MIAMI -- More than 70,000 fans at Sun Life Stadium expected a football celebration Sunday. The Miami Dolphins were a win away from their first playoff bid since 2008, and all that stood in their way were the inconsistent New York Jets.
Instead, the festive mood eventually changed to heartbreak for Dolphins fans. Miami lost a must-win game, 20-7, to New York to end the Dolphins’ playoff hopes. It was the second straight loss and hapless effort to end Miami's season with an 8-8 record.
“I look at this as a losing season,” disappointed Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace said. “We did too much, we wake up too early [and] work too hard to be 8-8. We have too much talent to be 8-8.”
The Dolphins’ sudden collapse raises many questions about where they go from here and what changes need to be made in the offseason.
Do the Dolphins get rid of general manager in Jeff Ireland? He put this team together last offseason with more than $100 million in guaranteed contracts.
Is Joe Philbin the right head coach? Philbin is 15-17 in two seasons in Miami.
Do the Dolphins have the right assistants? Particularly offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, who led Miami to only seven points in the final eight quarters of the season?
“It’s not my job. That’s the coach’s job,” Dolphins defensive tackle Jared Odrick said of evaluating the team’s future. “I have to show up every day and work harder, and we all do.
"Something’s got to change where we got to get over this hump. Someway, somehow we have to make it work.”
Changes could -- and should -- be coming in Miami. The only question is how many?
Someone will take the fall following the Dolphins’ fifth consecutive non-winning season. There certainly will be player changes in the offseason. The Dolphins can start by making upgrades to their offensive line, for example.
Sherman and Dolphins offensive line coach Jim Turner also cannot feel secure about their coaching futures. Miami’s offense underperformed all year, and Sherman’s play-calling and Turner’s position group are the primary reasons.
Philbin and Ireland will be tougher decisions that will go to the top with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. Many Dolphins fans will want at least one gone, but Ross has gone against the popular decision before.
Expect Ross to look at the entire body of work and not just the final two games.
“It wasn’t dull, I can tell you that,” Miami Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake said of the season. “But 8-8, that’s average. I don’t look around this locker room and see average. I see above-average talent. I see exceptional talent.”
The most puzzling part of the Dolphins’ performances the past two weeks against the Jets and Buffalo Bills was the way they lost. Miami was embarrassed in back-to-back weeks against AFC East rivals and was outscored 39-7. The Dolphins looked flat, were ill-prepared and showed little intensity in both meetings.
The Jets and Bills had nothing to play for. But it appeared the roles were reversed in the final two games.
“I really can’t explain it. We played two bad games in a row,” Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes said. “That’s all you can say about it. ... It’s just disappointing. We had a chance to go to the playoffs and we messed up. We blew two games and we've got to live with that.”
The Dolphins didn't play well in any phase of the game. The offense scored one second-quarter touchdown, and the defense allowed 374 yards, which included 154 yards on the ground.
The Dolphins had a reputation for being a tough and resilient team. But that toughness faded in the past two weeks.
“You've got to take this feeling and let it really brand you here and leave a mark on you inside,” Odrick said. “It’s got to brand you hard enough to where you don’t let it happen again.”
Former Dolphins coach and Hall of Famer Don Shula offered a strong endorsement for Philbin before the game. Despite a roller-coaster season and a highly publicized bullying scandal, the Dolphins were in position to make their first playoff appearance since 2008. Philbin received much of the credit.
“I think that he’s the right man for the job,” Shula said.
Shula’s endorsement should carry weight with Ross when he meets with his inner circle to determine the future direction of the Dolphins. However, Philbin wasn’t in the mood to discuss the big picture Sunday evening.
“There will be a time and a place to assess the entire season, at the appropriate time,” Philbin said.
The time to assess the Dolphins begins Monday. Miami’s 2013 season is in the books, and it showed there are some pieces in place, but clearly not enough to be a playoff team.