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Sunday Football Notes

Can Dolphins be a true rival for Patriots?

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill

AP/File

The Dolphins may have the best chance if quarterback Ryan Tannehill takes a big step in his development.

The Patriots’ domination of the AFC East has been resolute.

Since Bill Belichick’s second season in New England, 2001, the Patriots have won 76 percent of their games (146-46) and the division title in 10 of those 12 seasons (nine of the last 10).

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The Jets (2002) and Dolphins (2008) were the other division winners, although Tom Brady was out after knee surgery for the latter.

The Jets are next with a .500 record (96-96), followed by the Dolphins (88-104, .458), and the Bills (74-118, .385).

To put the gap in a little better perspective, the Patriots have scored 1,770 more points than they’ve allowed in those 12 seasons. The Jets are the only other division team on the plus side (plus-55). The Dolphins (minus-165) and Bills (minus-676) lag far behind.

“There’s a gap, certainly,” said Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland. “They’ve won the division quite a bit, so we’ve got to close that gap.”

The question is, will any of them do it before Belichick and Brady go riding off into the sunset?

The Patriots have had challengers, namely the Jets, who reached back-to-back AFC Championship games in 2009 and ’10. But no one has come close to building a sustainable rival to the kings.

The Dolphins may have the best chance if quarterback Ryan Tannehill takes a big step in his development, and if Ireland can navigate a complicated and multilayered offseason.

If Ireland plays his plentiful cards right, the Dolphins can finally emerge as a legitimate rival to the Patriots.

If he doesn’t, he will be out of a job and the Dolphins will continue to flounder as they have, for the most part, since the 2004 season. And the Patriots will rule the roost without much competition. Again.

It’s all right there for Ireland and the Dolphins.

They have $45 million in salary-cap space in a year in which several good players could be flooding the market (and depressing value) as the result of a continued flat cap.

The Dolphins have nine picks in the draft to manipulate their position to target specific players.

Meanwhile, the Bills have changed their coaching staff and are looking for a new quarterback, and the Jets are just starting a two- to three-year rebuilding process.

“I think it’s a very, very important time period,” Ireland said. “When you put a lot into getting into the position, we obviously are in a position by design, and so we plan to use some of our money and plan to obviously draft the best players available if we can, and try to address some of the needs and musts that we have on our football team.”

But this where it gets tricky.

The Dolphins have 12 unrestricted free agents, including several good players: left tackle Jake Long, running back Reggie Bush, receiver Brian Hartline, cornerback Sean Smith, tight end Anthony Fasano, safety Chris Clemons, and defensive tackle Randy Starks.

Ireland said he’s likely to use the franchise tag. The likely target would be Starks because the number ($8.31 million) is fairer than other positions. Smith is the other possibility.

It’s one thing to add a few key pieces to a solid core through free agency and the draft (the Dolphins have to look for more playmakers on both sides of the ball). You can maintain the momentum of team building that way, though the Super Bowl-winning teams are usually those that focus more on internal improvement than patches from the outside.

If Super Bowls were won in March, the Cowboys and Redskins would be dynasties.

“You’re always looking for value,” Ireland said. “I don’t really feel the pressure that it has to be a ‘name’ guy.”

But if Ireland is wrong with his market assessments and loses too many of his own free agents, he’ll be scrambling to plug holes with his money and draft picks, and any progress the Dolphins have made under coach Joe Philbin will be lost.

“Right now, the date that I have in my head is March 9,” Ireland said in reference to the start of the three-day negotiation period before players can sign. “When you have as many of them as we do, you can’t just make kneejerk reactions on getting certain guys signed.

“So we’ve taken a very thorough evaluation and we’ve met on it many times, and this is the time period we’re starting to talk to them and try to get some things done.”

The Dolphins have the chance to get a lot of things done. So have others in the AFC East since 2001. All have failed.

Ireland has the chance of a lifetime. He has survived a coaching change and four straight losing seasons and has been able to build for this moment.

The AFC East may never be the same. Or it will continue to be as it has been for the past 12 years.

It’s up to Ireland and the Dolphins.

GETTING A READ ON THE OPTION

Lopsided loss to 49ers takes Packers to school

In what will be the first of several disclosures about NFL coaching staffs going back to the college ranks to study the read-option offense featured by rising attacks (49ers, Redskins, Seahawks), Packers coach Mike McCarthy said his defensive coaching staff will head to Texas A&M to learn from coach Kevin Sumlin.

You can thank the 49ers’ 45-31 thrashing of the Packers in the divisional playoffs, and their 579 yards of total offense for that.

“That’s a number that will stick in our focus as a defense throughout the offseason,” Mc­Carthy said, in reference to 579. “We’re studying the read option, the teams that are doing it in the NFL. We’re even going to the college ranks. We’ll have a couple college coaches come in, spend some time with our staff.”

McCarthy knows that the 49ers and Colin Kaepernick aren’t going anywhere as NFC contenders.

“You take a hard look at the two games that we played, they beat us twice last year,” Mc­Carthy said. “You look at the difference in the first game [quarterbacked by Alex Smith] and the second game, and obviously the glaring statistic and the information in the second game was obviously the production of their quarterback [Kaepernick].”

McCarthy said he learned from longtime NFL assistant Jimmy Raye that the league goes in cycles. But that doesn’t mean you ignore new developments like the read-option and Pistol formation.

“It’s very important to stay on the front side of that cycle,” said McCarthy. “The teams that do it, like San Francisco, had the success this year, they obviously benefit from it.

“You stay true to your preparation, and obviously we’ll spend a lot of time on the run-option defensively. We won’t run it with our quarterback [Aaron Rodgers], if that’s what you’re concerned about. That’s just the way you go about it.”

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

No locks as to what Dennard can expect

How much jail time, if any, Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard will have to serve after his felony conviction for assaulting a police officer remains up in the air until his sentencing April 11. A first-time offender who is gainfully employed and has already been punished (by being a convicted felon and losing at least $1 million from dropping in the draft as a result of the incident) usually doesn’t get much.

But two people with knowledge of Dennard’s case expect him to receive somewhere in the ballpark of three months. The reason he didn’t plead the case out was because the prosecution wouldn’t offer anything less than a felony. Dennard had nothing to lose.

As far as Dennard being suspended by the NFL under the personal conduct policy? Put that in the unlikely category, considering that the incident happened before Dennard was an NFL player, so he was not covered by the collective bargaining agreement.

There is gray area in the policy, though, about whether the incident itself or the adjudication is the time marker, and there are those who feel that commissioner Roger Goodell could view an NFL player being convicted of a felony as conduct detrimental in itself, and try to suspend him for up to four games.

At the NFL Players Association meeting Friday, two agents said NFLPA counsel told them that the conduct window could be upward of a year prior to entering the league. There is some precedent for that in the drug policy, but not the personal conduct policy.

In 2011, former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor was suspended five games for something that happened before he entered the NFL, but that was much different. Pryor was trying to manipulate the draft system and flee an NCAA suspension that he had agreed to.

One thing seems certain: If Goodell suspends Dennard, there will be a legal fight with the NFLPA.

ETC.

Dimitroff says flat cap affects their thinking

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the former director of college scouting for the Patriots, is one of the smartest people in the game, and he thinks the flat salary cap is going to affect how teams do business. Before the new CBA, the cap usually increased $4 million-$7 million on an annual basis. Before the lockout, the cap was $123 million. It won’t exceed that number until next year — at the earliest — and will increase only incrementally by about $2 million per year down the road. “We’ve all been thinking about that,” Dimitroff said. “The league, it seems as though it’s changing a little bit as far as the cap not going up and the insinuation that maybe some — not all — of the middle class will be potentially moved on from in certain organizations because they have to fit in those upper-level guys with a lot of money that we’re dealing with. It means you have to have be creative in how you put together your roster to make sure you can fit the guys in who may be a little bit younger in the game.” Dimitroff said drafting and development will become even more important. “It’s about developing talent,” he said. “That is huge in this game today. With the way it is right now with the cap, it is very, very important to make sure that you go in and your coaching staff is in line with your personnel staff and your general manager to make sure that we’re all about the development of our young guys, so that we have those young guys who are potentially going to be the next big-ticket guys but they’re still producing for you on a team while they’re in a lower category as far as earning money.”

Nickel package

1. The buzz at the combine in Indianapolis is that the Ravens won’t be able to retain safety Ed Reed and outside linebacker Paul Kruger. Of the two, Reed has a better chance of sticking, but a lot will depend on what happens with quarterback Joe Flacco.

2. Dimitroff said there is no timetable for tight end Tony Gonzalez to make a decision on retirement, but the sooner the Falcons know, the better. That’s about $6 million-$8 million in limbo. The timing could cause the Falcons to miss out on, say, a needed pass rusher.

3. Eagles coach Chip Kelly had the line of the combine when he was asked about cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who is coming off a down year and is due $15 million. “I think Nnamdi has a skill set that can . . . play football,” Kelly said. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

4. Congratulations to Ravens center Matt Birk on his retirement after 15 standout seasons. In 1998, he became the first Harvard lineman to be drafted since Roger Caron in 1985 (fifth round, Colts). Birk’s hometown Vikings took him in the sixth round.

5. As if you needed another reason to root for Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who missed part of last season while undergoing treatment for leukemia: He sent an emotional message of support after 98.5 The Sports Hub host Rich Shertenlieb revealed that his wife, Mary, had been diagnosed with AML, a form of leukemia. Pagano was alerted to the situation by Albert Breer, the former Globe writer who is now at the NFL Network. “He wrote the single most inspirational e-mail my wife and I could have received,” Shertenlieb wrote. “Thank you, Coach Pagano. You made my wife a little bit stronger today.”

Short yardage

49ers general manager Trent Baalke was asked what he would like to see out of receiver A.J. Jenkins, the team’s first-round pick last year (30th overall) whose season line was 47 snaps (none before Week 14), zero catches, one target: “Production, like we do with all of our players. We’ve always said, you go into the draft and draft guys and you know what their strong suits are, you know what their weaknesses are, and then it’s up them. And A.J.’s a young man that’s worked awfully hard, is going to continue to work hard. I believe he’s in Atlanta right now or on his way to Atlanta where the quarterback [Colin Kaepernick] is and some of our other players. And they’re going to go at it this offseason. And the biggest growth in players is always between Year 1 and Year 2. We expect that’s going to happen with A.J.” . . . Don’t tell Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert that his team, after an 8-8 season, is in transition. “That means you’re going to accept anything less than a Super Bowl,” he said. “Obviously change has to occur over time and you hope that you prepared and drafted or signed free agents to deal with that change as it occurs. It’s inevitable. We just have to be prepared to deal with it and that’s what this whole process is about.” . . . Wouldn’t be untruthful with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh if I were a draft prospect. “Somebody that’s not truthful, that’s big, to me,” he said. “I’m a big fan of the Judge Judy show. And when you lie in Judge Judy’s courtroom, it’s over. Your credibility is completely lost. You have no chance of winning that case. So I learned that from her. It’s very powerful, and true. Because if somebody does lie to you, how can you ever trust anything they ever say after that?” . . . Giants coach Tom Coughlin is obviously still bothered by how last season ended, especially on defense. “The direction is to get better,” he said. “None of us are happy with the circumstances we were in and the way that we played. The idea is to get better as best we can.”

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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