With a blowout loss Sunday at the hands of the New England Patriots, kings of the AFC East, the Miami Dolphins ended the season 7-9, their fourth straight losing season. The franchise has not suffered this bad of a streak since the late-1960s, when it was an expansion AFL franchise.
But the team appears hopeful that it can turn things around in 2013 with a productive offseason. General manager Jeff Ireland will get a chance to right the ship; the Miami Herald reported Monday that team owner Stephen Ross will not fire Ireland.
A sizable contingent of Dolphins fans will not like that decision, pointing to Ireland's spotty record in the draft and free agency. Four straight seasons of 9 or 10 losses were apparently outweighed by the sense that the team can add pieces around young QB Ryan Tannehill and return to glory.
But the Dolphins have many needs to address this offseason. The most glaring is the lack of an dynamic wide receiver who demands the attention of opposing defenses. The Dolphins had that last season in Brandon Marshall, but he was traded away for the sake of team chemistry last spring.
Even when the Dolphins had Marshall, the team was in the bottom-third of the NFL in passing offense (in 2011). Still, having a receiver of that caliber opens up the run game (since safeties have to watch for deep passes) and creates more space for slot receivers like Davone Bess.
There are some intriguing free agents at wide receiver, most notably Dwayne Bowe of Kansas City and Mike Wallace of Pittsburgh. Miami will also likely try to re-sign WR Brian Hartline, who caught 74 passes for 1,083 yards in 2012.
The Dolphins will also try to re-sign RB Reggie Bush, who had the two most productive years of his career in Miami. Bush was 14 yards short of breaking 1,000 yards for the second straight season.
Finally, the team will likely release former first-overall draft choice Jake Long. The team could place the franchise tag on Long and pay him $15.4 million in 2013, but his struggles in 2012 suggest that the team would be better off spending its money on other players.
The Dolphins could plug RT Jonathan Martin in Long's LT spot (where he played the last month of the season when Long went on injured reserve) and trawl the free agent market for a veteran RT.
On defense, Miami could look to upgrade at cornerback (where Sean Smith struggled against the league's better receivers). The Dolphins will try to re-sign safety Chris Clemons and DT Randy Starks. The defense was clearly the better unit on the team in 2012, so it needs fewer improvements.
Miami is in an advantageous position to make all these upgrades. According to the Miami Herald, the team has $49.4 million in salary cap space, third most in the NFL. Re-signing current players will eat $20 to $25 million of that space, which allows the team to add one or two significant players and sign its draft class.
The Dolphins have the 12th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, with an additional 4 picks in the first three rounds. Miami's ten overall draft picks are second-most in the NFL behind San Francisco (11).
The Dolphins have the resources to make a major splash this offseason, but Jeff Ireland's history (passing on Dallas WR Dez Bryant in 2010 because of character issues, numerous wasted second-round picks) means this is no sure thing. One thing is clear, if the Dolphins still don't make the playoffs in 2013 after such a pivotal offseason, Ireland's job will not be nearly as safe by this time next year.