After a long offseason which saw a dramatic roster overhaul, the Miami Dolphins finally open play on Sunday with a road date against the Cleveland Browns. While second-year coach Joe Philbin and QB Ryan Tannehill (also in his second season) will look to improve on last season's 7-9 campaign, general manager Jeff Ireland has the most to lose when the Dolphins try for their first playoff berth since 2008 (and second in the last decade).
If the Dolphins fail to top 7 wins for the fourth season in a row, neither Philbin nor Tannehill will run the risk of getting the ax, but the same cannot be said for Ireland. Since taking the reins in Miami after former president of football operations Bill Parcells stepped down in 2010, Ireland's squad has gone 7-9, 6-10, and 7-9 again.
But while Ireland could previously fall back on the fact that Parcells constructed a majority of those teams, the 2013 Dolphins are entirely of his creation. Ireland drafted Tannehill and engineered the acquisition of WRs Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson and LBs Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler.
He also let RB Reggie Bush leave via free agency so that Lamar Miller (an Ireland draftee) assume the starting role, while also allowing former franchise LT Jake Long walk in favor of Jonathan Martin (another one of Ireland's draft picks).
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has been supportive of Ireland in public, but recent statements suggest that despite the endorsements 2013 could be make-or-break for Ireland.
"We certainly want to make the playoffs," Ross said in August. "But I want to see growth in the team in building the foundation for this season and future seasons. I don't want to be a one-shot wonder."
If the Dolphins go 7-9 again (or even 8-8), might Ross decide Ireland's massive offseason overhaul (in which he handed out over $150 million worth of new contracts) has not built a foundation that will keep the Dolphins out of the AFC East cellar?
In the past decade, the Dolphins have seen their attendance fall to the bottom of the NFL in terms of percentage of seats filled (76.3% in 2012). Ross cannot afford many more mediocre seasons, as Miami fans have shown throughout history that they don't mind ignoring a loser.
Win or lose, Ireland can point to the young nucleus he has assembled as the foundation Ross wants, but this year's Dolphins roster was clearly built to win now. Ireland knew his job was in jeopardy this spring, that's why he brought in so many high-priced veterans.
If Miami is mediocre once again in 2013, he might not get a second chance to save himself.