How the Miami Dolphins went from laughingstock to lovable

The “Tanking For Tua” T-shirts did a brisk trade in Miami for a while. So too did “Tank Bowl 2019,” “Dolphin Tank” and a bunch of other gear with slogans all designed to celebrate one thing: That the Miami Dolphins were going to be historically terrible this season — and that their fans were going to revel in it.

Yet after the Dolphins racked up their third and by far most impressive victory of a wildly weird campaign on Sunday, the tank job isn’t looking anything like most people expected it to.

This latest win wasn’t some ugly, scrappy, mistake-laden affair that turned on a bout of clumsiness. Miami broke out an offensive explosion to sink the Philadelphia Eagles, 37-31, with a never-say-die comeback featuring numerous pointers toward a brighter future.

“The cynics will complain the Dolphins hurt themselves on Sunday,” wrote Miami Herald columnist Armando Salguero. “They had an open door to improving their 2020 draft slot because the Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins won and a loss could have helped the Dolphins ultimately find themselves in better position to draft a superior college prospect.

“But that narrative was nowhere near these Dolphins on Sunday. That thinking about a draft pick so far in the future it’s impossible to predict what player will be most worthy of selecting, was deferential to how the guys on this team took some punches … and fought back.”

And suddenly, what everyone thought was going to be a one-way street toward an 0-16 season (or darn close to it), followed by the No. 1 NFL Draft pick, followed by the arrival of a ready-made star quarterback in Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, now appears very different.

For a start, Tagovailoa is no longer the presumptive No.1 pick, having dislocated and damaged his hip last month. No one is quite sure yet how far his draft stock will fall, but it could be that the Dolphins no longer need the top pick to get him.

The way things are going, they’re certainly not going to get that spot in the draft order. They’re currently set up to pick third overall, because the Bengals — despite beating the New York Jets on Sunday — are the worst team in football, at 1-11. The New York Giants are the second-worst, at 2-10.

“I’ve always said that nobody tanks,” FOX NFL analyst Jay Glazer told me in a phone call. “There’s no way that you can convince players to actually lose for a (whole) season. It just doesn’t happen. So this whole thing about tanking … it’s one thing trading away as many players as you can to reload for draft picks so you can rebuild, but to actually tank? It’s just not viable. You cannot get 53 players to agree not to play hard.”

For Dolphins fans still wearing those T-shirts and still hankering for as high a position as possible, there is bad news in store. The next three games are against the 4-8 and incredibly erratic Jets, followed by the Giants and the Bengals. Those aren’t just winnable games; the Dolphins could very well be favorites in all of them (although FOX Bet currently lists the ‘Phins as six-point underdogs to the Jets next week).

But it’s not just that the Dolphins seem like they can win those games — they really look like they want to win them.

“They’re fighters. This team, they compete,” head coach Brian Flores told reporters. “I’m proud of them and I’m thankful to be their coach.”

It wasn’t Flores or the players who elected to trade away Minkah Fitzpatrick, Laremy Tunsil and Kenyan Drake and apparently leave the cupboard bare in order to clear salary cap space and stockpile draft picks.

No one in the locker room is wearing a tanking T-shirt. This group of players, patched together, is finding a way to be competitive.

“I’ve been in this situation before with the (San Francisco) 49ers and people got mad when we won,” center Daniel Kilgore told The Miami Herald three weeks ago. “I wouldn’t want people to go and do their job and fail at it. You got 53 guys busting their (butts) every day during the week, competing, trying to get a win, trying to figure out what we can do to get a win.”

And now things get interesting. 11 of the NFL’s 32 teams currently hold a record of 4-8 or worse, meaning that if the Dolphins do go on a mini-tear and win those favorable matchups on the horizon, their draft position could wind up around the middle of the first round.

For some fans who quickly got sick of celebrating losing, that’s just fine. Sunday’s performance — highlighted by DeVante Parker’s career day and a wonderfully outrageous trick play that involved punter Matt Haack throwing to place kicker Jason Sanders for a touchdown — further warmed the support base to a plucky group of players who are ripping up the tanking script.

“This is a lot more enjoyable, and I’m not even sure we’ll pay for it come draft time,” longtime fan Quinn Bassett told me. “I feel like once Tua went down, it all looked different. So many players are coming out and teams pick according to their needs. A couple of places lower in the order might not make a lot of difference.”

A few more wins, however, could make the world of difference to how we perceive these Dolphins. The team that was supposed to celebrate losing has now won three games out of five and are looking for more scalps.

They were built to be totally, painfully, historically bad. By the time this season shakes out, they may have proven themselves to be not bad at all.