallas Thomas as the presumptive starters. So how is this helping the 2016 beat the 2015 team? Oh, it's not.
The center and tackles are the same from one year to the next so that's a wash.
This year's team will feature 34-year-old Cameron Wake at one defensive end spot. He is expected to be on something of a snap count in the coming season because he's coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon and, again, he's 34. Well, last year's team featured 33-year-old Cameron Wake. And he was on a something of a snap count while he was healthy last year. So one year and a season-ending Achilles injury later, Cameron Wake has improved? No. Sorry. Not buying it.
This year's team will feature a rental of Mario Williams, who had a bad year in Buffalo in 2015, over Olivier Vernon, who had a solid year in Miami. The Dolphins think this is an upgrade. I'm not giving them that. I'm open to the possibility that in the short-term, Williams might add something because he is motivated to prove last year was an outlier rather than a predictor of what is coming.
But I'm also aware that both Mario Williams and Olivier Vernon were out there for 31 teams, other than Buffalo, to sign. And multiple teams decided chasing Vernon, even at a higher price, was the better option.
Williams? He had a couple of suitors. But even then, no one, not even the Dolphins, valued him as high as multiple teams valued Vernon. Think about that. Multiple NFL teams saw Vernon and Williams on the market days apart and thought Vernon a better value. And the Dolphins, knowing better than anybody else, are countering that Williams is still an upgrade?
I fall on the side of waiting to see evidence.
(By the way, get used to me saying this. I'm am going to be waiting to see evidence before I applaud or condone (or rip) anything the Dolphins do from now on. I have said it before and repeat here, I'm done buying the hype. I only am trusting my eyes from now on. So don't tell me in March X is better than Y and expect me to simply accept it. Show me. I want on-field proof. Anything else is opinion, and the Dolphins' opinion reservoir is empty now based on 6-10 last year, no playoffs since 2008, and no playoff wins since 2000.)
Tannenbaum believes this 2016 coaching staff is much better than the 2015 staff. He said that to Shapiro but the sportscaster didn't get into deep specifics on the topic on air. At any rate, I want to believe that is true. Look, Joe Philbin was a nice enough human being, but as an NFL head coach he was simply lacking in too many areas -- leadership for one -- to be good.
So Adam Gase is the new thing, the hot commodity. If you go by the Olivier Vernon example I just used, multiple NFL franchises valued him so highly they interviewed him to be their coach. So there is reason to hope he's going to be an upgrade. But can anyone be 100 percent sure? Absolutely not. He's 37 years old and has not coached his first game yet.
So how can anyone know for sure?
The point is Tannenbaum calls this a major upgrade. But at this point, I'm not giving him that because, again, a 0-0 all-time record as head coach is not enough evidence for me.
Are the Dolphins better in the secondary? Maybe. Maybe not. I thought they blew it cutting Brice McCain. The guy is a slot cornerback. The Dolphins played him out of position on the outside because they didn't have anyone else. That's wasn't McCain's failing. That was on the Dolphins poor planning. And so McCain was predictably terrible outside. So it is his fault he was signed to play the nickel but was better than anyone else so he got bumped outside and failed?
Meanwhile, the Dolphins have question marks at nickel now. And they still haven't filled a cornerback spot outside. They basically traded Brent Grimes for Byron Maxwell but the starting corner on the other side is still a mystery.
And with no nickel (only unproven candidates like Bobby McCain) and no starter opposite Maxwell, the Dolphins have improved at cornerback? Not. Buying. It.
The Dolphins have improved at safety. Isa Abdul-Quddus is not a star. At least he has not been that. But he's an upgrade over Walt Aikens and probably Michael Thomas. So a plus for the 2016 squad!
Middle linebacker with Kiko Alonso over Kelvin Sheppard? Depends on which Alonso the Dolphins see -- the 2014 Buffalo version that was outstanding or the 2015 Philadelphia version that was of little consequence on defense and the Eagles were willing to dispatch in trade. We do not know what Alonso is going to be. And neither do the Dolphins. They have a hope. But NFL games are not won on hope. So I'm not giving them an upgrade here until I see it. Sorry.
The rest of the team is basically the same.
So there's a lot of wishful thinking and best-case-scenario projecting for Tannenbaum to be saying these Dolphins are better than last year's team.
And, with respect, are the Dolphins trying to beat what they did last year? Or are they trying to beat the rest of the AFC East? If the goal is to be better than 6-10, that's setting the bar pretty low, no?
I mean, can you imagine Adam Gase's first meeting? "Guys, let's do better than 6-10 this year!"
That must never be the marching orders. That must never be the goal.
Either you're trying to win the division or you're wasting everyone's time. If you're not aiming for that, you're missing a chance to aim high. Last year the Dolphins were dead last in the division and trying to get out of the cellar doesn't put you on top or in the playoffs, which should be the stated goals every year.
Finally, and most concerning, maybe Tannenbaum said this because he can say nothing else.
If what is left unsaid is that the Dolphins can only hope for slightly better than 6-10 we're still in for a long season in 2016. Maybe Tannenbaum believes that's coming. Maybe he realizes this team still has a ton of holes, is riddled with question marks (as I've outlined previously) and so the best way to frame things is, "Hey, we're better than last year's terrible team!"
If that's the case ... Prepare of a long season, folks.