When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida. TV: CBS
The Dolphins (8-7) will pack up and start thinking about next season under Joe Philbin, who will return for his fourth season despite a record of 23-24 and no playoff appearances. The Jets (3-12) face an uncertain offseason, as coach Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik are likely to be fired on Black Monday.
It's a grim backdrop for an AFC East rivalry that used to matter. ESPN.com Jets reporter Rich Cimini and Dolphins reporter James Walker discuss the matchup and the stories swirling around the teams.
Cimini: So, James, why is Dolphins owner Stephen Ross keeping Philbin? Is he content with mediocrity?
Walker: The feedback has been mixed in South Florida on this decision, Rich. I thought Ross would wait until the final game to see if Philbin can complete his first winning season. But Ross, in fact, said he made the decision before last week’s win against the Minnesota Vikings. It wasn’t a huge surprise, because Ross has always been a huge supporter of Philbin. Ross backed Philbin through last season’s bullying scandal, and you can add this non-playoff season to the list. Ross also wants to give continuity a try after the firings of former coach Tony Sparano and former general manager Jeff Ireland didn’t result in playoff appearances. Philbin is in the last year of his contract in 2015. So if things don’t work out, there can be a clean break from both sides.
Most likely, this is Ryan’s final game with the Jets. How do you expect the team to respond?
Cimini: I expect the Jets to play spirited football. I'm not sure if that will translate into winning football -- they're 3-12 for a reason -- but they always play hard for Ryan. I've been around losing teams that don't give a damn about the coach, but that isn't the case with the Jets. There is a genuine affinity for Ryan. We saw that a year ago, when the Jets -- with nothing at stake -- saved his job with a convincing win against the Dolphins in the final game. This time, there won't be an 11th-hour reprieve.
So, James, it appears that Miami QB Ryan Tannehill has made nice strides this season. Was offensive coordinator Bill Lazor the missing piece?
Walker: Lazor, in some ways, has been Miami’s MVP this season. His system works. Miami’s points per game have gone up from 19.8 to 24.3 with pretty much the same skill players. Lazor also pushed Tannehill to set career highs in touchdowns (26) and passer rating (93.2). Last week’s performance (396 yards, four touchdowns) was as good as I’ve seen Tannehill play in three seasons. He has certainly solidified his case to be Miami’s starting quarterback next season, and I expect the Dolphins to at least pick up his fifth-year option for 2016. Lazor is direct and a clear communicator, and that is what the players needed. I expect Miami’s offense to be pretty good next season with another offseason of drafting and signing players who better fit Lazor's scheme.
Jets QB Geno Smith has a knack for strange quotes. Does he overrate his performances? What is his future in New York?
Cimini: You're right, James, he tends to put his foot in his mouth, but this isn't an easy market for a quarterback. Every word is dissected by the media. Say the wrong thing, and you end up on the back pages of the tabloids. Smith is learning, on and off the field. Contrary to one of his recent quotes, he hasn't shown flashes of being a Pro Bowl quarterback, but he has displayed signs of being a competent quarterback. He has improved slightly from his rookie year in completion percentage, touchdown percentage, interception percentage and passer rating, but he is 2-10 as the starter and the offense has regressed. His future hinges on the next coach and system. He will be on the team in 2015, but he won't be handed anything.
Speaking of 2015, what are some key decisions facing the Dolphins in the offseason?
Walker: This team has pretty good talent, and there aren’t quarterback questions going into next season. So I don’t think a major overhaul is needed. However, there will be tough decisions looming with pending free agents and high-priced veterans. For example, starting tight end Charles Clay and defensive tackle Jared Odrick are both key free agents. Miami also must decide what to do with expensive contracts for 2015 such as receiver Brian Hartline, cornerback Cortland Finnegan and linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe. The Dolphins were built to win this season, and it didn’t pan out. Their salary-cap situation isn’t the best for 2015, and I think Miami will lose some veteran depth. The key will be replacing that depth with quality draft picks and young players already on the roster who are coming of age.
If you had to pick the biggest reason the Jets are 3-12, what would it be?
Cimini: Their young players didn't grow up -- or they got injured. The Jets were counting on strong seasons from Smith, cornerback Dee Milliner, guard Brian Winters and their top picks in 2014, namely Calvin Pryor and tight end Jace Amaro. Milliner and Winters got hurt, Smith hasn't improved as much as expected, and the rookies were underwhelming. General manager John Idzik took a conservative approach in free agency, thinking the aforementioned players would develop quickly -- and it backfired. They simply didn't have enough depth on the roster to overcome the lack of contributions. That is the danger of building through the draft: The draft picks have to ... you know, pan out.