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Miami Dolphins: A quick fix or building toward future sustainability?

What are we Miami Dolphins?

Obviously, they are a professional football team that is in transition because they have a new head coach, a new coaching staff, and they are about to launch out into the new NFL calendar year starting March 9 with hopes of putting their recent troubled history way behind them. But ... what are they?

Are the Miami Dolphins a team coming off a 6-10 year in which they underperformed despite great talent and thus on the cusp of something really good because a new coaching staff will correct the failures of the last season? Are they a talented bunch that merely needs direction? Are they a last place team in the AFC East that is a viable candidate to become a worst-to-first tale in 2016?


Are the Miami Dolphins a 6-10 team that had bad coaching, not enough talent, and need a total reboot that will take a few years to get right?

In that regard, are the Dolphins a rebuilding project that you better not expect much out of in the coming seasons because they are riddled with holes and no one can plug a dike that's leaking from that many spots in one offseason?

The Dolphins had better have the right answer for these fundamental questions as they set off on their new league year because the path for addressing these vastly different possibilities is, well, vastly different.

If the Dolphins believe themselves a very good team needing just a little bit of direction to go from 6-10 and only one win the AFC East to, say, 10-6 and challenging the New England Patriots while passing the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, then the moves of the coming talent procurement period would be vastly different than otherwise.

Teams on the verge of a turnaround do not, for example, let talent walk. Teams like that don't want to fall back in any regard, but rather want to add to the talent that got them to that precipice of a turnaround. And so, the Dolphins would obviously be looking at defensive end Olivier Vernon and running back Lamar Miller as players they cannot lose because that's a step in the wrong direction. Losing either player creates holes on the roster at starting defensive end and starting running back, respectively, that would then require filling -- in addition to the other holes that require filling.

A team on the verge should approach the offseason with the idea of adding talent, sure, but adding starting-caliber, top-line talent, because presumably the back of the roster and the depth is pretty solid. And if that is true, we're not bargain shopping in free agency. We're not taking the cautious approach of waiting for prices to come down later in free agency while the most talented players get snatched up early.

Last year, following an 8-8 season in 2014, the Dolphins thought themselves a couple of players from seriously competing in the division. So they locked up center Mike Pouncey, locked up quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and spent (over spent from where I see it) on defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. A team believing itself to be a couple of years away from truly competing might have passed on Suh and added two or maybe even three red chip players instead of swinging for the fence on blue chip Suh.

But Joe Philbin knew 2015 was a playoffs-or-bust year and so it was in his best interest to have the organization take a big cut, hoping to hit a homer. (Ok, enough baseball jargon). Mike Tannenbaum, in his first year as the football czar, wanted to do all he could to support his new head coach and so he gladly bought in to the swing for the ... push for Suh. And owner Stephen Ross, who had already told Philbin he needed to get in the playoffs to keep his job, bought in because he obviously believed his people when they said the Dolphins have excellent talent and we need just a bit more to get over the mediocrity hump.

Yeah, um, miscalculation.

Tannehill did not do what he'd done the previous three years after he signed his new contract. He did not improve. Indeed, even as he got better at his deep ball accuracy, he showed no real improvement in pocket awareness, and instinct. And he took a significant step back in team leadership because some players in the locker room, with whom Tannehill had not built a relationship or high level of respect, started looking at him sideways and whispering questions about him.

Suh? He was good. He was very good. But he wasn't $144 million good. He wasn't $19 million per year impactful. The Dolphins handed him the keys to the defense and when he turned the ignition, Suh found out the engine needed a tuneup and one of the tires was flat. And his good-but-not-great-performance could not lift the defense to better results than it had in years before when he was not on the team.

So, while I understand that calculation the Dolphins made -- that they were nearly good enough and just needed an little added push to get in the playoffs -- it was nonetheless a bad calculation. And while I did not and do not agree the Suh signing was the thing to do, I understand why everyone was on board, particularly Joe Philbin. Everyone was trying to save their jobs.

That should not be the motivation for setting a course this offseason. New coach Adam Gase is brand new. His staff is generally brand new. General manager Chris Grier is brand new to his position despite being part of the past 16 years of not good enough, but that's another story. And Tannenbaum has cover in that, while he has been here a year, this is the first year he was able to shape the franchise as he would like with a new GM and a new coach -- all decisions he helped make and is fully responsible for.

So everyone gets a pass this year, more or less, in the eyes of owner Stephen Ross.

No one gets a pass in the eyes of Armando Salguero but I am still collecting my pennies toward $1.5 billion (approximately what the Dolphins will sell for when Ross is done) so I don't get a vote.

Ross, by the way, is an interesting issue.

He's interesting in that he's exceedingly smart but not exceedingly wise. He is a fabulous success in the business world and a flop in the football world. He has multiple degrees from outstanding institutions of higher learning but he says a lot of dumb things. The man is often a contradiction in terms.

Not coincidently, just like his football team.

If you've been following the Dolphins under Ross and have paid attention to things Ross says, you know all this is true. Remember he has said the Dolphins are a great success. He has said that under his ownership the Dolphins have been turned around...

... Except for the football team. 

"We really have turned this franchise around in every way," Ross said the day he helped introduce Gase as the new head coach. "I think (team president and CEO) Tom Garfinkel and the work he’s done with the organization has really put us in a great position. But we haven’t performed on the field in the way that I or the fans want to see us in the future."

I am not mocking Ross here. I actually think I understand what he's saying. I think he's saying the organization has been set on the right course on the business side but the football side hasn't followed. Yes, he prefaces that by saying the franchise has been turned around "in every way," but you need to understand what he means while ignoring what he says.

Why am I telling you this?

Because Ross, the leader of this franchise, the head of this franchise, is similarly convoluted about how he views the future of this franchise.

I am told by multiple high-ranking people within the Dolphins organization that Ross is not in win-now mode. He wants the Dolphins to be a team that enjoys success in a sustainable way. He doesn't want a repeat of 2008, when the team rose unexpectedly from 1-15 to 11-5 and then sunk right back thereafter. He wants to be good for a long time.

But apparently believing this, Ross goes in front of business leaders in Palm Beach and says something akin to an NFL head coach has to win in three years or he'll get fired. "After three years, if we haven't made the playoffs, we're looking for a new coach. That's just the way it is. The fans want it."

And then the organization has to walk it back to explain that, again, regardless of what Ross said, you should please ignore that and understand what he means.

Why does this matter?

Because the owner sets the tone. He authors the marching orders for the organization. If he tells his people to win now, they attack an offseason as if they are in win-now mode. If he tells them build something sustainable that we can be proud of in three years, the organization's view obviously expands and different decisions get made because the goal is different.

The thing is, I'm not absolutely certain how the Dolphins view themselves. And I'm not sure the Dolphins know how to view themselves because their owner is saying one thing and meaning another. Or not.

Anyway, back to the paths. I explained earlier -- seems like days ago now -- that a team in win-now mode cannot let OV walk. It cannot add a hole at RB because there are holes at MLB, OLB, CB, OG, OG, TE, and S and adding RB and DE to the holes is problematic.

Here are other differences: If the organization is going to take the slow, systematic approach, it won't restructure Ndamukong Suh's contract, saving $18 million on the cap this year, but pushing bigger cap numbers toward the future. The Dolphins will absolutely do the restructure. They want the cap space. But the irony is they're making this move to turn around and possibly place the franchise tag on Olivier Vernon.

So they create $18 million in cap space to immediately lose $15 million of it to keep Vernon and thus set the floor for a Vernon multi-year deal. And in doing this exercise the team improved how?

Suh was on the team last year. Vernon was on the team last year. They went 6-10.

So having these two on the team this year is going to help lift them to 10-6 or 11-5? All you did was move money around, make them both richer and did really nothing for the improvement of the team.

The long range view? The long-range view accepts that every problem cannot be fixed in one offseason. And sometimes one has to take steps back to take multiple steps forward.

The long-range view lets Vernon walk and uses that $15 million cap hit on two starters -- maybe two linebackers. Or maybe a linebacker and a safety. And then you draft a defensive end (who probably won't be as good as Vernon, but may develop into that eventually) this year and draft another one next year and three years from now you have two cheap defensive end starters not named Olivier Vernon or Cameron Wake.

Will that view cost you sacks and maybe even wins in 2016? Of course it will.

But might it add sacks and wins in 2018? If new GM Chris Grier can pick the right talent, yes it will.

The short-term, win-now approach believes that good-but-not-great players who played at bargain prices for you the past few years -- such as Vernon, Miller -- must be retained because you want to be as good as you can as fast as you can and these guys are about to hit their prime.

The long-term view isn't moved by the fear of losing in 2016. If Miller, who averages 4.3 yards a carry, can get $4 million per year from another team, salute agent Drew Rosenhaus's good work and draft his replacement in the third or fourth round. And use that $3 million savings toward, I don't know, on a $7 million guard?

(Granted, there might not be a really good $7 million guard in free agency who is 26 or 27 years old and about to be great, but you get my meaning. Running backs, easy to find. Guards, less so.)

(Short blog posts, easy to find. This monster, less so.)

The point of this tripe I've just written is that the Dolphins have to decide what it is they are as they head into the new league year. They've shown signs they believe themselves a pretty good team on the verge of big things. That hasn't worked out in the past.

They've also spoken of being patient and building toward sustainable success rather than going for the quick fix.

So which one is it, Miami Dolphins?