If perfect football games exist—Saints-Niners this year, Chiefs-Rams last year, Eagles-Patriots the year before—then the exact opposite exists, too. The search for the latter brought me to Miami on Sunday, on an overcast December day in South Florida, three days before Christmas. The Dolphins are bad; the Bengals are worse. There is a very particular type of football observer who had this game marked on their calendar. I am that type.
I came to South Florida to learn what it means to be bad in the NFL in 2019, especially when you’re a team that knew a dire season was coming. The Dolphins are ending one of the strangest seasons in years—one that started with a historic roster teardown, included a narrative they were trying to go 0-16, somehow featured a win over the probable NFC East champs, and finally, a fourth win. I saw a 38-35 epic—one in which the Bengals erased a 23-point deficit, scored on a 25-yard dart as time expired, scored two two-point conversions, and recovered an onside kick in a league where that is nearly impossible. The Dolphins won on a field goal as time expired in overtime (the Bengals shanked a punt earlier to give Miami good field position). It was Saints-Niners in the darkest possible timeline. The old boxing adage is that styles make fights—somehow, the Bengals and Dolphins’ lack of style combined for a war. It was perfect in its own way. Which is to say, bad.
The Dolphins, now with four wins, are not what the media narrative set them out to be: Instead of a historically awful, tanking team, the 2019 Fins are simply a typical bad team. The Sam Hinkie–style tank never materialized. The Dolphins are not the worst team ever, nor the worst team this season, and are barely the worst team in their division.
“You really can’t tank in our sport,” general manager Chris Grier told me this week. “It’s such a physical game, and to go ask players to go out there and not try to win games and get beat up is the complete wrong idea of what you’re trying to establish in football.” Co-signing this on the other side of the field on Sunday was Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who talked about the competitive juices of his team, whose comeback threatened their shot at the presumptive first overall pick Joe Burrow (the Dolphins will still pick top five). No Bengal in view seemed to care they’d clinched a shot at Burrow after the game. In fact, during Taylor’s press conference, frustrated shouting could be heard in the Bengals locker room. The Tank Bowl came and went and no one involved was actually tanking.
The worst thing in football is a bad team without a plan. The Dolphins are not that. What the Dolphins have been doing is one of the more interesting roster teardowns in recent memory: The Dolphins have made 228 transactions, the NFL average is 142. The team has used 80 players, the most in history. They have claimed 20 players off waivers, more than anyone else—teams average around four claims. They have about $65 million in dead money—among the biggest numbers in NFL history, and enough to allow them to have over $100 million in cap space next year. They traded two of their best players earlier this year—Laremy Tunsil to Houston for two first-round picks and Minkah Fitzpatrick to Pittsburgh for a first. The downside of getting good value for your good players is, well, you don’t have many good players. What is left is a team without a ton of talent but the ability to add some soon: The Dolphins will have three first-round picks this April and two next year. These picks are not as good as they could be—the Steelers will pick in the bottom half after a surprisingly successful season, the Texans have won their division, and, of course, the Dolphins have now won four games.
The overall plan, Grier told me, was simple. “Let’s see how much draft capital we can accumulate and use that going forward, however we see fit. It allows free agency, trades, movement up and down draft day and the following year in the draft,” Grier said. “Draft capital, in this day and age, is very important. So for us, we established from day one we tried to get as much as we could.”
In November of this year, The Miami Herald reported that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was not mad about his team winning games. “An associate said Ross isn’t angry, or devastated, by the Dolphins winning two games,” the report read. “Ross is thrilled that he has a coach, in Brian Flores, who can extract the most out of his roster and put together a team whose performance is greater than the sum of its parts.” This is likely the first of such reports in NFL history: clarifying the owner is OK with wins. Around the same time, ESPN analyst and former NFL cornerback Domonique Foxworth said Flores should be considered for coach of the year for getting three wins out of the Dolphins, revealing exactly how empty their cupboard is this year. There hasn’t been much serious momentum for that—not with John Harbaugh helping build one of the most interesting offenses in NFL history and Sean Payton going 5-0 with a backup quarterback. But it is worth noting that Flores undoubtedly overachieved amid near-unprecedented roster churn. For their part, this season the Bengals accomplished on accident what the Dolphins expected to: comfortably slide into the first overall pick. Tanking, in theory, may be a viable path in football, but it is still not widely used.
The Dolphins’ draft-capital plan isn’t the same as tanking, and is more in line with NFL norms. The Eagles and Patriots (and, famously, the Sashi Brown–era Browns) are fans of acquiring as many picks as possible. “We believe in volume,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said in the spring. “We’re not cocky enough to feel that you’re going to draft way better than anybody else, and it’s very important to create volume.”
There are practical reasons a full-on tank couldn’t necessarily work in football, and why accumulating a lot of draft picks very quickly is the standard operating procedure for teams looking to build a contender. Cheap rookie deals, in place since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, mean you need to get good quickly to take advantage of a young quarterback, the cornerstone of most rebuilds. “Once culture is established and players know how to win or learn how to win, that’s when it takes it off. If it’s a year from now, great, or two years, but for us we’re trying to win as many games as we can every year,” Grier said. But he offered some guideposts: “I think the closest thing now is San Francisco. It’s been three years but it probably got slowed a year by Jimmy [Garoppolo] getting hurt. Maybe that was a two-year deal. Cleveland made a big jump in their first year with Baker [Mayfield], now they are battling through some stuff. It’s hard to put a time stamp on it because every team is different.”
Linebacker Jerome Baker is, at 22 years old, a veteran by simply having been on the team for more than a season. Or more than a few weeks. “It sounds bad, but an outside linebacker comes in and, unfortunately, he’s gone in two weeks. A new linebacker comes in and I already know the question he’s going to ask,” Baker said. “Stuff like ‘What do I do in this situation?’ and I’m prepared, so I’m already ahead in the situation.” Of the early-season tanking narrative, the second-year pro said, “It’s human nature to hear it and be upset about it. We ignored it but we still hear it.”
Of course, they weren’t destined for 0-16, and that was never the plan. That led to Sunday, a wild, unwieldy game between two of the worst teams of 2019. A game that had it all—the Dolphins showed Baby Yoda highlights on the video board; Chuck Yeager, the pilot who first broke the sound barrier, was there. Yeager got a bigger ovation than Baby Yoda did. It also featured a team worse than the Dolphins.
This rebuild will end, presumably, at some point. I asked Grier whether he felt he had to get a quarterback this year. “Mistakes are made because you have to have it. You say, ‘We’re going with this guy,’ and you put all your eggs on this one, even though, in the back of everyone’s mind, it’s ‘Well, maybe it’s not quite the guy,’” Grier said. “Fitz has done a fantastic job, Josh [Rosen] has been getting better, we’re going to do everything we can at every position. It’s not just quarterback; we need to get better at a lot of positions. Quarterback is obviously a very, very important piece, and we know we need to add competition there, and we’ll do everything we can to find the right guys.”
The Dolphins have, it should be noted, picked the wrong quarterback nearly every step of the way over the past two decades. The most famous instance was in 2006 when the team passed on Drew Brees in free agency after team doctors said his shoulder was too damaged. There are other near-misses: Two years later, the team had the first overall pick in the draft and picked tackle Jake Long and never seriously considered Matt Ryan. They took Chad Henne in the second round. The following year, the team selected West Virginia’s running quarterback Pat White, an inspired choice that showed vision, but the offensive schemes the Fins ran with him lacked that same vision. White never completed a pass. Picking Ryan Tannehill eighth overall was not a disaster, but the 2012 draft did feature Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins in the middle rounds. Tannehill left last year after a mostly uneven tenure.
It’s also worth pointing out here that a surprisingly small amount of elite quarterbacks were taken first overall. Among the quarterbacks universally considered the best in this era—guys like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Lamar Jackson—hardly any of them were the first quarterback drafted, never mind the first player.
Quarterbacks are not the only topic in South Florida, especially now that Burrow is essentially eliminated as a possibility and Tua Tagovailoa is a question mark with an ankle injury.
This week, a reporter tried to ask Flores about Ohio State’s Chase Young without naming him. Draft media has suggested that Young may not fit perfectly into the Dolphins’ system and, like most Dolphins press conferences, the focus was on four months from now. The question: “I wanted your big picture thoughts on something that has been sort of debated among some media people in the last week. We’re not going to talk about any particular player, but if there is an exceptional defensive player available to you via the draft, via free agency—price isn’t an issue, off-field behavior isn’t an issue—if he’s not the ideal scheme fit, would you say ‘No, that player is not for us’? Or in your mind, if there is an excellent player available, do you accommodate your scheme for that player?” Flores’s answer was transcribed as this: “(laughter).”
Other questions in that press conference included what an ideal pass rusher looks like and what height Flores likes his cornerbacks. These are the sort of philosophical questions reporters usually reserve for the NFL combine. Flores fields a combine press conference every day forever. He can’t name players, and even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t for competitive reasons, and so reporters just kind of get his thoughts on hypothetical players. One reporter told me the beat has gone weeks at a time not asking about the game at hand. I asked Flores what it’s like fielding a team in which the focus is often more on April than any given Sunday.
“I understand it. It makes sense to me. But at the same time, to think that these games are meaningless, to me it’s crazy. If you think it’s meaningless then you can go down there and run down on a kickoff if you think it’s no big deal,” Flores told me.
Dolphins press conferences, because of their bizarre season, are different than most. This week, a reporter asked Fitzpatrick about cutting down his interceptions, mentioning he’s had a four-interception game in his career. Fitzpatrick corrected the reporter. He’s had six picks in a game.
Flores said he’s trying to build a culture of honesty. That’s why he said he’s been “honest and transparent” when players like Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick are dealt. Flores is a former Patriots scout, so he always keeps an eye on the draft. When he was a defensive play-caller, he said, he focused on the defense but said he enjoyed viewing offensive prospects for the last draft. “It’s always been a passion, something I’m fascinated with,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting to that process when it’s time to get to that process. Right now it’s not that time.”
There’s one more game, at New England, then it will be that time: one of the biggest offseasons in the history of the franchise.
One of the lessons of modern football is there is no direct way to build a contender: Bottoming out and getting high picks does not guarantee superstars. The Jaguars drafted in the top five for six years and only Jalen Ramsey turned into a star. Teams like the Steelers and Patriots who rarely pick high find ways to have success every season. The Dolphins have a plan, draft picks, and cap space. The Bengals have the first overall pick. They played on Sunday and somehow, it was perfect.