MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The tank got stuck in the mud on Sunday afternoon. As the Miami Dolphins (1-7) celebrated their first win by dousing coach Brian Flores with a postgame Gatorade bath, some proponents of the team losing games in order to secure the No. 1 overall pick were left wondering whether it was worth it.
Sunday's win definitely hurt the Dolphins' chances at the top pick, especially with the 0-8 Cincinnati Bengals lingering in the winless wings. Yet what that first win did for Miami players and coaches makes it worth it.
"That tanking is out the window. It was never a [thing]," special-teams ace and captain Walt Aikens said.
Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux added: "We never were tanking. Do you think I come to work each and every day to tank? I work too hard to tank."
The long-standing misconception that players and coaches were in on the Dolphins' tank was erased Sunday. The Dolphins' 26-18 win against the New York Jets and former coach Adam Gase was more good than bad for the team's long-term future.
Football isn't just a game of numbers played on a computer. The impact of this win might not be measured in logic or numbers, but it was more than a one-day, feel-good moment. If the Dolphins become contenders, this first win will be a moment we look back on as an important part of the process.
Fruits of your labor
It would have been easy for this team to quit. Coming into Sunday's game, the Dolphins were 0-7 with a front office planning for 2020 and the public largely laughing at them and labeling them tankers.
Despite that, the Dolphins responded with their best performance of the season. The best part of it was that young players who are likely to be here when the team is good, such as Preston Williams, Mike Gesicki, Christian Wilkins, Jerome Baker, Raekwon McMillan and Vince Biegel, were at the center of it.
"To do it with these guys, the things that we've had to fight through and all the negativity that is surrounding from the outside looking in, the way that guys have decided to be positive, decided to practice well, decided to come to work every single day and work hard, that's what makes this one so special," quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. "And it's nice when something like that pays off and you could see the fruits of your labor."
Gesicki had a career game, with 95 receiving yards on six catches against his former coach, Gase, who couldn't quite figure out how to maximize his skill set. Williams had emerged as the Dolphins' leading receiver as an undrafted rookie, and he's coming off a 72-yard, two touchdown performance Sunday. He suffered a season-ending knee injury, but it looks like he'll be a starter in 2020. Wilkins, a defensive tackle, got his first sack Sunday. Linebackers Baker and McMillan are starting to play well together. Biegel seems like a diamond-in-the-rough find at linebacker, a young, journeyman specialist-turned-starter who has impressed with his pass rush and effort.
A win validates the progress of those players and many others. It makes it seem like their work hard was worth it.
It isn't a stretch to say Flores has the NFL's most difficult coaching job this season, with the lack of overall talent and sudden, dramatic roster changes the week before the season started. The postgame Gatorade bath he got from players after his first win and the game ball he received from owner Stephen Ross were appropriate.
"That's what I love about coaching is building relationships and having fun out there," Flores said. "Those moments mean a lot more."
For an organization that has had four full-time head coaches this decade, Flores is starting to show signs that he is the right guy -- even in a painful season on paper. Offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea has also helped lift an offense that scored two touchdowns in its first 19 quarters. The unit has put up 10 touchdowns in its past 13 quarters.
That's a dramatic improvement tied to better continuity and more aggressive playcalling. Many of the Dolphins' position coaches have maximized the talent as well.
It would have been difficult for Flores to overcome the stigma of a winless season to become a successful coach in Miami. There's just something about 0-16 -- especially for a franchise that has the NFL's lone unbeaten season -- and now the Dolphins won't have to experience it.
No more Tua?
For the tank truthers, the dream isn't over. The journey just got a little tougher.
The Dolphins have a 37.4% chance to land the No. 1 pick, per ESPN's FPI. That's a dramatic drop from their 66% chances before Sunday's win but still highest in the NFL. The Bengals are second with a 34% chance at the No. 1 pick.
That might seem surprising until you realize the Dolphins face the Bengals in Week 16 and might still have a chance to lose their way to that pick. There has never been a 16-game NFL season in which multiple teams have finished 0-16 or 1-15, per ESPN's Stats & Information.
If history holds true, the Dolphins will be in good shape to secure the top pick if they don't win another game. A team that has gone 1-15 was awarded the first overall pick in every 16-game season except two: An expansion team was given that selection in 2002, and the pick was forfeited because of a supplementary draft selection in 1991. Miami also has a 93.3% chance at a top-five pick, per FPI.
This rebuild doesn't have to be "Tua or bust."
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been linked to Miami all season, and he would be a great fit, but the team has three first-round picks and an expected $100-plus million in salary-cap space after offseason cuts. The Dolphins have the draft capital and money to do essentially whatever they want this offseason, so being awarded the No. 1 pick shouldn't be the end-all, be-all.
The Dolphins can focus on their draft position in January, but for now, player development, coaching advancements and instilling a strong culture for when the team is ready to contend should be the priorities.