With Sunday's loss to the San Francisco 49ers guaranteeing a fourth-straight non-winning season for the Miami Dolphins, the franchise should immediately begin preparing for the offseason and 2013 season (if it has not already done so). The last three weeks of the season will effectively be an audition for most of the current team: play well, or find yourself cut before training camp opens next August.
Miami already has a number of important pieces on hand. DE Cameron Wake (who had three sacks against the 49ers) is one of the premier pass rushers in the game. QB Ryan Tannehill, while still going through growing pains, has earned the trust of the front office and coaching staff.
But those two are in the minority. Most positional areas are in need of upgrades, starting with Tannehill's receiver corps. Davone Bess and Brian Hartline are solid second and third options, but without the deep threat of Brandon Marshall (traded over the offseason for draft picks), their effectiveness is limited.
This was on display Sunday, when Tannehill attempted a deep pass to Bess down the middle on third-and-long in the second half. Bess could not get any separation against San Francisco's corners, forcing Tannehill to air it out over his outstretched arms.
In a perfect world, the Dolphins would have someone like Marshall running that route, allowing Bess and Hartline to feast on the open space created underneath when defenses double-team the deep threat. Instead, they are asked to play above their pay-grade and hope for the best.
Beyond the receiving corps, the team will need to replace LT Jake Long if they opt not to pay $15.4 million to place the franchise tag on him next season. Guards John Jerry and Richie Incognito could also conceivably be replaced if Miami can find a better option through free agency or the draft.
On defense, there are plenty of holes, but the biggest is in the secondary. There is a reason why the Dolphins are seeing the fifth-most pass attempts in the NFL - every team knows Miami's cornerbacks are beatable. Sean Smith was a nickel back only a few seasons ago, now he is being asked to defend the likes of Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.
Miami's linebackers are also partly to blame for the team's woeful pass defense, as they have routinely been burned by opposing tight ends. Playing in the same division as the New England Patriots (who sport a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber tight ends), it is crucial to find a linebacker that can hold his own in pass coverage.
Even though Miami's personnel needs are fairly obvious, the real question facing the team is whether general manager Jeff Ireland can pull off the roster upgrades necessary to compete. He is the same guy who drafted Sean Smith, traded Marshall for well below his true value, and spent big money on an offensive line that has put up very average yards per rush and sacks allowed.
There is a reason the Dolphins have struggled to sell tickets after owning the local sports market for decades: there is no faith in the organization right now. Ireland will have to prove the fans wrong this offseason. That is, unless the Dolphins' late-season swoon doesn't convince owner Stephen Ross to replace Ireland first.