For three seasons under coach Joe Philbin, the Miami Dolphins have been models of mediocrity, consistently inconsistent and usually around .500.
Now they're 3-3, coming off an impressive win at Chicago and preparing to face last-place Jacksonville. Philbin senses progress — and a chance for the first two-game winning streak this year.
"There are signs we are getting better," Philbin said Monday. "One thing that is encouraging to me is I think we are practicing a little better. We are getting our work done and getting off the field."
A 27-14 victory Sunday over the Bears provided more evidence of improvement. Miami dominated on both sides of the ball to bounce back from a wrenching loss against Green Bay a week earlier.
As a result, the Dolphins are at .500 — again. They were also 1-1 and 2-2. Last year they were 3-3, 4-4, 5-5 and 6-6 before finishing 8-8. They also started 3-3 in 2012, when they finished 7-9.
The win-lose-win-lose pattern has kept Miami out of the playoffs since 2008. More of the same in the final 10 games probably won't be enough for Philbin to keep his job.
But in the past three games, the Dolphins have twice won easily and lost in the final seconds.
"If you want to be an optimist," Philbin said, "you can look at the last three games and can say we played pretty well against Oakland, we played a very competitive game against what appears to be a very good Green Bay team that is 5-2, and then we played relatively good Sunday."
The Dolphins of late have showed good balance between offense and defense, and they've move the ball with both the run and pass. Their injury list is short, which has helped depth, and the bench becomes stronger this week with the return of 2013 first-round draft pick Dion Jordan, who was suspended for the first six games because he twice violated the NFL's substance abuse policy.
If the Dolphins are headed in the right direction, Ryan Tannehill's leading the way. In the past three games he has a passer rating of 105.8 and is averaging 8.5 yards per attempt. After three games his rating was 74.1, and he was averaging 5.0 yards per pass, worst in the NFL, which raised questions about his status as the starter.
There's no longer any doubt. Against the Bears, Tannehill completed his first 14 attempts — especially impressive for a quarterback whose accuracy has drawn criticism — and finished with a career-high rating of 123.6.
"There are some specific signs of him getting better," offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. "And there were some specific signs of him not taking maybe the next step or, 'OK, where do we go from here?' But I saw anticipation improve. I saw some good pocket presence. I think the guy is getting better. I'm excited about where he can go."
In addition to more productive passing, Tannehill has become a significant threat on the read option. In the past three games he has rushed for 132 yards while averaging 9.4 yards per carry.
"He has been a good decision-maker throughout the course of the season on those types of plays, and he did that well again Sunday," Philbin said.
The defense did its part with three takeaways and three sacks, including one by reserve Derrick Shelby, coming off a one-game suspension for an arrest on misdemeanor charges in a nightclub incident. The Dolphins are allowing only 4.7 yards per play and 6.0 per pass, both best in the NFL.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle praised the way the Dolphins bounced back from the loss to Green Bay.
"This was a great character win for the entire team," Coyle said. "The players really responded. It was tough all week coming off the loss that we that we had, but yet there was great focus in practice, there was great attention to detail and we came in there with a mindset that we were going to find a way to win the game in Chicago."
Now the goal is two in a row.
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