The Miami Dolphins Do Not Deserve Credit for Exceeding Rock-Bottom Expectations

They might have three wins, but they’re still completely embarrassing.

A Cleveland Browns player tackles the Dolphins’ quarterback.
The Cleveland Browns’ Bryan Cox Jr. tackles Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on Nov. 24. Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

After a 37–31 shock victory over the Philadelphia Eagles this past Sunday, the Miami Dolphins are now 3–9. They have seemingly overcome their atrocious 0–7 start, a stretch in which they broke 20 points in a game only once. The Dolphins looked like a different, capable team while upsetting Doug Pederson’s underachieving crew. The punter threw a touchdown to the kicker! Rookie defensive end Christian Wilkins guffawed at his opponents! Head coach Brian Flores hasn’t lost the locker room anymore! Now who’s laughing at the Dolphins?

The answer, as it has been all along, should still be: everyone. Don’t be fooled by the record; Miami’s first two victories were over the New York Jets (coached by Adam Gase, the guy fired by the Dolphins last season) and an Indianapolis Colts squad quarterbacked by two-time New England Patriots castoff Brian Hoyer. Each of those should really count as half a win. While beating the Eagles is impressive and unexpected, the Dolphins aren’t getting revenge on anyone. They’ve succeeded in spite of their circumstances.

The Dolphins designed their roster to lose, even if before the season Flores insisted that he wouldn’t be tanking. Miami traded starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill and defensive end Robert Quinn in March, offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills in August, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in September, and running back Kenyan Drake in October. While I’m not going to pretend Tannehill is anyone’s long-term solution at quarterback—even with his unexpected resurgence on the Tennessee Titans—the rest of those are the kinds of players that a winning team needs. But the roster was supposed to be bare, so that the Dolphins would lose many games, accumulate a buttload of draft picks, and maximize their chances at next year’s first overall selection. In exchange for their best players, they’ll get a lot of chances to find young, cheap talent in the years to come.

Still, the team’s incompetence is a bit much. Over the first four games, the Dolphins were outscored 163–26, which the Associated Press reports is the worst point differential in that span since 1940. While there is a pungent variety of crummy teams, no other has just completely given up on one foundational aspect of football. Miami has a league-worst 62.8 rushing yards per game, nearly 10 yards fewer than the second-worst team (the Jets). The NFL may be pass-heavy these days, but this is absurd. Currently, the Dolphins’ leading rusher is still Mark Walton, who had 201 yards on the ground and was released by the team on Nov. 19 after he was arrested for allegedly assaulting a woman pregnant with his child. The Dolphins’ second-best rusher this season is Drake, who had 174 yards, was sent to the Cardinals for a 2020 conditional pick two months ago, and already exceeded that yardage total in four games with Arizona. The Dolphins’ third-best rusher is Kalen Ballage, who averaged 1.8 yards per carry and was placed on injured reserve Tuesday. The next best rusher on the team—and with Ballage’s injury, the top active Dolphins rusher—is … Ryan Fitzpatrick, the quarterback who was benched after a season-opening, 59–10 loss to the Ravens but regained his job because backup Josh Rosen was remarkably worse. (If you see that blowout score and think it’s the reason Miami’s point differential is so abysmal, a handy calculator can tell you that leaving it out puts the Dolphins’ margin in the other three games at 104–16.)

Admittedly, the season’s worst team by record currently is the 1–11 Cincinnati Bengals. Like the Dolphins, they have a first-year coach and also suck wind, but there are still worthwhile players on Cincinnati’s roster. If receivers A.J. Green and John Ross hadn’t been injured, head coach Zac Taylor might have had an easier time putting together a functional offense. Longtime left guard Clint Boling retired this summer, and the offensive line is generally a mess. The Bengals immediately became better when they cut head-hunting linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and they have legitimate talent elsewhere on defense with Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. Cincinnati’s bad, but it’s not close: Miami holds a league-low point differential of -177, 58 points worse than the Bengals.

Nevertheless, in a case of possibly being too close to your subject, Miami Herald beat reporter Adam Beasley this week demanded that critics retract their early-season takes. But in what way is it inaccurate when a former players union president calls the Dolphins’ teardown plan “morally reprehensible”? Even Beasley couldn’t buy his own argument. “The over-the-top, personal nature of some of the remarks made about this franchise seemed severe at the time, and downright absurd in light of how well the Dolphins have played since their bye,” he wrote. In the following paragraph, Beasley admitted “this is still probably the worst roster in football.”

He wasn’t the only one credulous enough to give the team recognition for surpassing rock-bottom expectations. Flores may have nabbed a game or three with creative tactics, but he didn’t start this tank; his bosses orchestrated it. The victories here are hollow. Apologizing to the 3–9 Dolphins because you thought they’d be far worse has the same energy as buying a ticket to the Sonic movie because the studio fixed the hedgehog’s freaky face.

Because of their remaining schedule—they have games left against the Jets, Giants, Bengals, and Patriots—the Dolphins may scrape together another win or two and slink into the offseason as a merely bad team instead of a monument to shameless self-sabotage. (Mark your calendars for that must-watch matchup against Cincy in Week 16.) If that happens, the Fins will end up a little less pathetic than they wanted to be, and that is arguably more embarrassing. They will have failed at failing.