WHAT HAPPENED?

Since the Dolphins' 27-24 overtime loss to New England on Sunday and their subsequent elimination from the playoffs after the Jets beat Green Bay, the big question has been, how could the Dolphins so completely fall apart at the end of the season — again?

That's the key word right there: again.

This is getting very old for the Dolphins and their fans, and Monday was a day spent trying to figure out why this continues to happen.

The symptoms are obvious: The team couldn't win on the road; it couldn't win a big game in December; it made too many mistakes.

That's the obvious. But why?

Maybe tackle Mark Dixon hit it on the head when he said the Dolphins simply wait for bad things to happen when they play a big game in December.

Most Dolphins players said Monday they're not psyched out by their December failures, but they sure play like it.

And, truth be told, Coach Dave Wannstedt doesn't help by always planting a seed of doubt in his players?

Don't buy it. OK, what about that lobster trap before the Minnesota game? Isn't that basically telling your players, watch out, you could easily lose this game?

Then, think back to Wannstedt's consistent statement throughout the season that the AFC East race would come down to the finale at New England.

Why did it have to? Why not make your expectations higher and talk about how nice it would be to make that game insignificant or make it be about home-field advantage?

If that's too bold a statement to make, then don't say anything.

To say that no matter what, the title will come down to the finale is telling your team they're not good enough to clinch before then.

It doesn't sound like much, but it plants a seed of doubt in your players, and it's pretty evident by now the Dolphins have a lot of players with fragile psyches.

There was a lot of complaining about the play-calling on Sunday, but that's secondary from this vantage point.

The entire attitude is wrong. The Dolphins are a team of self-doubters, and that shows up in their play at times.

Don't believe it? Think back to Zach Thomas talking about how the team stinks, they're garbage, etc. Mark Dixon does the same. And they're not the only ones.

There is a lack of arrogance on this team, and it starts at the top. Dave Wannstedt is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet, but sometimes he's too nice and maybe at some point he needs to be a lot more bolder.

The Dolphins are a team that severely lacks swagger, and that shows up in big games. Except when they're at home.

There's only one way to change that, and it's got to come from Wannstedt.

The first thing is Wannstedt has to adopt a go-for-the-throat mentality, which is currently doesn't have. Don't stop taking chances when the team is leading. Don't always play offense to avoid mistakes and let the game be decided by the defense. Do not punt from the opponent's 33-yard line when you're facing a fourth-and-5 in a scoreless game in the first quarter.

This is 2002, and in the NFL these days offenses will beat defenses more often than not.

The Dolphins had six Pro Bowl players this season, and yet they're not even going to the playoffs. Yes, some of their players are overrated.

But the bottom line is this team underachieved, and maybe they underachieved because they just didn't believe in themselves enough.


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