It's only February and the draft is but two months away, so why did I get hyperbolic on the headline?
Simple, because it is.
The year 2012 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Miami Dolphins' perfect season and will also be the year of greatest importance to the team.
A new head coach is in town, and a new quarterback is sure to follow. While there are no guarantees that the Dolphins will be a playoff contender in 2012, the year is still going to be a turning point of a season that the team hasn't seen since Dan Marino retired.
It's a simple fact that 2012 will be the off-season and season where we can get a good idea of where the Dolphins will go this upcoming decade. Will they be contenders and become this decade's version of the New England Patriots, or will they be this upcoming decade's version of, well, the Miami Dolphins?
So many questions will be answered between now and Jan. 1, 2013, which is when we should have a better feel for Miami's future. Here are a few reasons why 2012 is so important.
I have to start with the quarterback position.
Here's why 2012 will be Miami's best shot at finding its future starting quarterback: there are so many to choose from.
We all know about the Peyton Manning route, which will divide Dolphins fans in the coming weeks as the story unfolds.
Those on the pro-Peyton side will claim that he will be the first top-notch quarterback Miami has had since Dan Marino, even if he's only at 80 percent of what he was in Indianapolis, while those on the anti-Manning bandwagon will mention how hard is it to recover from the surgeries that he's had and that at best he can give the Dolphins maybe two to three seasons.
Well, I'm more in the pro-Manning side, so I'll mention this: the Dolphins can still have a fail-safe plan if they sign Manning and he's more Daunte Culpepper than Manning upon returning.
First it would be to keep Matt Moore as the second-string quarterback. Since he already has rapport with the rest of the team and the receivers, he will be a solid backup. Odds are if Manning is a bust, Miami won't know until it starts off the season 0-4 or 1-6, and history shows that that's when Moore does his best work: when the season is already lost.
Plus, Miami will still be able to groom a young quarterback it picks up in the draft, with the only difference being the time-table to get him NFL ready becomes 2013 as opposed to 2014.
Yes, I said draft a quarterback, even if they sign Manning. In fact, while I am pro-Manning, the only way I'll accept his signing is if they draft a quarterback as well; that way, they can have someone ready for the future.
Look at the list of quarterbacks in the draft. Of course, you'll have to look past Luck and Griffin, since those are long-shots even if the Dolphins strike out on Manning, but if you look in the lower rounds, you will see quality.
Texas A&M's Ryan Tannenhill is projected to go in Round 1. However, with so many teams picking later in the draft already having what they believe to be their "answer" at quarterback, as well as the reluctance of other QB-needy teams like Seattle and Arizona drafting after the Dolphins focusing on other, more pressing needs, he will likely be available for Miami in Round 2.
You can also look at the fact that Miami might have an additional second-rounder by trading down in the first round if Manning signs with the team. Bonus points for Tannenhill are the fact that he worked with new Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman while at Texas A&M, where Sherman was the head coach of the Aggies, meaning there will be familiarity and stability.
An option later on in the draft that could be effective for Miami includes Boise State's Kellen Moore. Moore will likely go in either Rounds 4 or 5, which would be perfect for the Dolphins if they draft Manning. Moore doesn't have the typical "NFL" size or big arm, but he does have a winner's mentality and is mobile in the pocket.
Keep in mind that in a West Coast offense used by head coach Joe Philbin while he was in Green Bay, as well as the one used by Mike Sherman while he was at A&M and, prior to that, as the Packers' head coach, arm size isn't as important as accuracy, and Moore is very accurate.
Other good late-round quarterback pickups include Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden, who could also go in Rounds 4 or 5 and is bigger than Moore (with a bigger arm) and is himself accurate, as well as the University of Houston's Case Keenum.
But it would only work for the Dolphins to draft any of those players if they sign Manning. Even then, there are other options.
Matt Flynn is the one that comes to mind; however, there will likely be a bidding war on Flynn's services with the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns and Seattle Seahawks. Peyton Manning might actually turn out to be the more cost-effective of the two.
Finally, there's the other possibility that Dolphins fans would love to see: trade up for Robert Griffin III. I would actually rather the Dolphins go this route if they fail to sign Manning than sign Flynn.
It will cost less against the salary cap, make them one of the most exciting teams in the NFL (think last season's Carolina Panthers, but with a better defense) and sell tickets. I doubt Flynn can sell tickets in Miami until he proves himself, something that, save for two impressive games in two seasons (where he went 1-1), he really hasn't done.
Now why am I taking the Dolphins out of the running for Matt Barkley in 2013? Because in 2012 they will be too good to get that high of a draft pick. See, the 2012 Dolphins, without a change in quarterback, are an 8-8 team. The reason for that being...
Let's break down the Miami Dolphins' 2012 strength of schedule.
First, let's start off with who Miami will play.
We can count on the home and home games against the Bills, Jets and Patriots. Then due to their third-place finish in 2011, they will host the Oakland Raiders (who, as you might remember, Miami practically kept out of the playoffs with a 34-14 victory) while traveling to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals, who did make the playoffs.
They also face the AFC South and NFC West, according to the schedule cycle, which means hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks, while traveling to Indianapolis, Arizona, San Francisco and Houston.
Overall the Dolphins have a strength of schedule of .496, or 127-129 (the average in the NFL is .500 or 128-128) with six games against quality opponents (teams with nine wins or more). Five of those games against quality opponents are on the road and the only quality opponent they host is the New England Patriots.
Of course, that won't make a lick of difference, since we all know these things change from year-to-year in the NFL. But it's always fun to speculate.
Let's assume Miami improves at quarterback (if they don't, forget about anything I'm about to say) and look at the schedule then.
Four of Miami's games are against potential juggernauts: Houston, San Francisco and both New England games. Houston will likely have everyone healthy and back, San Francisco will only get better, and the Patriots know what they have to fix and still have Tom Brady.
Only one of those games are at home, and that's against the Patriots. If Miami improves at quarterback, it should go 1-3. If the Dolphins sign Peyton Manning, I'd even venture to guess that they would go 2-2 since he does well against the Texans.
I know that doesn't look too good, but bare with me, it gets much easier.
Two of the teams on Miami's schedule are against the two worst teams in the NFL; Indianapolis on the road and St. Louis at home. Both teams should improve, but we're talking about teams that Miami had two more wins than combined (and remember, they went 6-10). Improvement for them is 4-12. As long as they improve at quarterback, they should go 2-0 against those teams.
The Dolphins also have my candidate for "most likely to win the Matt Barkley sweepstakes" on their schedule as well in the Jacksonville Jaguars. Consider that a win.
Already we're up to 4-3 or 5-2.
As for two teams I see making a leap, Seattle and Arizona. That sounds like 1-1 to me, as both teams will compete for playoff berths in 2012.
The team on their schedule most likely to regress are the Jets and Bengals, which is three games. The Jets right now look like a sinking ship, while the Bengals have the look of a team that finishes 9-7 one year (their record in 2011), 7-9 the next year, then in year three rips off a 12-4 season.
I'm pretty confident that that's the trajectory for Cincinnati right now, so for these three games I'll go with 2-1 or 3-0, depending on when Miami gets the Jets and where.
Oakland is stagnant. It has neither the cap room nor draft picks to improve and will again have a new head coach. Plus, unless you're the 49ers, west coast teams tend to not do so well on the East Coast in a 1 p.m. ET game (and you know Dolphins vs. Raiders will likely be one of those mid-September 1 p.m. ET games where your butt sticks to the plastic orange seat). Yes, I'm counting that as a win.
The Bills were wiped out by the Dolphins in 2011, but Fred Jackson got injured in Game 1 and was missing in Game 2. I'm leaning towards 2-0, but it could be a 1-1 situation even though Buffalo in 2012 looks like a ho-hum 6-10 or 7-9 non-interesting team (I might change my mind after the draft though).
Then you have Tennessee, which looks like a giant maybe. It has the talent, but I really don't know where the Titans are going, since I'm not so sure whether they will start Locker at quarterback or remain with Hasselbeck. I'm really on the fence with this team.
So to sum it all up, the Dolphins record could be anywhere from at worst 8-8 to at best 11-5, depending on who the quarterback is and how healthy he is. The Dolphins finishing 8-8 would be a good sign, though, since it would be their first .500 season since 2008 and will likely mean that they went young at quarterback and there is still room to grow.
Down in Miami, getting a feel for different quarterbacks, had three or four of them. Quarterbacks make it easier for me. You have these elite quarterbacks and it’s all on them. They put [the ball] in the right spot to make it easy for me to make the catch. It’s all the quarterbacks.”
Well, I can't disagree on the guy for that, but what if Miami doesn't get that Pro Bowl quarterback? In that same report I linked to, it was reported that Marshall has already reached out to Matt Flynn. While he hasn't said anything about the possibility of Peyton Manning, I really don't think Marshall would be too upset at the Dolphins signing him. As for trading up for Robert Griffin III, if anything, that should reinvigorate him.
But if that doesn't happen, Marshall will be very upset and could cause some problems. Now, he did say this referring to Matt Moore:
"Obviously, [Matt Moore] had a great year. You don't want to take anything away from Matt, but I think we really need to bring in somebody who can compete and make the team better."
But that only confirms my theory. Now I'm not saying Marshall will become a problem because he's a bad guy, it will simply be the frustration that tends to happen when you have been in the league for a while and are in your prime at 27-28 years old and haven't been to the post-season yet, and it could cause him to probably demand a trade (his contract runs out after the 2014 season).
“Maybe down the road, we may have some extra picks, and we may be able to trade for him,” Marshall said. “But we have a quarterback in place in Matt Moore. He did an amazing job [in the] second half of the season, and where we go from there we’ll see. But Jay is a special talent, and he’s a great friend.”
Now, I don't see the Dolphins having extra picks to make such a deal any time soon, unless they trade Marshall.
Hey, gives me an idea.
Before Miami does anything, it has to call the Chicago Bears and entertain the possibility of trading Marshall. I'd be very discreet about it and if the price isn't right, don't bother making a deal, but at least make a phone call and see if Chicago is interested in Marshall and how much it would be willing to give up. Anything less than two second-rounders gets shut down and the Dolphins would move on.
But it might be worth it to give it a shot, because if this season is a failure and Marshall is not happy, it will be much harder to move him in 2013.
A Cameron Wake contract extension should be priority No. 2 in 2012 after finding a new quarterback.
Wake's bargain four-year, $2.32 million contract comes to an end after the 2012 season, and, if the Dolphins were to re-sign Wake, he could wind up getting franchised in 2013, which would actually be very expensive for Miami.
But say they can't agree on an extension before the season, along with the fact that Cameron Wake will now be a weak-side pass rusher in a 4-3 defense along with whatever other pass rusher Miami goes after in the draft or free agency.
You have Wake possibly being the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year.
Mind you, this would likely happen even if Wake gets paid (which he should), but if he doesn't, he'll be even more motivated then he already is to up his sacks from last season's 8.5 sacks and show why he's an elite pass rusher.
Tony Sparano is gone. Chad Henne will likely say good bye. Joe Philbin is the new head coach and there will be a new quarterback.
If this fails, Jeff Ireland can kiss his job good bye.
Miami will have to show improvement in order for Ireland to remain as general manager. If not, there's the chance that he could be looked at as the common denominator between two head coaching eras that failed.
Ireland had a good draft in 2011, and should have a better one in 2012, provided he makes the right pick (and if the Dolphins get Flynn or Manning, then yes, an offensive lineman would be a good pick in the first round). He has the chance to make a splash this off-season.
And he has to make that splash.
The improvement on the field doesn't have to be big; even 8-8 will likely suffice for Stephen Ross, but it has to be tangible. Even 7-9 will likely be deemed not good enough, and out Ireland goes.
Does this mean Joe Philbin will be gone too? Likely not. Carl Petersen will likely step in and did assist the Dolphins in their coaching choice. So Philbin will have his honeymoon period.
But for Ireland, that time is over. If the Dolphins don't improve or outright succeed in 2012, he will be gone, just like Sparano and Henne before him.