From the start of his first year as coach of the Miami Dolphins, Joe Philbin stressed the need for steady improvement. Instead, a late-season tailspin has the team headed yet again in the wrong direction — toward a long offseason.
The Dolphins (5-8) have lost five of their past six games, ensuring that for a fourth consecutive year they'll finish .500 or worse. Going into its game against Jacksonville (2-11), Miami is virtually assured of missing the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 years.
Following a 27-13 loss Sunday at San Francisco, Philbin attributed the skid not to a lack of talent but to a "lack of playmaking" at critical times.
"It's correctable," he said Monday. "There were some plays there to be made on both sides of the ball that we didn't do. There were some opportunities we didn't capitalize on."
For the second straight week, the Dolphins remained in contention against a division leader until the final minutes. But against both the 49ers and New England Patriots, fourth-quarter rallies came up short.
Feeble offense and a takeaway drought have doomed the Dolphins in recent weeks. The offense has totaled three touchdowns in the past four defeats, and the defense has forced only one turnover in the past six games.
Getting better from week to week has been a Philbin mantra, but the Dolphins aren't doing it. They rank fourth worst in the NFL in yards, and are tied for fifth worst in points at 18.5 per game, with productivity declining of late.
"I don't know exactly what the answer is," rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "But we have to make the plays that are there. You can't win in this league scoring as few points as we are. It's frustrating."
Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman concurred.
"I would agree with what Ryan said," Sherman said. "I would probably say 'expletive frustrating.' We feel like we're close, but not close enough."
At San Francisco, as has been the case in several games, the Dolphins played their worst at crunch time. On their final possession, trailing by a touchdown, Tannehill went 0 for 5.
Facing one of the NFL's best defenses, Tannehill did throw for a score — his eight touchdown passes rank 30th. But he averaged only 4.5 yards per attempt, and reinforced a budding reputation for failing to deliver late.
"He played better in the first half," Philbin said. "At the end of the game, where statistically he didn't perform as well as he would have liked, there were a lot of factors that contributed to that. It wasn't just him. There wasn't as much separation in the route-running. It wasn't like there were wide-open guys he was flat-out missing."
The absence of a deep threat remains Miami's glaring weakness. Top receivers Brian Hartline and Davone Bess have combined to make 123 catches, but they've totaled only two touchdowns.
A lack of defensive playmakers has hurt, too. With 12 takeaways this year, the Dolphins are on pace to set a franchise record for fewest in a season.
No linebacker has an interception. While opponents have fumbled 17 times, Miami has just three recoveries, which is tied for last in the league. And the problem's getting worse: Over the past six games, the Dolphins have just one takeaway.
"That's not good," defensive end Cameron Wake said. "You look at every statistic we have in football, and that's the one that determines your success."
Wake might be the only Miami player to make the Pro Bowl. He notched three sacks against the 49ers, increasing his season total to 14, which matches a career high.
But he's on the verge of his fourth losing season in four years with Miami.
"I would give away every sack I got for a winning record and opportunities that we are not capitalizing on," he said. "It is hard to contribute with that kind of stuff when we are stinking it up."