Optimistic Dolphins look to reclaim AFC East supremacy

DAVIE, Fla. — Apparently, there is no statute of limitations when it comes to touting titles.
 
At the Miami Dolphins’ practice facility during training camp, there are signs behind end zones on two fields that read, “Champions Practice Here.” A Vince Lombardi Trophy is pictured on each side of the signs.
 
The Dolphins haven’t won a championship since 1973, when they claimed a second straight Super Bowl.
 
Miami hardly has been championship-caliber lately. The Dolphins haven’t won a playoff game since 2000 and have made just one postseason appearance since the start of the 2002 season.
 
But there is newfound optimism this year after the team signed several notable free agents and took defensive end Dion Jordan with the No. 3 pick in the draft. Some believe Miami even could unseat New England, which has won at least a share of 12 straight AFC East titles.
 
“Of course, we’re the favorite,” defensive tackle Randy Starks told FOX Sports Florida when asked who should be the favorite in the division. “That’s how we feel. We don’t want to feel like we have to beat the Patriots or Jets or anybody. We want the AFC East to come through here. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”
 
Starks said he’s not predicting the Dolphins will win their first division title since 2008, when they had the same record as the Patriots but won the tiebreaker. He’s “just saying that’s how we feel.” 
Starks said the Dolphins, who went 7-9 in 2012, are “looking to do big things this season.” It could help their cause that New England, which won the AFC East with a 12-4 mark, might be vulnerable.
Tom Brady’s favorite receiver, Wes Welker, bolted to Denver as a free agent, and tight end Aaron Hernandez was released as he was being charged with murder. Also, tight end Rob Gronkowski’s availability for the start of the regular season is in doubt following back surgery in June.
 
“Of course,” NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp, who stopped by Dolphins training camp Wednesday, said about Miami pushing New England in the AFC East. “We’re anointing the Patriots like it’s common practice or it’s the place to be. Come on. You see that defense.”
 
Even though the Patriots’ two high-profile departures played offense, Sapp, who will be inducted next week into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is unimpressed with New England’s defense. But he loves Miami’s front seven on defense and says the Dolphins have “got enough pieces” overall to make a strong run.
 
Miami’s top new players include wide receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson, tight end Dustin Keller, offensive linemen Tyson Clabo and Lance Louis, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler and cornerback Brent Grimes. Ellerbe is coming off having won a Super Bowl with Baltimore.
 
Ellerbe said these Dolphins are “faster” than last year’s Ravens, although not as experienced. He doesn’t rule out that Miami could win a Super Bowl next February.
 
“Hopefully. That’s what I’m planning on,” Ellerbe, lured away from Baltimore as a free agent, told FOX Sports Florida. “I’m not here just to come out here and practice and do everything for nothing. After I felt the confetti, it’s a different feeling. It’s a different feeling when you touch that confetti. You’re chasing it for the rest of your life.”
 
The Dolphins have been a chasing that championship feeling for a long time. They haven’t been to a Super Bowl since falling to San Francisco after the 1984 season.
 
The Dolphins’ last Super Bowl win 40 years ago concluded a stretch in which they had gone to the big game three years in a row, winning twice. 
A mainstay from that team, Hall of Fame guard Larry Little, might not be predicting a Super Bowl run but sees no reason the Dolphins this year can’t unseat the Patriots in the AFC East.
 
“I think they’re going to be a much-improved football team,” Little said. “I think they’re going to push New England. It could happen because (the Patriots) have had so many things happen to them. They’ve got some question marks.”
 
Miami has some as well. It remains to be seen how left tackle Jonathan Martin will do in replacing perennial Pro Bowler Jake Long. The Dolphins also must replace departed running back Reggie Bush, although Sapp said likely replacement Lamar Miller “looks like he’s ready to roll.”
 
If a division title doesn’t happen, the Dolphins are hoping for at least a wild-card berth. They will consider it a disappointment if they don’t make the postseason.
 
“(A playoff berth is) very reasonable right now,” said center Mike Pouncey, who said the Dolphins “look really good on paper” but have to put it together on the field. “Obviously, that’s everyone’s goal on this football team. No one wants to say it in public, but we want to win a lot of football games and we want to go to the playoffs.”
 
The only players remaining from 2008, when Miami last made the postseason, are Starks, defensive tackle Paul Soliai, kicker Dan Carpenter, punter Brandon Fields and long snapper John Denney. Star defensive end Cameron Wake arrived in 2009 and has endured four straight losing seasons.
 
“The last few years, we haven’t really had the success on the field this franchise is used to, and I think this is the time to get out of that middle of the pack and get to the front where it’s supposed to be,” Wake said.
After all, South Florida supposedly is where “champions practice.”

Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter @christomasson.