A friend of mine reached out Sunday morning with two pertinent questions involving Florida's downtrodden NFL franchises:
"Is there some reason that our state is being tortured by NFL football mediocrity this year? Can't we have one team with a winning season?"
I suspect she will get a huge "amen!" from the congregation of football fans who consider Sunday a sacred holiday. Now it's just plain scary. The Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars slogged through another season of sad tidings days before the holidays rolled around.
At least the Bucs were playoff-relevant into the first week of December. The Jaguars were also within mathematical sniffing distance into December. And the Dolphins? They were toast the minute they decided to give Joe Philbin the keys to the car for another season.
By the time Sunday, rolled around, it was garbage time for everybody. The Bucs and the Jags got whacked by Carolina and Houston, respectively, and the Dolphins scored a completely insignificant victory for themselves against arch-foe New England.
In-state fans were left to cheer for their fantasy-football teams for a chance at sniffing a championship. That's hardly breaking news. The Dolphins have not made the playoffs since 2008. It's been 2007 for the Bucs and the Jaguars.
That's a whole lot of time wishin' and hopin' and probably cussin' at your TV set.
But don't touch that dial. I see better tidings ahead in 2016, based on my report cards/progress reports.
Tampa Bay Bucs: Grade C+
The Bucs needed to do one thing right this season — not whiff on a franchise player with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. They did not fail with quarterback Jameis Winston from FSU. Winston had the typical ups and downs, but by the end of the season he had joined Andrew Luck and Cam Newton as the only quarterbacks to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a rookie season.
Bucs coach Lovie Smith will be back, as he should, to try to improve on last year, mostly by plugging in gaps in a shaky defense. (See Tom Jones column, Page 34.) All in all, six victories triple the number of W's the previous season. Expect the Bucs to be in the playoff conversation next season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Grade C-
The Jags have their franchise QB, too. Blake Bortles, the UCF kid in his second season, threw 35 TD passes, including a combined 24 to Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Julius Thomas is a formidable tight end, assuming he stays healthy. Ditto for RB T.J. Yeldon.
That leaves the onus on defense, much like the deal in Tampa. It's been atrocious. But remember that Jacksonville lost its 2015 top pick, Dante Fowler, when he tore his ACL during the first day of rookie minicamp. Assuming they go for defense in the first round this year, that's a two-for-one deal trying to upgrade the D.
Owner Shad Khan is giving coach Gus Bradley another year to sort it out, but that's it. Listen to what the man said: "It's also evident that considerable work remains to be done to be where we expect to be at this time next season, which is well above where we stand today," Khan said last week, giving Bradley a one-year rope.
Clarifying the obvious, another 5-11 season is unacceptable.
Miami Dolphins: Grade F
Coach got fired. Interim coach wasn't much better. He's gone. GM got canned, too. "Franchise" quarterback stole money. Team finished 6-10, well below playoff expectations.
There's not much to like here, moving forward with a great deal of uncertainty.
What we have is a proverbial dumpster fire for a team that keeps setting new lows for underachieving. The Dolphins have a lot of potential, we keep hearing, but all we keep seeing is a team that continually finds a way to muck things up.
If you're a fan in South Florida, expect the torture — and the questions — to continue.
— Orlando Sentinel (TNS)