Watching a midweek practice, Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland is chatting with several other spectators when the subject turns to the presidential debate the previous night.
Ireland, a debate team member in high school, says he found the event engrossing but doesn't offer an evaluation of the participants. As with his own performance, he leaves the critiquing to others.
For the past several seasons, Ireland has been the No. 1 subject of disputation among Dolphins' fans, with many contending he's the primary culprit for the franchise's failings. The ongoing conversation takes place without his involvement, because he rarely speaks publicly, but a staunch defender of Ireland has come forward this season: his team.
The Dolphins' steady improvement suggests Ireland — with considerable help from new coach Joe Philbin — may finally have things headed in the right direction. Miami is 3-3 and in a four-way tie for the AFC East lead, and following a bye this week, the Dolphins will take a two-game winning streak into their road game Oct. 28 against the New York Jets.
"Kind of the fun part about where we're at, to a certain degree, is we've got a big division road game," Philbin said. "We've never had one before."
He didn't really mean the Dolphins have never had one before; it just seems that way. They finished below .500 each of the past three years, a new low for a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game since 2000 and hasn't reached the Super Bowl since 1984.
The recent results are reflected in shrinking attendance. Instead of buying tickets, fans vent about Ireland, a Bill Parcells protege in his fifth year with Miami.
At last season's finale, a small plane tugged a banner calling for the GM to be fired. Then, more than two dozen frustrated fans gathered outside the Dolphins' complex one day last offseason to protest the way the team was being run, with some holding signs that read "FIRELAND."
Comedian and Dolphins fan Daniel Tosh complained about Ireland on Twitter. So did Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, unsuccessfully courted as a free agent by Miami. A rogue edit to Ireland's Wikipedia entry briefly appeared describing him as "the most incompetent human being in the history of existence."
Frustration grew when owner Stephen Ross stuck with his general manager, widely regarded as an unwelcome source of continuity for a team that has endured endless turnover at coach and quarterback. At halftime of this year's home opener, a fan approached Ireland and told the GM he should fire himself. Ireland admits muttering a profanity in response.
A better response has been by the team in recent weeks. With a loss or two, fan vitriol could again crescendo, but lately there's reason to believe a rebranding of Ireland might stick, with the competency meter tilting in his favor.
The franchise' future — and Ireland's reputation — now hinges largely on Philbin and rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Early reviews are favorable, and Ireland deserves credit for bringing both aboard.
Tannehill was drafted after the Dolphins finished fourth among four contenders for Peyton Manning, and at the moment no one in Miami rues the way things turned out. Tannehill, the first quarterback taken in the first round by the Dolphins since 1983, became their first rookie QB to start an opener and has made steady progress since, completing 69 percent of his passes in the past two games while committing no turnovers.
Philbin was also a consolation choice, hired after unsuccessful courtships of Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher. The first-time head coach has won over his players with a low-key, businesslike approach that has transformed the locker room into a happy place.
"The character of this team is to go out there, grind it out, and make plays when you need to," defensive end Cameron Wake said. "That's the kind of team I love being around."
Philbin has relied heavily on young players, and the Dolphins' 2012 draft class might be their best in more than 20 years. Second-round pick Jonathan Martin has been a starter at right tackle since the opener, third-round choice Olivier Vernon has 2½ sacks off the bench, and fourth-round pick Lamar Miller shows promise at running back. Ten rookies played in the most recent victory.
Ireland's 2011 draft brought in center Mike Pouncey, now expected to anchor the offensive line for years to come. And Ireland looks smart these days regarding the acquisitions of veterans Reggie Bush, Wake, Randy Starks, Karlos Dansby, Kevin Burnett and Richie Incognito.
Other decisions for which Ireland was once panned look better in hindsight. He opted not to acquire Kyle Orton or Matt Flynn, even though the fan base clamored for both quarterbacks. This year they're riding the bench elsewhere.
The Dolphins still need upgrades at receiver and in the secondary, and more than half a dozen starters are scheduled to become free agents this offseason. But Miami is well-positioned for the 2013 draft, with five picks in the first three rounds.
That means the coming months could prove pivotal, and they'll surely provide more chances to second-guess Ireland, South Florida's recurring debate subject.
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