Before most games, the team trainer visits Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel after pre-game workouts to report which injured players are available. Not Sunday. Not before this pivotal game with this expensive list of players.
General manager Chris Grier went to his coach with this report.
“This time was pretty ominous,” McDaniel said.
Left tackle Terron Armstead, out.
Edge rusher Bradley Chubb, out.
Cornerback Xavien Howard, out.
“Oh-for-three,” McDaniel said.
You can start anywhere with the Dolphins’ 23-21 loss to New England. You can start with the two interceptions by Dolphins quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Skylar Thompson that changed the day. You can start with the defense that got no turnovers and ranks 30th in that department.
You can wonder how a team that started 8-3 and was considered a top contender has seen its star fall with five consecutive losses to the point they’re hoping the regular-season finale next Sunday will even offer the chance to earn a playoff berth.
Or you can say this intersection of players with injury histories and this late-season game always came with warning signals. Crossing your fingers isn’t a plan. But that was a significant part of the Dolphins architectural plan considering how Grier built this roster.
Throw in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was out with a concussion, and the Dolphins didn’t just have bad luck that four of their top eight players out in the pivotal game of the season. They had bad planning before bad luck came into play.
“I’m sure it’s up there,” McDaniel said when asked if this was the most starters he’d lost before a big game. “I don’t really look at it in that way just because I trust he players that we have in the locker room, and we’ve won plenty of games with guys rising to the occasion and stepping in for starters that weren’t available.”
Sure, it’s bad form to talk injury after a loss. Every team gets hurt. The only issue with the Dolphins is the players you feared would get hurt did so at the same time.
Armstead, the foundation of this line, was signed last offseason to a $75 million deal despite missing an average of five games a year. Chubb was traded for and given a $120 million deal despite missing most of two of his five seasons with injuries (and, yes, I pounded the table for that trade).
Howard sidestepped knee problems that were issues for several years — well, until Sunday. Maybe that’s just bad timing. It happens in football. Everyone gets hurt. The ones who are hurt often get hurt more, too.
Tagovailoa came out of college with a surgically repaired hip, had a couple injuries his first two NFL seasons and was out with another concussion so Bridgewater started.
Bridgewater looked fine, too, until his 18th pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown as he hurt his hand. In came his replacement, Thompson, a rookie who threw another interception.
“Just missed the throw,” Thompson said. “Those are the worst ones because they’re in your control.”
Thompson has shown fine form to develop this season, but the seventh-round pick could be the starting quarterback next week with the season on the line against New York Jets. That’s if New England loses to Buffalo and makes the Dolphins game meaningful.
The Dolphins (8-8) didn’t just lose a fifth game in a row Sunday. They lost control of their playoff fate. And, no, having all four of those top players on the field wouldn’t guarantee a win considering they were on the field the previous four weeks.
But you want your best players out there with the season on the line. You want Armstead there instead of Kendall Lamm, who was signed to the practice squad in November. You want Chubb to help a pass rush that did sack Patriots quarterback Mac Jones three times but also saw him look comfortable.
You need Howard at cornerback so Jones doesn’t pick on a standout special teamer like Keion Crossen being put on an island at cornerback. Or the defense has to rely on struggling Noah Igbinoghene.
Here’s the point: Any of these injured players’ talents are worth a roll of the dice as you build. But all of them? It gets to the Bill Parcells’ line, “If you make exceptions, you’ll have a team of exceptions.”
Look, “injury prone,” isn’t a tag to throw on anyone. You see players get hurt all the time, then get healthy. You see players with a bad knee or a concussion issue go on and have healthy careers.
But do you throw the highest draft picks and biggest dollars after these players? Maybe one. Maybe two. Maybe you saw the problem when bad history mixes with bad luck.
Grier told McDaniel before the game they were 0-for-3. They’ve now lost control of their season. The Dolphins go to the finale wondering who will play quarterback or, even more after Sunday, whether their game will even matter in the playoff chase.