My short vacation allowed me to do some thinking about the Miami Dolphins (I'm a sick dude) and, unfortunately, that extra thinking gave me a headache because my opinion of the team's immediate future is not bullish.
My opinion right now is more like a reading of the Book of Revelation -- with plagues and tribulation, famine and drought before anyone comes out the other end.
And "right now" is the key phrase here. Obviously things can change. Obviously free agency will come around. So will the draft. Changes will definitely happen for the team this offseason and for their AFC East division rivals as well.
Things can change for the better.
(Yeah, things can get worse, too).
But right now, relative to the rest of the division, I'm simply down on the Dolphins. I feel pessimistic. And at the risk of bringing you down with me, allow me to explain why I feel how I feel to an audience of people that I recognize wants to believe everything will be alright and their team will be good in 2015 and unicorns will roam the sideline at Sun Life Stadium soon.
It starts with where the Dolphins find themselves today: They are an also-ran. They are neither good nor bad. They are, well, mediocre. This is a fact that has not changed over years of 7-9, 7-9, 6-10, 7-9, 8-8, and 8-8. This has been the case for years and spanning different coaching staffs.
And my trouble with this is not all mediocre teams are the same. Yes, their records may be the same but they may be in different cap situations. They may be at different stages of maturity. They may be at different moments in their history.
A team that is 7-9 under a first-year coach with a rookie QB seems promising. That kind of team has an arrow pointing up next to its name. A team that is 7-9 with an aging roster and looming cap troubles has an arrow pointing down next to its name.
And on this front I don't see the Dolphins in the best situation.
Consider that three years ago, in 2012, a new head coach with a rookie quarterback and a brand new and unproven coaching staff took the Dolphins to a 7-9 record. I think that was Joe Philbin's finest coaching job so far.
The Dolphins -- missing playmakers on the outside, installing a new offense and defense, in obvious building mode, and with significant cap space and draft picks ahead of them -- got to 7-9.
It was a time to feel good about the future.
But here we are two seasons later and the many and high draft picks, the tons of salary cap space, the added experience for the coach and his staff, adjustments, changes, and maturity resulted in ... one extra win in 2013 and status quo in 2014.
So the feeling that the Dolphins were steadily building toward something, that they were climbing toward better seasons has faded in my mind. Think about this: The Seattle Seahawks in 2011 had a 7-9 record just as the Dolphins did in 2012.
But they had a young and building roster. Although we didn't know it, they had a coaching staff that would include two men who would go on to become NFL head coaches. They found a rookie QB the next year and improved to 11-5. And won the Super Bowl the year after that. And went back to defend the title the year after that.
The progression was obvious in that, well, there was progression.
That, by definition, is building.
The record has stagnated.
But it is worse than that, in my opinion. While the record has not improved, the defense has aged. Cameron Wake and Brent Grimes, the two best defensive players, are in their 30s now. The interior line that was once so strong has become a question mark this offseason -- with the status of Randy Starks and Jared Odrick uncertain.
Meanwhile, the linebacker corps is worse now than it was in 2012. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan may retire or be cut.
Holes have popped up, as they always do.
All this while the many draft picks the Dolphins accumulated haven't yet offered to fill the voids. Dion Jordan hasn't done anything yet despite his ample talents. Jamar Taylor and Will Davis cannot seem to stay healthy to the point defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said he still is not certain what he has there.
Offensively, I remind you the 2012 Dolphins were 7-9 with Brian Hartline and some slappys at wide receiver. So the team went out and fixed the problem.
Except, as any Dolphins observer understands, the problem is not quite fixed. Mike Wallace for multiple reasons hasn't been the dynamic deep threat he was supposed to be. Brandon Gibson has offered little more than a shrug's-worth of performance for a fairly high salary. Hartline got better in 2013 but his statistics fell off the table in '14 for multiple reasons.
And most fans are asking, does this team need to address the position again this offseason by cutting salaries or players or both?
The offensive line, problematic in 2012 when it gave up 37 sacks, gave up 46 sacks in 2014. The rushing game, which gained 1802 yards with 15 TDs in 2012, gained 1872 yards with 12 TDs last season. In other words, two offseasons passed and the offensive line still is not fixed. The Dolphins hope, HOPE, left tackle Branden Albert will return to form after a significant knee injury last season. They hope right tackle Ja'Wuan James improves and Mike Pouncey can return to being a very good center. But the guard spots are still in flux. No certainty.
The backfield? The Dolphins need a running mate for Lamar Miller and possibly even an upgrade, too.
Charles Clay is scheduled to be a free agent as is backup quarterback Matt Moore.
On the bright side, which I have considered, quarterback Ryan Tannehill has taken significant, encouraging strides since his rookie season. If the rest of the team and coaching staff and win-loss record had improved as much as Tannehill has the past two seasons, the Dolphins would be a playoff team.
The window for error is almost gone because Tannehill's rookie contract offers only one more season. So now that period where the Dolphins were getting encouraging quarterback play at a relative bargain -- allowing them to use the savings to address other areas -- is just about up.
Ryan Tannehill may still offer encouraging play. But the Dolphins will pay approximately $15-$17 million per season in return. Before they were paying about $3 million per season.
The extra $7-$12 million in cap space Tannehill's new contract (depending on structure) will eat up means that is one or two fewer elite free agents the Dolphins can chase.
The margin for error will soon be smaller.
And here's the thing: Am I supposed to believe that a team that didn't make a significant jump with a wider margin for error will do exactly that with a smaller margin for error?
The Dolphins, I remind you, needed every inch of that wide margin for error the past two years. They had, off the top of my head, approximately $36 million in cap space in March of 2013. They had a high first round pick and two second round picks.
And that grand opportunity and vast improvement by the quarterback resulted in one more win in 2013 and the same 8-8 record, or no growth, in '14.
This offseason, before the team gets about the business of taking steps forward, it will have to take some significant steps back.
Players will be cut or asked to take pay cuts to make salary cap room because the Dolphins are scheduled to be about $2 million under the cap otherwise.
And fans that greet this with a cheer must remember this: When you cut a player, the mistake doesn't simply disappear because you typically have to replace him. So resources that might have been used to address another area of need, of which the Dolphins have several, now has to be used to retrace an old step and replace that cut player.
In other words, the Dolphins will be plugging holes they thought they plugged in the past on top of the holes they failed to plug.
So folks saying, "Cut Wallace, cut Ellerbe, cut Wheeler, cut Starks, cut Gibson, etc ..." also have to complete that thought and say, "And draft or sign linebackers, and draft or sign a WR, and draft or sign a defensive tackle and then address the needs the team had before it cut those guys."
That is a lot of work to do in one offseason.
Which leads me to another truth ...
The 2012 Dolphins were a building team. They had holes. They knew it. But despite all that they salvaged a 7-9 record (again, good job by Philbin) and went merrily into an offseason expecting to make an exponential improvement.
The 2015 Dolphins are not a building team. On defense they are an aging team with no obvious stars waiting in the wings to pick up slack much less offer significant improvement. On offense, they are still dealing with obvious holes and may have to deal with more holes depending on salary cap cuts.
The building program that started with such promise in 2012 failed. The team hasn't been to the playoffs. The bonus draft picks are gone. The whopping cap space is gone.
It is going to take a superhuman effort to get better.
The only way it happens is if Tannehill becomes Tom Brady and carries the team on the field while Joe Philbin becomes Bill Belichick and figures out how to maximize talent that other teams dismiss.
Yeah, I don't see both ends of that possibility actually coming to pass.
That's why I'm not feeling optimistic about the Dolphins today.