Philbin wins game, and endorsements from ’72 team

Joe Philbin cracked a few smiles Monday while critiquing the
Miami Dolphins’ latest game, his mood buoyed by one of the most
successful weekends yet for the first-year coach.

He won a game, and some important endorsements. Perfect-season
coach Don Shula and several of his players, in town for their 40th
reunion, said Philbin has the Dolphins headed in the right
direction.

Despite Sunday’s 24-3 victory over woeful Jacksonville, the
Dolphins (6-8) are virtually out of the playoff race and will
finish at .500 or worse for the fourth consecutive season. That’s a
far cry from perfection, as several 1972 Dolphins noted.

But they voiced support for Philbin, and also for the team’s two
often-criticized decision-makers, general manager Jeff Ireland and
owner Stephen Ross.

”Joe Philbin’s on the right track,” said `72 linebacker Nick
Buoniconti, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. ”There are
no illusions here that this is a good team. It’s not a good team.
There are certain aspects of the team that are really solid, but
you’re not going to fool Philbin or Jeff Ireland or Steve Ross.
They’re going to make the changes that are needed, and this team
will come back as winners.”

Shula is also optimistic, saying Philbin and rookie Ryan
Tannehill can put an end to years of steady turnover at the head
coach and quarterback positions.

”I like Philbin,” Shula said. ”I like his mannerisms. And I
like the young quarterback. You see some good things. You know
they’re headed in the right direction, and I think that’s all the
fans can ask for. You want them to be a team that we’re proud
of.”

Former coach Jimmy Johnson chafed at the franchise’s perennial
focus on the `72ers, and celebrating that season does provide a
distraction from more recent results. Miami will miss the playoffs
this year for the 10th time in the past 11 seasons.

”These teams here live in the shadow of the `72 Dolphins, and
it’s a real big shadow that casts itself across the field,”
Buoniconti said. ”And it’s very difficult for them to measure up
to those standards. And I feel for them, because when you’re
getting measured against perfection, it’s pretty tough.”

Philbin insisted he doesn’t mind. He said he enjoyed visiting
before Sunday’s game with fellow Springfield, Mass., native
Buoniconti and other members of the 1972 Dolphins, and was glad to
see his players do the same.

”It was great,” Philbin said. ”It’s a class group. When you
meet those guys, it’s not a surprise they had great success. …
They set the bar high. That’s what you want to do – you want to be
the best. I think it’s a fantastic legacy they left.”

Philbin’s just getting started on his own legacy, and hoping to
finish the season on an upbeat note, with games Sunday against
Buffalo and the following week at New England.

The victory over Jacksonville was only Miami’s second win in the
past seven games.

”We don’t want anybody to think, `OK, so we might not be in the
playoff hunt. We’re going to lay down the rest of the way and start
thinking about the vacationing,”’ cornerback Sean Smith said.
”Nah. We have guys with great, great character, and we’ll have
fight until the end.”

Brian Hartline reached the 1,000-yards receiving milestone for
the first time in his four-year career, and Reggie Bush surpassed
100 yards rushing for the first time since Week 2, leaving him 105
yards shy of 1,000. Their status next year is in doubt, because
both can become free agents.

Certain to return is Tannehill, who is showing progress again
after a midseason slump that included a spate of turnovers. His
passer rating and completion percentage against the Jaguars were
season highs, and in the past three games he has thrown three
touchdown passes with no interceptions.

”You can’t let every mistake weigh heavily on your shoulders,
and Ryan doesn’t do that,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman
said. ”He’s very critical and he accepts criticism, but he moves
on. And I think that’s the sign of a good quarterback who has a
chance to be a great quarterback.”

Four decades removed from their perfect season, the Dolphins
will settle for good and getting better.

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