Rewind to the 2012 offseason when a group of 30 angry Dolphins fans protested outside the team’s Davie facility after Miami struck out in their pursuit of Peyton Manning, and refused to get into a bidding war with Seattle over quarterback Matt Flynn.
Sporting paper bags over their heads, and armed with "Fireland" signs this batch of disgruntled fans made a national scene expressing their disappointment, and owner Steve Ross noticed.
Ross called a contingent of those fans to plea the team’s case for sitting on their hands during free agency, and trading the team’s Pro Bowl receiver, Brandon Marshall, to Chicago for two third-round picks.
At that time the Dolphins refused to say the dreaded R-word – rebuilding – even though it was written all over everything the decision makers did last offseason.
Instead of patching the roster with free agents (only one player, cornerback Richard Marshall, receiver a multi-year deal), new coach Joe Philbin was handed an inferior team that won six games in 2011, and told to make it work.
Fast forward to this offseason, which officially gets started on March 12, and the Dolphins’ brass better show the fan base the fruits of their labor, justification for their patience.
The Dolphins have squirreled away roughly $44 million in cap space, which is more than every team but the Cincinnati Bengals ($51 million) and Cleveland Browns ($46 million). With a little creativity that’s enough money to rebuild an NFL roster.
"We’re in a position, a very good position, to utilize some of our cap space to bring some veteran players on our football team, and then we’re in a very good position to bring some young players on our team from the draft stand point," General Manager Jeff Ireland said, referring the gaudy cap space and the team’s nine draft picks. "That’s got to be a good mix and we plan to mix it."
But why wait for free agency? The Dolphins are in position to pounce on good players that get dislodged during a period when most NFL teams are purging their rosters to get under the projected salary cap.
At a time when one-third of the NFL’s teams struggle to trim their budget the Dolphins are lean, and can take advantage of their favorable position for once.
But how did South Florida’s NFL franchise get here?
Sacrifices were made.
Ireland stopped giving out five-year contracts to free agents once Bill Parcells left. After giving lengthy and lucrative deals to Marshall and Karlos Dansby in 2010 the Dolphins stuck to three-year contracts, with extensions to Cam Wake and Brandon Fields being the two exceptions.
Instead of investing in free agent stopgaps, an emphasis was placed on developing youngsters like Ryan Tannehill, Jonathan Martin, Oliver Vernon and Lamar Miller, draft picks who represent the future of the franchise. As a result, the Dolphins are presently the second-youngest team in the NFL.
"That’s all certainly by design," Ireland said. "With nine draft picks, it’s going to be a young team next year too."
But youth doesn’t equate to good, or winning, and that’s been this organization’s problem the past four seasons.
Get this offseason wrong – missing out on impact players, or signing free agents to bad contracts because of a bidding war – and who knows how far this franchise could be set back.
Ross has learned plenty lessons in his five seasons as the Dolphins’ owner, but the most important one is the necessity for "patience."
That is where his real estate background comes in because skyscrapers aren’t put up over night. For better or worse he’s commissioned Ireland to rebuild the Dolphins’ new foundation.
"You have to look at things with a vision and a long term perspective as opposed to a very short-term perspective," Ross said last month. "You might be suffering, and you know I hated those Monday mornings, and I still do when we have those losses….but I feel we are on the right track. We’re moving in the right direction, and I feel good about it."
The Dolphins have talked plenty about "the plan" for this offseason, but their actions in the coming weeks will determine if the "Fireland" crowd will need to visit the Davie facility again.