MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was beaming in the locker room Sunday, following his team's 37-35 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Although Miami was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs about 20 minutes earlier, Ross excitedly announced that head coach Joe Philbin will return in 2015.
"He's coming back!" Ross said with a smile, squashing speculation on the contrary.
You cannot fault Ross for choosing continuity. He has tried the other way and it hasn't worked. Ross has fired a head coach (Tony Sparano) and a general manager (Jeff Ireland) and it hasn't resulted in a playoff appearance. Philbin would have become the third high-level executive to be let go in four years.
Philbin has his faults, but he made strides in his third season that appeal to ownership. The locker-room chemistry is much better after last year's disastrous bullying scandal. Philbin has the support of his players and has a chance to lead Miami (8-7) to its first winning season since 2008. All the Dolphins must do is beat the lowly New York Jets (3-12) next week at home.
Here are some key statistics in Philbin's favor:
Miami's scoring has improved from 19.8 points per game in 2013 to 24.3 points per game this season. Philbin's hiring of first-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor played a key role in that improvement.
Third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill is having a career season. He has set career highs in touchdown passes (26) and passer rating (93.2) with one game remaining to pad those numbers.
The Dolphins had three losses this season by four points or less to three playoff teams (Denver, Green Bay and Detroit). If Miami pulled off any of these close games, the season result could have been different.
"Things are happening as an organization. I think everyone feels the buzz that things are changing around here," Ross explained. "They say patience is a virtue, you know. But I'm expecting big things next year -- I will tell you that."
Another aspect in Ross' decision is Philbin's support in the locker room. Following last week's loss to New England, which essentially ended Miami's postseason chances, veterans such as team captain Cameron Wake, receiver Mike Wallace and guard Mike Pouncey all came to Philbin's defense. Each veteran said any fault for the Dolphins' shortcomings is on the players.
Wake, who leads the team with 11.5 sacks, was among the players happy for Philbin on Sunday.
"Coach Philbin is a big part of this franchise," Wake said. "He's obviously part of the success of this team. That's great news and I'm looking forward to it."
According to Ross, this team is close to contending. Ross has been a strong supporter of Philbin, the owner's first hire in 2012. Ross said at the time that he's hopeful Philbin could become the "next Don Shula," which is both high praise and high expectations.
Philbin is 23-24 as a head coach, which is not awful but not great. If Ross doesn't think he can get an elite replacement -- for example, Jim Harbaugh -- why break up the entire regime and start from scratch? The worst move the Dolphins could make would be to hire another first-time coach and allow that person 2-3 more years to learn on the job and make mistakes.
Ross believes keeping Philbin and first-year general manager Dennis Hickey together for another year could end the Dolphins' six-year playoff drought. Hickey made several solid moves this year, most notably drafting left tackle Ja'Wuan James and receiver Jarvis Landry. Hickey also signed Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert, cornerback Cortland Finnegan, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and safety Louis Delmas, who all contributed. Hickey wasn't the problem in Miami.
Sure, there is a chance the Dolphins could be in this same spot one year from now, missing out on the playoffs. But if that's the case, Philbin and the Dolphins can make a clean break, the coach having fulfilled the final year of his contract.
But there's also a possibility Philbin rewards the Dolphins for their patience and develops into the coach Ross thinks he can be in 2015. That would provide a long-term payoff.
Philbin must do better in his in-game management, especially in close games. The Dolphins also must play better late in the season. Philbin failed to win big games in December for the second straight season and that's a major reason Miami is not in the playoffs. Improvement in those two areas would go a long way.
"I want to compete for championships while I'm the head coach of the Miami Dolphins," Philbin said Sunday night. "That's what I told Mr. Ross I was going to do. I'm disappointed that we're not in [the playoffs]."
Keeping Philbin is a calculated risk, but it's worth a try.