No. 1-ranked Miami Dolphins, fans bask in national attention, ditch 20 years’ irrelevance | Opinion

In the parity-drenched, prediction-defying NFL, a record 18 games have been decided by three points or fewer in the first three weeks of the season. It seems fitting the last two teams perfect at 3-0 are not the usual suspects but unlikely front-runners in the Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles.

The Fins get to be Cinderella, the “it” team. Philly won a Super Bowl recently, in 2017. Miami hasn’t even won a playoff game since January 6, 2001. Tua Tagovailoa was then a 2-year-old toddling around Ewa Beach, Hawaii.

The national attention on Miami has been sudden and intense. South Florida’s flagship sports franchise hasn’t been a media darling like this probably since Dan Marino was breaking passing records in the mid-1980s.

The Dolphins are No. 1 this week in ESPN’s power rankings. Those mean nothing, of course. But if they did, well, this would be the holy grail. The talking heads have found an unusual plaything. Dan Patrick was talking about the Dolphins this week. Michael Irvin was demanding respect for Tagovailoa. Robert Griffin III called Miami the best team in the league. So did Mike Florio in his latest rankings.

Miami’s odds of winning the Super Bowl have rocketed to 16-1, tied for seventh best. Mike McDaniel is the coach of the year favorite. Tagovailoa’s league MVP odds have gone from nowhere to seventh best, ahead of Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady.

Giddy times, and what timing.

This is the 50th anniversary of the Dolphins’ 1972 Perfect Season — a half century since the glory days, and more than two decades since Dan Marino retired and took all the excitement with him.

Since then the Dolphins have mostly attracted attention for all the wrong reasons. Bullygate. Cam Cameron. Ricky Williams abruptly retiring to smoke dope and find himself. An assistant coach snorting cocaine off his desk. The unseemly Deshaun Watson pursuit. Owner Stephen Ross socked with tampering penalties.

The Dolphins have spent a long, long time closer to waffling between being an embarrassment and being irrelevant than being interesting or a major player.

Now, beaten-down, starved Dolphins fans preen a little bit and dare to feel good again while they wait for the sucker punch. In their gut they know this can’t last. Because they’re Dolphins fans. Heck, the parade could derail Thursday night in Cincinnati, couldn’t it?

Back to earth is where this is headed ... right?

But wait. What if all of this is real? Not a merry anomaly, but the beginning? What if the elusive corner has been turned? If McDaniel is just the right coach. If Tagovailoa — who has won 10 of his past 11 starts dating to last year and has had the two highest passer ratings of his career the past two games — has blossomed for real in Year 3.

After this season Miami will weigh whether to lavish Tagovailoa with a megacontract when his rookie deal expires. That seemed unlikely after this first two seasons. It seems far less unlikely now.

Miami and Tua are national darlings today not just for 3-0, but because the wins have been against Bill Belichick’s New England, at Baltimore and against Buffalo, each a nemesis, each vanquished.

Now comes another tall hurdle in a Bengals team that reached the Super Bowl last year.

Miami’s first four games have been a rugged gauntlet. Respect has been hard-earned.

The Dolphins have won with defense, and with an offense proved capable of a 21-point fourth quarter comeback. This past Sunday, the Dolphins were outgained 497 total yards to 212 by the Bills but somehow found a way to win. Somebody with a lot of free time figured out that, among teams outgained by at least 275 yards, Miami was only the second to win in the previous 108 games.

What we have seen in three games — seen from McDaniel, from Tagovailoa, from the defense, from Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle — feels real. Like something around to stay. What we have not seen yet is the bloom of the running game, McDaniel’s forte. That portends a different gear not yet found.

One of the many things that have impressed us about McDaniel is his perspective. This from him, when asked this week about the uncommon heap of national attention on his team:

“It’s pretty simple. The hype, the power rankings, everything you’re talking about,” he said. “Unless I missed in the bylaws somewhere that all that gets you a playoff berth, then what are we talking about? If we win there are going to be further crowns. [The media] are going to say all this. But none of that relates to what we’re trying to do. Or we lose the game and they’re going to say, ‘Oh, yeah, see, I told you.’ None of the power rankings or the hype factor [matter]. I try to cater to any of the guys that are in love with attention and let them know that, ‘Hey, if you still want this attention, keep winning.’”

Keep winning, yes. But the bigger challenge and test is what happens when you finally lose. Which could very well be Thursday night against Joe Burrow. What will be the response to a first loss not only from the Dolphins but from their fans?

If the belief is fragile, it could be a sag of shoulders and here-we-go-again resignation.

If the belief is real, it will be resolve, and then more winning.