The Dolphins left Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon as a team building toward something. Not only had they beaten the Patriots on their home turf, but they'd won five games in a season that began as a seemingly-hopeless slog toward the No. 1 overall pick in 2020.
They also left the field as one of the most intriguing non-Patriots fits for Tom Brady to finish out his career.
Miami possesses over $100 million in cap space to jump-start its rebuild via free agency. It's also the proud owner of three first-round picks in a draft brimming with talent at premium offensive positions like wide receiver and offensive tackle.
Brady is scheduled to be a free agent this offseason as he looks ahead to his 43-year-old season. He was looking for a long-term deal with the Patriots over the summer, didn't get it, and pushed to have the franchise tag removed as an option for the organization he's called home for two decades. As a result, he'll be able to make free-agent visits for the first time in his career come March.
If Brady wants to continue playing, and if he's interested in pursuing non-Patriots opportunities, Miami made sense for reasons beyond the fact the franchise would be able to immediately surround Brady with talent.
It's a massive market with a health-conscious population that might be a good next step for the TB12 brand. The owner is a Michigan man — Steven Ross is reportedly the the University of Michigan's largest individual donor, giving over $350 million to the school — and there is a heavy Patriots influence on the coaching staff.
If Brady wanted to be paid in a range closer to his peers, if he wanted to go to a team that could compete quickly, if he wanted to play twice a year against the team that wasn't willing to make him a long-term commitment over the summer, the Dolphins made sense as a potential suitor.
Now? Not so much.
The Dolphins cut ties with former Patriots receivers coach Chad O'Shea on Monday and reportedly hired Chan Gailey to serve as their offensive coordinator. What seemed like one of the most attractive aspects of the Dolphins quarterbacking gig — that the Patriots offense was there and in place — no longer exists.
Gailey coached Dolphins veteran starter Ryan Fitzpatrick for three years in Buffalo as head coach and two years with the Jets as offensive coordinator. Fond of a spread system that takes advantage of athletic quarterbacks, Gailey's hire appears to be a sign that the Dolphins are going with Fitzpatrick for another season (he's under contract through 2020).
Should they draft a passer, he wouldn't be thrust into the starting role and could apprentice in a system that might resemble what he knew in the college ranks. O'Shea's Patriots background, meanwhile, with all its inherent complexities, has historically has been a difficult one for younger players to grasp.
If Dolphins had any visions of continuing with that Patriots system, bringing aboard a Hall of Fame quarterback, quickly reconstructing their roster, and letting a young quarterback study behind one of the best of all time, Gailey's hire all but squashes that idea. It's an addition that, as of now, is a signal that the number of suitors Brady will have this offseason will be relatively limited.
Other possible fits?
Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers make their home in a gargantuan market that might be attractive to a quarterback who has the business interests Brady does.
Their roster — ravaged by injuries in 2019 — is talented. But the coaching staff doesn't provide the seamless fit that the Dolphins would've before O'Shea's departure, and Brady's pal Willie McGinest recently made it sound as though Los Angeles wasn't an option for the Brady family.
Carolina Panthers: Carolina's quarterback situation appears to be up in the air thanks to Cam Newton's injury history.
With a head-coaching search underway, perhaps the right sideline fit would make signing Brady a logical pursuit. Should Josh McDaniels or Brian Daboll (Buffalo's offensive coordinator and a former Patriots assistant getting some head coaching buzz lately) end up with the Panthers, that's a union that would make some sense — market be damned.
Chicago Bears: The Bears are a team that looks like they're a quarterback away from making themselves a legitimate postseason contender.
Huge market. But, again, the system in place isn't one with which Brady has any experience. Matt Nagy runs an Andy Reid-style West Coast offense. Chicago could replicate what happened in Denver when Peyton Manning went to the Broncos: Adopt the style the legendary quarterback prefers and make it work.
That's a huge ask, but it might be worth it if the team doesn't believe Mitch Trubisky is capable. Looks like they think he’s capable...
Other potential destinations: Ryan Tannehill looks like the guy moving forward for Mike Vrabel and Tennessee. The Cowboys should find a way to re-sign Dak Prescott.
With Dave Gettleman remaining in New York, Daniel Jones will be the guy for the Giants. Joe Burrow is going to be the No. 1 overall pick for Cincinnati, seemingly.
The Bucs have receiving weapons galore, but could Brady envision himself holding the ball, standing back and firing downfield in a Bruce Arians offense? Denver hasn't been Brady's favorite place to play over the years, but they Broncos should leave their quarterback options open.
Indy could very well be looking for quarterback help, though picturing Brady playing for the team that sparked Deflategate seems unfathomable.
The Patriots, of course, could determine that their best course of action is to offer to continue their year-to-year commitment to Brady. But one would think it would be at a reduced rate from the $23 million he was paid in 2019, and one would think it wouldn't provide Brady any more years than the one he received in August.
Would Brady be up for that? In an offense with a 34-year-old Julian Edelman and an offensive line that may lose Joe Thuney to free agency? With a young backup who has impressed behind the scenes and could push for playing time?
That may end up being the best course for Brady as well, unlikely as it seems after the way negotiations went last offseason and the way things have gone for the Patriots offensively this year.
There's plenty of time between now and the start of the 2020 league year, plenty of time for situations to change across the NFL.
But given the quarterback landscape around the league — and given Miami's recent coordinator swap — the number of teams pursuing Brady this offseason may be limited.