The Greatness of Small Expectations

How do you keep fans -- and sportswriters -- happy in the NFL?

Make sure you toss in a few ridiculously bad seasons in the mix of a bunch of mediocre ones.

It's all about expectations, folks. Remember that.

Don't believe it? Let's look at the Dolphins, a team that during the last couple decades might best be described as "average."

This year and the 2001-02 season for the Fins are almost identical. Both teams went 11-5 during the regular season and both were crushed by the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the playoffs. In 2002, Miami lost 20-3 (you might remember Bush choked on a pretzel and passed out while watching the game). Yesterday, the Ravens beat them 27-9. And the funny thing is that last year's 1-15 team probably would have lost in exactly the same way.

After the loss in 2002, here's what Sun-Sentinel columnist Dave Hyde wrote: "[I]f you're pointing fingers at who's to blame this morning, you need more fingers. You need more hands. The question isn't who's to blame. The question: Who isn't?"

After yesterday's loss, Hyde had a different take: "Seasons like this don't get obituaries. They get parades. They're reminders of why we all fell in love with sports, once upon a time, cheering a team worth cheering."

Here's the Miami Herald's Greg Cote after the 2002 drubbing, which was blacked out on local TV: "There was only the smallest grain of good news in the latest humiliating defeat ending the latest Dolphins season here Sunday. At least more people didn't see it."

Cote in this morning's newspaper: "[T]he season of 2008 that somehow reached improbably into 2009 needs to be cherished, remembered and savored, long after the postmortems on Sunday's loss."   

I'm not saying that the fans or the writers are wrong. I'm just making the glaring observation that the only way for a decent team to seem great is for it to first succeed at being utterly awful. That's what it achieved in 2007, losing 15 games and setting up this season's "miracle." 

They achieved competence this year riding the wits -- more than the weak arm -- of Chad Pennington. There was an iron ceiling over this team and they hit it against the Ravens. Any other playoff team would have whipped them, too. As for miracles, the Ravens, who went a lowly 4-14 last season, have eclipsed the Dolphins in terms of turnaround at this point and may go farther still.

Not to diminish the Dolphins' achievement this year. They gave fans a fun ride, if not first-rate football. And it was fun to watch the weak-armed Pennington use his wits to find ways to win games. They exceeded my expectations (I predicted an 8-8 record here before the season began), too. But to put this season in even more stark perspective, here's what Zack Thomas told Cote after that 2002 Ravens loss: "You can talk about us going 11-5. I'd rather be 1-15 for a year [to get higher draft picks] and get somebody in here."

Been there and done that -- and they may have to do it again for everybody in Fin-land to be happy again.

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