In a year dominated by disease, division and disaster, the unexpected runs of the Miami Marlins to the playoffs and Miami Heat to the NBA Finals have been most welcome diversions for beleaguered South Florida fans.
OK, so the magic ran out. Both fell to earth with a thud. It doesn’t take away from the collective high.
And what happened Sunday in Santa Clara, California, sure felt like the possible passing of a torch for another improbable development that just might carry us through the rest of this godforsaken year, at least from a sporting perspective.
Dolphins 43, 49ers 17: Who saw that coming?
Sure, one can point to some notable 49ers injuries (premier pass rusher Nick Bosa out for the year), particularly at cornerback. Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams are on the injured reserve. Fill-in Brian Allen, just up from the practice squad, was roasted alive by Ryan Fitzpatrick — much like Dolphins rookie corner Noah Igbinoghene was a few weeks back by Bills QB Josh Allen.
49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, coming back from an ankle injury, was clearly not right and was pulled at halftime.
But the 49ers did come within a quarter of winning the Super Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in this calendar year before the world went on lockdown. Sunday, they still had players who got them there, like All-Everything tight end George Kittle. The Dolphins, who have struggled against tight ends for years, limited him to four catches and nothing longer than 12 yards.
And every prediction I saw going into the game had the 49ers winning handily.
Long time since Miami Dolphins . . .
Consider that the 43 points were the most by a 49ers opponent at Levi Stadium since it opened in 2014.
The Dolphins hadn’t scored 43 points on the road since 1986.
It was certainly unlike anything we’ve seen in 21 games of the Brian Flores era.
“I think it might be right at the top and I think if we just continue to practice and prepare the way we’ve been doing been, hopefully we’ll string some of these together,” Flores said.
byron jones on christian wilkins giving coach flores the game ball
"i could tell he was smiling underneath his mask. idk why christian did that. christian is a fool. it was fun to see. it was cool to see…flo was definitely smiling. don't let him fool you."
— josh houtz (@houtz) October 12, 2020
Difficult to foresee where this Dolphins season will go from here, but it is instructive to see how far they have come in the past year.
Five games into 2019 they had scored a total of 42 points and allowed 180 while going 0-5 on the way to an 0-7 start before winning four of the last nine.
So this season, in which the objective is to show this roster reconstruction is making measurable progress, is trending in the right direction at this stage.
The other thing Sunday showed is that Tua Tagovailoa is going to be waiting a still-to-be-determined amount of time before he gets the reins to the offense.
— josh houtz (@houtz) October 12, 2020
Tua Tagovailoa stuck on hold
I was among those advocating the change after last week’s loss to the Seahawks, though I was correct in predicting that Flores would decline and say that Fitzpatrick gave the team the best chance to win.
He’s certainly not going to change his tune — or the quarterback — after Fitz posted a near-perfect 154.5 passer rating while leading an offense that generated 436 net yards and averaged 6.9 yards per play.
So we’ll just have to accept that it’s not Tua time yet.
Tough to argue when FitzMagic is the joy ride he was Sunday — unlike the FitzFlop of the previous week.
Keep an eye on the Solomon Kindley/Robert Hunt double team on this 12 yard run by Matt Breida as the Dolphins ran to hang onto the lead in the 4th quarter yesterday. Reminiscent of the Andrew Thomas/Solomon Kindley double teams at Georgia. The future of Miami’s right side? pic.twitter.com/C66vP41fWc
— Chris Kouffman (@ckparrot) October 12, 2020
Meanwhile, other newcomers are making an impact, particularly on the offensive line, which has been as big of a struggle for this franchise to achieve as the quarterback travails of the past two decades.
Notably, rookie Robert Hunt, in his first start at right tackle, thoroughly compensated for the injury absence of impressive rookie left tackle Austin Jackson (Jesse Davis moved over to the left side). Hunt joined with guard Solomon Kindley, yet another rookie, in showing the Dolphins could have the making of a dominant right side for years.
Credit the additions of solid veterans Ereck Flowers and Ted Karras, plus holdover Davis, for a lot of the line’s success along with the three rookies.
Dolphins starting to jell
The much-maligned Miami defense turned in its best effort with five sacks and two interceptions. The secondary benefited from the return of cornerback Byron Jones, and Xavien Howard had an interception for the third consecutive game.
Second-year linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel continues to have an impact (sack, forced fumble) and Zach Sieler had a sack and stood out on the defensive front.
Xavien Howard in 36 coverage snaps vs the 49ers Sunday:
— PFF MIA Dolphins (@PFF_Dolphins) October 13, 2020
Overall, the Dolphins appear more cohesive than earlier in the season. Understandable, considering the absence of preseason games and the numerous newcomers playing key roles, that it would take a few weeks to begin to mesh.
It would be foolish just over a quarter of the way into the season to suggest the Dolphins might ride the coattails of the Heat and Marlins to a South Florida playoff trifecta.
But with the winless Jets up next, a .500 mark is within reach Sunday. There are some winnable games among the six that follow before the schedule turns treacherous again in December with the Chiefs, Patriots, Raiders and Bills.
There are signs the Dolphins are trending upward — such as, their plus-23 points differential.
Sunday’s Santa Clara stunner will only matter, though, if the Dolphins build on it. Who knows, if recent results of other local teams are a gauge, they just might surprise us.
Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns