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Tanking or not, Dolphins risk losing players' trust with current plan

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DAVIE, Fla. -- The news came in waves, delivering heavy blows to the Miami Dolphins locker room with each transaction. Franchise left tackle Laremy Tunsil, gone. Top receiver Kenny Stills, out of here. Leading tackler Kiko Alonso, goodbye. Those are just the moves made over cut-down weekend.

"It hurts," Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard said. "We got rid of a lot of really good players."

Offensive lineman Jesse Davis added: "When Laremy was traded, we were like, 'Woah.' That got to all of us. We were a little sad about it. I know Laremy was upset and angry."

What was already a rebuilding Dolphins team now looks like the leading contender for the No. 1 overall pick after Miami purged much of the veteran talent.

Some have used the word tanking, and to be frank, it's hard to deny that the Dolphins' actions seem a lot like those of recent Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia 76ers teams that were seemingly bottoming out with the hope of gaining high draft picks and long-term success.

It's clear the Dolphins are all-in on their future, making moves for 2021 rather than 2019. To an extent, it's a welcome change for a franchise that has been mired in mediocrity for two decades.

The problem with Miami's plan is that there is no simulation button for something like Madden franchise mode -- current players and coaches feel the pain now. The future is a distant concern for players who are putting their health on the line every Sunday. In gutting the roster a week before the season, the Dolphins risk losing their players' trust.

"What about the now?" one Dolphins player asked in frustration in the aftermath of the Tunsil/Stills trade. "Is the now not important?"

There isn't a great answer

Dolphins first-year head coach Brian Flores is adamant that he isn't tanking and swears it is important for the Dolphins to win in 2019. There's reason to believe Flores is being genuine on his view about tanking. He has worked all offseason to build a culture of competition and preparation. It seems unlikely that he would jeopardize that work with this conscious action, but the decisions made by the front office tell a different story.

"It's always important to win. I've always believed that," Flores said. "I think to take any other approach, that's just not how you coach the game. That's not how you play the game. To take any other approach is disrespectful to the game, so it's very important."

So how does trading Tunsil, Stills and Alonso make the Dolphins better in 2019? Flores chose to sidestep that question -- maybe because it doesn't. It's a future move.

Flores is the face and voice of this Dolphins' period of tanking, rebuilding or whatever you want to call it, so he'll have to endure the blows.

Flores meets with his players every morning, but multiple players said he didn't provide details about all of the recent moves.

"I'm sure everyone is tempted to ask," linebacker Jerome Baker said. "But you don't want to go ask him. You never know if you're next."

Davis, a right guard who moved to right tackle and might eventually be asked to move to left tackle to replace Tunsil, said nobody knows who will be here tomorrow. It's all uncertain, including how the Dolphins' offensive line will shake out for Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

Tunsil's trade is the one that affected players most. It was different than jettisoning middling veterans who have no long-term future with the team. Tunsil, 25, is a good teammate and one of the best young left tackles in the NFL. He seems like the perfect core player for a rebuild, but the Dolphins decided that the bounty of picks was worth giving him up.

The plan for now seems to be to trust the process -- even if it's not well-defined.

To be fair, Flores is in a tough situation, having to break down these moves. That should be the role of general manager Chris Grier. Flores shouldn't be tasked with explaining the Dolphins' long-term plans when his primary job is to get his team ready for the 2019 season. Flores can't tell his players that 2019 doesn't matter. But he also shouldn't tell them that the organization's main goal is winning when it runs counter to the optics of the recent purge.

Keeping it together

Publicly, some of the Dolphins' best players are navigating the situation the best way they can. They'll try their best to compete, despite the team they've been given -- or, more accurately, the one that has been taken from them in recent weeks.

"I don't know the exact plan, but I've got to trust the process of what they're doing," Howard said. "I got drafted here, and also they paid me here, so I want to finish here too."

That phrase, "trust the process," has been uttered in many places before. It might end up being a theme in Miami, and if it all works, maybe people won't remember much about 2019.

But there are some elements of this season that do matter -- most importantly, how Flores keeps the locker room together amid both wins and losses.

Flores ran a hard training camp and hasn't relented in how he works his team. Many players bought in on defying expectations long before the front office dealt more blows to already slim hopes.

The hope is Flores gets the time to see this rebuild through and reap the rewards. He has the NFL's youngest team and had 13 players added over the past week. Two projected starters -- left tackle Julie'n Davenport and defensive end John Jenkins -- were acquired over the weekend. Multiple players who are new to the team were overheard Monday asking where the showers are.

"When you start something new, you never really know until you get into it. I didn't walk into it saying, 'Hey, we're going to do exactly this,'" Flores said. "You get in, spend time with the team, make assessments and evaluations, and you do what you feel is best at the end of the day, and that's kind of the process we've taken organizationally."

This Dolphins' process seems to be aimed at finding a franchise quarterback -- likely in the 2020 NFL draft -- and counting on the front office to sign the right players to rebuild this team.

And they're hoping for a little trust.