The undefeated team of Don Shula and Bob Griese finally got its overdue D.C. trip this summer, and, at least when compared to division-mates New York and Buffalo, the 2013 Dolphins appear a lot closer to the front of the modern-day NFL line than the back.
Miami was 7-9 in coach Joe Philbin's first year on the job, which corresponded with the arrival of quarterback Ryan Tannehill from Texas A&M after just a handful of college starts. The predictable growing pains were apparent, especially early, but Tannehill's ability to hang in and improve through the entire 16-game schedule has created an expectation that he'll "make the leap" in year two.
In fact, NFL.com labeled him exactly that during the offseason, putting Tannehill at the top of a 40-player list expected to have a career-defining upward curve in 2013.
"I like it," Tannehill said. "I put high expectations on myself, so regardless of what the outside is putting on me I put higher expectations on myself. I know I can improve tremendously over last year. Now it's just a matter of doing the things necessary to make sure it happens."
The chances for that happening seemed to rise in the offseason, when general manager Jeff Ireland acquired a pair of receivers -- Mike Wallace from Pittsburgh and Brandon Gibson from St. Louis -- to broaden his QB's horizons beyond 2012 targets Davone Bess and Brian Hartline.
Hartline is still in Miami, but seems better suited to a complementary role alongside the new pair.
On defense, the Dolphins leapt from No. 12 to No. 3 in the draft to select pass-rushing end Dion Jordan, who could pair with fellow end Cameron Wake -- who had 15 sacks last year -- to create headaches for opposition passers while the hometown kid is thriving.
Put it all together and there seems ample reason for Philbin -- known league- wide as a tight-lipped opposite to the free-flowing Rex Ryans of the world -- to display his reserved brand of bravado.
"I was very confident going into last year," he said. "The thing that gives me the most confidence is I believe we have an excellent staff, and I believe in the character of the guys we have on the football team."
2012 RECORD: 7-9 (2nd, AFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2008, lost to Baltimore Ravens in AFC Wild Card Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Joe Philbin (7-9 in one season with Dolphins)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Sherman (second season with Dolphins)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Kevin Coyle (second season with Dolphins)
KEY ADDITIONS: OT Tyson Clabo (from Falcons), CB Will Davis (third round, Utah State), ILB Dannell Ellerbe (from Ravens), WR Brandon Gibson (from Rams), RB Mike Gillislee (fifth round, Florida), OLB Jelani Jenkins (fourth round, Florida), DE/OLB Dion Jordan (first round, Oregon), TE Dustin Keller (from Jets), G Lance Louis (from Bears), DT Vaughn Martin (from Chargers), TE Dion Sims (fourth round, Michigan State), K Caleb Sturgis (fifth round, Florida), CB Jamar Taylor (second round, Boise State), G/OT Dallas Thomas (third round, Tennessee), WR Mike Wallace (from Steelers), OLB Philip Wheeler (from Raiders)
KEY SUBTRACTIONS: S Jonathan Amaya (free agent), RB Reggie Bush (to Lions), WR Davone Bess (to Browns), OLB Kevin Burnett (to Raiders), ILB Karlos Dansby (to Cardinals), TE Anthony Fasano (to Chiefs), K Nate Kaeding (retired), OT Jake Long (to Rams), DT Tony McDaniel (to Seahawks), WR Marlon Moore (to Niners), CB Sean Smith (to Chiefs)
QB: Had anyone based their long-term opinion on Tannehill's first game -- a loss to Houston in which J.J. Watt seemingly batted away every pass the youngster threw -- it would have been easy to call Tannehill's draft selection at No. 8 overall a reach. The former Texas A&M player picked it up as he went along, though, and finished the season as the unquestioned No. 1 man in teal after completing 58.3 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns in 16 starts.
Backup remains in the hands of Oregon State alum Matt Moore, who's proven a quality spot starter while winning 13 of 25 career assignments with the Dolphins and Carolina since 2007.
RB: Reggie Bush took his talents to industrial Michigan in the offseason, leaving feature running back duties to unproven Lamar Miller, who had 51 carries for 250 yards and a touchdown last season -- averaging just shy of five yards per rush.
Also available for carries are University of Florida draftee Mike Gillislee and holdover Daniel Thomas, whose workload (165 carries to 91) and production (581 yards to 325) ticked down noticeably from 2011 to 2012.
Evan Rodriguez, a 6-foot-1, 242-pounder, is the only depth chart game in town when it comes to fullback. He didn't get a carry, but had four catches for 21 yards in 12 games with Chicago last season before legal issues chased him out of the Second City.
WR: The most significant addition on the offensive side comes in the form of deep-threat Wallace, who signed a huge contract in the offseason after hauling in 64 passes for 836 yards and eight touchdowns in his final season with Pittsburgh.
Also new to the fold is ex-Ram Gibson, who caught 51 balls for five touchdowns and a 13.5-yard average in 2012.
Their arrivals could create additional workspace for holdover veteran Hartline, who surpassed 1,000 yards on 74 receptions and scored once last season.
TE: The Dolphins' prospects at tight end were dealt a severe blow when newcomer Dustin Keller's knee was wrecked in the offseason, rendering him unavailable for 2013.
That leaves the No. 1 duties at that position to University of Tulsa alum Charles Clay, a 255-pounder who has 18 catches for 212 yards and a pair of scores last season in 14 games.
Michael Egnew is listed No. 2 on the depth chart, though he appeared in only two games and had no tangible stats after being drafted in the third round out of Missouri.
OL: The free-agency exit of former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long means a shift to left tackle for 2012 second-rounder Jonathan Martin, who played 16 games last season at right tackle. Taking over Martin's past gig will be offseason acquisition Tyson Clabo, a 6-foot-6, 315-pounder in from Atlanta.
In the interior, the Dolphins have certainty with former Gator Mike Pouncey at center and veteran Richie Incognito at left guard. Mississippi alum John Jerry started 16 games at right guard last season and appears to be the No. 1 man there again, though there's been some push from third-round draft pick Dallas Thomas.
DL: The Dolphins jumped from No. 12 to No. 3 in April's first round to snatch Jordan, a 6-foot-6, 260-pounder out of Oregon. And, while the ex-Duck has been hampered with shoulder concerns through the summer, the latest indications are that he'll be on the field for the season opener with Cleveland. If not, ex Miami Hurricane Olivier Vernon -- a third-rounder last season -- impressed some with 3.5 sacks as a rookie.
The right end spot is the domain of Cameron Wake, whose 15 sacks last season were tops on the team.
In the interior, Randy Starks proved quite capable while making 27 tackles and registering 4.5 sacks at left tackle last season, while right-side man Paul Soliai played 16 games, had 29 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Penn State alum Jared Odrick, a 6-foot-5, 302-pounder, is the top depth player on the inside.
LB: The linebacking corps underwent a fair amount of change in the offseason with the departures of Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, which leaves their middle and outside positions in the hands of Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, respectively.
Ellerbe started seven games and played in 13 with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012, while Wheeler started 16 games and had three sacks with Oakland.
Returning to the other outside slot is Koa Misi, who enters his fourth year after starting 14 games and recording 3.5 sacks last season.
DB: Though he was limited to a single game last season by an Achilles injury, Brent Grimes arrives from Atlanta as the No. 1 cornerback, replacing Sean Smith, who signed with Kansas City.
He presumably lines up opposite Dimitri Patterson, a journeyman who arrived in Miami last season -- making it his fifth NFL city since 2005.
Jamar Taylor, a second-round selection from Boise State, was hindered in the summer by a sports hernia and could be slowed at the season's outset.
The safeties appear set with free safety Chris Clemons and strong safety Rashad Jones. They combined for 194 tackles, six interceptions and four fumble recoveries last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A new placekicker arrived in April's draft in the form of University of Florida product Caleb Sturgis, which hastened the exit of veteran Dan Carpenter in the summer. Sturgis made 84.6 percent of his kicks as a junior and upped that level to 85.7 as a senior, including a combined six of eight from 50 yards or more.
The embedded punter is Brandon Fields, who averaged 50.2 yards per kick and dropped 29 of 74 inside the opposition's 20- yard line.
On returns, Marcus Thigpen was a commodity, scoring a TD apiece on both a punt and a kick runback.
COACHING: Joe Philbin didn't exactly turn the Dolphins into his former employers -- the Green Bay Packers -- in his initial season as a head coach, but were it not for two overtime losses in the season's first four weeks, Miami could have been a lot larger factor in late-year discussions.
Philbin is the direct beneficiary of a wallet-opening by the front office in the offseason, and he could be smiling at the end of the year if his latest QB charge -- Tannehill -- takes the leap that many are forecasting.
THE SKINNY: The quarterback should be better with experience. The new wide receivers should give him more toys to play with. And the defense should be at least as good, if not significantly better, thanks to an impact draft pick and some solid free-agent bodies.
Combine that with the atrociousness of the portion of the AFC East that emanates from New York and Buffalo, and you have the recipe for a strong second-place in the division.
The initial eight weeks of the schedule are brutal, so Miami will need to stay level at the halfway mark to make a push in the back half against the likes of San Diego, Carolina, the Jets (twice) and Buffalo. If they do so, a 9-7 finish is a fair bet -- with some chance of either 8-8 or 10-6.