Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 5, 2019

Hope, Reality, And The Dolphins

One constant across all our games is that the start of a new season should be, and usually is, a time for optimism. Even those fans who know in their hearts that their favorite team is not about to contend for a title can hope for a campaign that is markedly better than the prior year. That hope may not last, indeed it is sometimes bruised and battered from the moment the first results come in. But offsetting that unfortunate circumstance are the instances where, against the weight of preseason punditry, the early returns are surprisingly favorable.

The National Football League kicks off its 100th season Thursday night, substituting the recent tradition of having the defending Super Bowl champion host the opener in favor of a game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. The NFC North franchises boast the league’s oldest rivalry, with the Packers having started play in 1921 and the Bears one of the NFL’s two remaining founding members. But as quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Mitchell Trubisky prepare to lead their squads onto the Soldier Field gridiron, the customary flame of hope is already flickering for too many fan bases.

The quashing of preseason optimism by the weight of cold reality is partly the product of the ways in which many fans now follow sports. Especially when it comes to the NFL, for countless numbers it’s no longer enough to be sitting in the stands or in front of a television as a cheering partisan when more active participation is available through fantasy leagues, from neighborhood or workplace groups to online competitions that are thinly disguised excuses for high stakes gambling. Whether playing for pride or cold cash, selecting key players in a fantasy draft forces a fan to set aside parochial interest, and the hope that goes with it.

Ubiquitous data in our information age also makes clinging to hope harder than it used to be. There was a time when for most fans the commentators offering up early predictions were mostly local scribes, who inevitably tilted in favor of the home team, from just a bit up to and decidedly including outrageously. Now one is besieged by analysts and experts from all over, with the greatest attention often going to the voice that speaks the loudest rather than with the most knowledge. If shouted opinions are not enough, every fan also has ready access to information from a multitude of sources, including Las Vegas oddsmakers and the mavens of advanced statistical analysis.

While the former carries new weight because of the rapid expansion of legalized sports betting, at the advent of the new season the sports books and the computers are in relative agreement. Those wishing to get in on the gambling action will find Kansas City and New England with the shortest Super Bowl odds, at 5-1 and 6-1 respectively. The Saints, Eagles, and Bears, all at 12-1, make up the next most favored group of teams. In similar fashion, the computer models at give four of those five franchises the highest chances of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, with the Los Angeles Rams taking the place of Chicago in fifth place. Whether calculated by human judgment or electronic algorithms the odds suggest a league of relatively few “haves” and a multitude of “have nots.”

Of course there are still fans willing to ignore all this and espouse the age old sentiments of hope and optimism that have heralded the start of so many seasons. The long-suffering faithful of the Cleveland Browns are this year’s prime example. The Browns are ranked just behind the Steelers in the AFC North on the betting line and a bit lower by the computer models. While that’s not awful, and in fact considerably better than at the start of so many seasons in Cleveland, it’s a projection that doesn’t begin to match the fervent hope of Browns fans. Perhaps it’s due to the departure of LeBron James or because Terry Francona’s baseball charges have been chasing Minnesota all season, but quarterback Baker Mayfield is now the chosen hero of many in the Forest City. That he has a new target in Odell Beckham Jr. and a new head coach in Freddie Kitchens has those fans believing their team will still be playing into the new year, weeks after the regular season schedule concludes.

Until that schedule is actually played, who’s to say those Cleveland fans are not right? For no amount of preseason punditry can alter the immutable truth of sports – there is always a reason to play the games. The shortest odds are not on any team, but on the likelihood that at least one of the supposedly elite franchises will disappoint, with their expected spot in the later rounds of the NFL’s postseason tournament taken by an upstart squad defying expectation. That result, played out time and again in the NFL and all our sports, is the fuel that feeds the hope at the beginning of every campaign.

Except in Miami. Along South Beach and from Little Havana to the Art Deco district, even the most ardent Dolphins fans know the season that starts at Hard Rock Stadium Sunday afternoon with a game against the Ravens will be somewhere between a miserable slog and an ugly embarrassment. On this one the pundits are going to be right. At 500-1 odds, the Dolphins are the longest of long shots to win the Super Bowl. Far short of that level of success, Miami’s 125-1 odds of claiming the AFC East crown are more than three times the next highest betting line for any of the league’s eight divisional races. The computer models are equally unkind, ranking the Dolphins dead last of the NFL’s thirty-two franchises.

This grim assessment is not simply because Miami is a bad team. There are bad teams every year, including several other NFL franchises about to begin seasons that will end poorly. Rather the Dolphins are consciously, purposely, bad. In the offseason Miami’s front office allowed several veterans to walk. That’s neither unheard of nor necessarily unreasonable for a franchise looking to the future. But then, just within the last few days, the Dolphins traded promising left tackle Laremy Tunsil, star receiver Kenny Stills, and linebacker Kiko Alonso, who led the team in tackles last season. These players, all in their 20s, were expected to be the core around which Miami would build. Instead, the Dolphins have joined the ranks of franchises that have recently decided to tank – to throw away a season or three or five while hoping to collect enough high draft picks to eventually succeed.

As popular as this approach has become, results have been mixed. The Houston Astros are now a baseball powerhouse, but fans of the Philadelphia 76ers are still waiting to reap the full benefits of their team’s much ballyhooed “process.” Also, most tanking teams have been in other leagues. The problem with tanking in the NFL is the sheer number of successful prospects needed, since with eleven players on the field at once and fifty-three on the roster, the role of any single player is limited. Even a future Hall of Fame quarterback is on the sidelines when his team is on defense. For all the attention it garners, the annual NFL Draft rarely produces an instant, team-transforming star, and when it does (as Tom Brady fans will tell you), he might be the 199th pick rather than number one.

In choosing to give up on the season before a single down has been played, the Dolphins have broken faith with both their fans and the players who will don an aqua, orange and white uniform on Sunday, robbing them all of optimism and hope. But in a league that prides itself on parity and possibility, at least Miami has given us one sure thing.

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