Week one of Miami’s 2019 Tankapalooza was either a rousing success or an epic fail, depending on your perspective.
The Dolphins were hammered by the Baltimore Ravens 59-10 in their season opener. It is hard to be this bad. The Ravens racked up 643 total yards, with the Dolphins gifting 64 of them on nine penalties. In a two-decade franchise run of stanky football, this was the stankiest.
Some of the problems can be excused: nearly two-thirds of the Dolphins roster is made up of new players, and they have a fresh-faced coaching staff. Brian Flores and his group came over from New England, hoping to channel some of that Bill Belichick sheen into quick success. When Flores first arrived, he preached culture and work ethic. The Dolphins have since made a clear organizational decision: to build towards the 2020 and 2021 drafts, hoping to wait out the Brady-Belichick partnership that has monopolized the AFC East.
This is not tanking, Flores and the rest of Dolphins management insist: that would be shameful. Tanking is losing games on purpose; they’re just positioning themselves to be in pole position for the first overall pick throughout this season and next. The fact that their plan is the definition of a tank-job does not appear to pierce the minds of the team’s, umm, brain-trust.
Miami telegraphed their intentions when they traded away Laremy Tunsil, a top-five left tackle, and Kenny Stills, a respected veteran wide receiver. The Dolphins didn’t deal away aging vets, Tunsil was about to enter his prime years, and Stills was already there. Both would have been perfect complements to a young quarterback.
And getting a young quarterback is the grand plan: chuck away one or two seasons in order to land one of college football’s next top superstar quarterbacks, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa at the end of this season or Trevor Lawrence of Clemson the following year.
It is a plan similar to the one the Browns ran a couple of years back. The one that culminated in an unprecedented amount of draft assets, a star-loaded, youthful roster, the firing of everybody in the building, unprecedented hype entering the 2019 season … and a similar Week One beatdown at the hands of the Titans.
Tanking is great on paper: it’s fun to dream. But watching your team get curb stomped for 24 months is not (the Associated Press reported that the Dolphins’ stadium was half empty on Sunday). And here’s the other thing: it’s hard. This isn’t basketball. Football prospects are no sure thing – there’s much less variance in the NBA. Plenty of teams have had multiple draft picks in multiple years and whiffed on each and every one of them (see the Browns any year prior to Baker Mayfield and Myles Garrett’s arrivals).
Tanking makes sense on a spreadsheet or in video games. But things like human emotions and contracts and salaries make it more complex in the real world. Pro Football Talk reported on Sunday evening that the Dolphins locker room is already close to a “mutiny” over the team’s direction. The players’ future income will be tied to whatever they put on tape during this season. Their current income will be tied to team performance and gameday bonuses. Multiple players have already been in contact with their agents in order to get trade wheels in motion, according to the report.
We must admire the irony of a player clamoring to get away from a team that was specifically built to lose. We don’t want to be on this team that’s intentionally losing. But they’re on the team precisely because management thinks they stink. Only three players hold any kind of league-wide value: 2018 first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick; Xavien Howard an All-Pro caliber cornerback; and 2019 first-round pick Christian Wilkins.
Miami stripped their roster to the bones in the offseason, punted on free agency, then cheaped out on a rotating morass of creaking mediocrity. That mediocrity was exposed on Sunday to an almost comical extreme. There could be no worse start for a rookie head coach. Or, if the goal is to be the worst, it went perfectly.
Stat of the week
After his breathtaking performance against the Dolphins, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is the only quarterback in NFL history with a game of five-plus touchdowns, 300-plus yards, 15-plus yards per attempt, and three or fewer incompletions. Not bad for a running back.
Or not. Jackson played from the pocket on Sunday and shredded an incompetent Miami defense. Sterner tests will come, but the potential for Jackson to break the league with his legs and arm is well and truly there. Good luck trying to stop him.
MVP of the week
Dak Prescott’s stat line against the Giants: 25 for 32, 405 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions, 158.3 passer rating. Wow.
Prescott could not have wished for a better game as he continues contract negotiations. Sunday’s performance pushed Dallas’ top brass closer to signing off on a mega-money, long-term deal. Owner Jerry Jones upgraded the status of negotiations from “probable” to “ imminent” post-game.
Credit should go to new Dallas’ offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. The Cowboys offense has been stuck in the mud for years. Moore has opened it up and he plays to Prescott’s strengths. We saw more pre-snap movement – motions, shifts – and post-snap creativity than at any other time during the Jason Garrett era. Prescott feasted. Receivers were wide-open. It looked easy.
Quote of the week
“They were who we thought they were” – Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker.
Walker had no time for the Cleveland hype train, which abruptly came to a halt during Sunday’s early slate. The Titans crushed the Browns 43-13. Baker Mayfield threw three interceptions in what was the worst game of his career – high school, college or pro.
The Browns committed 18 penalties for 181 yards, nearly breaking the NFL record. Sunday was ugly, but don’t overreact. Cleveland are loaded with talent and it was a close game right up to the last minutes of the third quarter. The Browns will be a contender in the AFC.
Video of the week
Colts safety Malik Hooker pulled off an all-time interception to give the Colts a shot against the Chargers. Hooker has the uncanny ability to be in all the right places at all the right times, as though he wakes up to find a copy of that day’s game on his doorstep. The nonchalance with which he snags the pick, arm fully stretched, in full flight, never breaking stride, borders on art.
Elsewhere around the league
- The Patriots looked as comfortable as ever in their 33-3 win against Pittsburgh, one of their top rivals in the AFC. The Patriots have a talented defense to help prop up Tom Brady and his frightening offense. All the pieces fit so seamlessly. And Antonio Brown hasn’t even landed yet. This Brady-Belichick thing is never going to end.
- Former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles sustained a broken clavicle during his Jaguars debut. Foles is slated to be out somewhere between four-to-six weeks.
- What a tough break for Melvin Gordon. While Dak Prescott dealt with his contractual stalemate by delivering a career-best performance, Gordon sat out. Think you can keep this offense rolling without me? Pffft. The only snag? Gordon’s backup Austin Ekeler combined for 154 yards and three touchdowns. Gordon has bested those figures only once his career. Oops.
- Julio Jones penned a new contract over the weekend that could have far-reaching consequences. The Falcons star signed a three-year extension worth $66m with $64m guaranteed at signing. Jones focused on the guarantees in his deal and not the overall value. Other stars with similar leverage will look to do the same moving forward.
- There were raised eyebrows when Adam Gase, who failed at the Dolphins, joined the New York Jets as head coach. They promptly blew a 16-0 lead to divisional rivals the Buffalo Bills in his first regular-season game in charge.