GLENDALE, Ariz. -- You don't measure Sunday's meaning – especially here, especially in the locker room that looked like any of this past decade's wreckage – just by the score or the loss or the fatal truth the Dolphins failed in the end again.
All that emotion was there, of course. All the familiar scenes of losing. Linebacker Kevin Burnett sat on an equipment box, head bowed, as the minutes ticked by deep into Sunday night.
Reggie Bush questioned the coaches for the blocking schemes that evidently left Ryan Tannehill exposed in the critical end. Cameron Wake, like Jason Taylor was once did, was the last to leave the locker room and said all the plays they made didn't matter.
"The one play we didn't make mattered more,'' he said after the Dolphins 24-21 overtime loss to Arizona.
If you want to go with that angle – the team that can't finish in another season without hope – that's an open avenue for you. Two overtime losses, back-to-back, Jets to Cardinals, give that idea good traction.
But there was this glimmer: Brian Hartline had more receiving yards (253) than any Dolphin in history. And cornerback Sean Smith had two interceptions against the league's best receiver. And quarterback Ryan Tannehill had more yards passing (431) than any Dolphins rookie.
"So, we lost, that's what matters,'' Tannehill said.
Dan Marino lost in passing for 322 yards to set the record in 1983, too.
"Yeah, well, it doesn't matter,'' he said.
Sunday would have been a perfect time for this team to grow up. It would have been a time for Smith to put a stop worthy of his two interceptions and Tannehill to throw a ball away in the face of a big blitz rather than have a fumble and interception on his final two series.
That doesn't hide some hope, though. It doesn't change that fact that, if there's such thing as a heartening loss, this was it. Steps are being taken. Education is taking hold.
There was a moment Sunday, a good and interesting moment, when Smith saved the game with an interception in the fourth quarter. Tannehill then came on the field down 14-13 with seven minutes left.
"You got the sense, in that huddle, we were going to win,'' center Mike Pouncey said. "You looked around. Everyone saw it and, I'm sure, felt it."
Tannehill then called a play offensive coordinator Mike Sherman had been saving all day. Through a little misdirection and a lot of Arizona miscommunication, Hartline was left wide open down the sideline.
"I thought he'd be open,'' Tannehill said. "But I didn't think that open."
"All I thought after catching it was, 'Run,' '' Hartline said.
On a better day, with a more experienced team, that 80-yard touchdown would be the story today. With the records set and the names involved, it'd be more than just a touchdown.
It'd be up in lights, in the lights of a possible new era. It'd be Marino-Clayton. It'd be fun. It'd be what the next decade could look like.
Sunday's loss twisted that conversation. Tannehill was blitzed beyond hope and fumbled on the next possession. Arizona scored off that to tie the game. In overtime, hit again on a unblocked blitz, he was intercepted.
So if it doesn't matter how the Cardinals won the game, if you just look at the score, you don't see slices of progress being made or hope being ladled out. You couldn't say that after a dismal overtime loss to the Jets last week.
"We're going to hear it now, 'we can't finish, they have a new head coach,' '' Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. "We'll see what we're made of now."
Some of that's true. They're 1-3 on merit. But this season was about steps being taken. Hartline is proving to be the kind of player you didn't see the past couple of seasons. Smith is taking some steps forward. Wake is Wake, as his 4 1/2 sacks said.
"We've got to win these,'' he said.
Yes, they do. That's what this league is about. But for the first time in a while Sunday, you left a quiet Dolphins locker room thinking what might be instead of what was.
A loss, sure. But a heartening one.
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