MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — It’s no surprise the Miami Dolphins chose to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their undefeated team at what looked to be the most unattractive home game on the schedule.
Still, that hardly provided much good news to ticket scalpers. Miami’s 24-3 win Sunday over the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that didn’t even exist when the Dolphins went 17-0 in 1972, drew a meager 53,667 fans. That’s the second-smallest crowd the team has had at Sun Life Stadium in the past 20 years.
But at least Miami (6-8) gave the loyal attendees something to cheer about in a season in which the Dolphins are assured of not having a winning record for the sixth time in seven years. Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 22 of 28 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns in the most efficient game of his NFL career.
“There are no illusions here,” Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti, a member of the 1972 Dolphins, said about the current version. “There’s no illusions that this is a good football team. It’s not a good football team.”
But Buoniconti said there is hope. He likes the nucleus of the Dolphins’ defense and he likes Tannehill.
“They have a good young quarterback,” he said. “You got to remember this quarterback has played basically three years as a quarterback (after having been a tight end until he was junior at Texas A&M). All these other rookies (like Robert) Griffin (III) and (Andrew) Luck and all these other guys, they’ve played their whole lives at quarterback. So give this kid a chance. Give him an opportunity. Surround him with some more weapons and I think you’re going to have a great quarterback.”
For Miami’s future, it’s important Tannehill closes this season well. He had a hot stretch around midseason but had been more up than down lately, prompting some concern about just how good he can be.
Tannehill was up Sunday. His passing rating of 123.2 was his best of the season and came after he had gone five straight games with only once having a rating of 75.0 or better.
“I think it’s extremely important for (Tannehill) to go out there and finish strong,” said Miami running back Reggie Bush, who is closing in on 1,000 yards for the second straight season and before the game walked over to meet 1972 stalwart Larry Csonka, a three-time 1,000-yard back with the Dolphins.
Bush, who had told FOX Sports Florida recently he wants to re-sign next season as a free agent, believes the Dolphins can turn it around and that Tannehill is pivotal in that endeavor. Bush, who carried 21 times for 104 yards against the outmanned Jaguars (2-12) to get to 895 on the season, is certainly important as well.
The Dolphins need fans and possible free-agent signees to believe in the team — and not to think it’s going to keep being the same story. The Dolphins made the right move by drafting Tannehill with the No. 8 pick last April, and a strong finish in games against Buffalo next Sunday at home and Dec. 30 at New England only can reinforce that.
“It’s good for everybody on the team for (Tannehill) to finish well,” said Miami linebacker Kevin Burnett.
It was very important for Tannehill to play well Sunday. Calling signals for the foe was Chad Henne, a Miami washout from 2008-11.
If Henne had outplayed Tannehill, that would have been a disaster for the Dolphins. But it didn’t come close to happening as Henne, who was erratic in Miami, didn’t look much different, completing 18 of 34 passes for 221 yards and not getting the Jaguars into the end zone.
“It’s fun,” Tannehill said of his game. “We did a good job of executing the game plan … I think it’s a great win for all of us across the board.”
Tannehill threw for 141 of his yards and rushed for 42 of his 51 yards in the second half after he had discarded a knee brace he had had worn since being hurt Oct. 28 at the New York Jets. He returned to play the following week.
Tannehill’s touchdown passes came on a 4-yard connection to Jorvorskie Lane in the second quarter and a 2-yard flip to Anthony Fasano in the fourth. His most prolific target was Brian Hartline, who caught five balls for 77 yards and became just the eighth player in Miami history to reach 1,000 yards receiving in a season.
A guy who never actually did it for the Dolphins was wide receiver Paul Warfield, whose best effort was 996 yards in 1971. But Warfield, a Hall of Famer on hand for the 1972 reunion, knows a bit about the passing game, and he likes what he’s seeing from Tannehill.
“You got a good young quarterback who looks like he’s heading in the right direction,” Warfield said. “You look at the 1970 Dolphins and they had in Bob Griese a good young quarterback who could become better.”
That was season Warfield joined a Miami team that never had made the playoffs. Griese soon developed into a Hall of Famer, winning Super Bowls following the 1972 and 1973 seasons.
But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. For now, the Dolphins simply would take a winning season. If Tannehill can finish this season strongly, there will be more of a belief it actually could happen in 2013.