With the Miami Dolphins (5-8) eliminated from playoff contention, many have begun to look towards the impending off-season.
Those desperate for a glimmer of hope can find it softly shimmering on the horizon. The general impression of the 2012 Dolphins is one of optimistic growth. A few pieces are already in place, including Ryan Tannehill, Miami's potential franchise quarterback.
The Dolphins have been competitive much of the season. But, as their record indicates, the Dolphins must still add talent in key areas. As a result, many people are waiting patiently to see how the upcoming off-season will play out.
Many await the off-season with positive feelings. Others are dreading it.
What this all means is that the pressure has never been higher for General Manager Jeff Ireland.
Ireland was appointed general manager for the Dolphins in 2008 as part of Bill Parcells' regime. The team went 11-5 that year and won the AFC East. Since then, the Dolphins have gone 7-9, 7-9, 6-10. In his fourth season as GM, Miami can at best finish 8-8.
Looking solely at records, it would seem clear that Ireland has not done a good enough job of building a winning team. His questionable roster moves have come in great abundance.
Chad Henne never turned out to be the franchise QB Ireland had hoped for. Brandon Marshall was traded away for less than Miami gave up to acquire him despite his production remaining impressive. Vontae Davis was sent packing earlier this year to the Colts. The last two created gaping holes that were never filled before the start of this season.
Meanwhile, his drafts have been less than stellar. Players like Sean Smith, Daniel Thomas and Chris Clemons have been average at best. But still so many more, including Pat White, Clyde Gates, Patrick Turner and Jimmy Wilson either rarely see the field or are somewhere else entirely.
Many fans have taken this information as an indictment on Ireland's ability to scout talent. As a result, many have called for owner Stephen Ross to fire Jeff Ireland.
But the way Miami has played this season shows that it is almost ready to contend. Only a few pieces of the puzzle remain, and most people point to the impending off-season as the time to acquire said pieces.
And so the question is raised: can Jeff Ireland save his job this off-season?
I believe he can.
If Ireland acquires the alpha wide receiver and dynamic tight end to help Ryan Tannehill, the loss of Brandon Marshall and the Chad Henne era will be forgotten. If he finds the shutdown cornerback that Miami's beleaguered secondary desperately needs, the Vontae Davis trade becomes a distant memory.
If Ireland can field a Miami Dolphins team next year that can not only compete for four quarters, but actually have enough talent to win games against teams like Houston and New England, his wall of past mistakes could come crumbling down.
It certainly won't be easy, though. In addition to the holes Miami already needs to fill (including those that I haven't even mentioned), there are a number of important players who will be free agents this off-season. Reggie Bush, Jake Long, Brian Hartline and Randy Starks are just a few of the key guys Ireland and the Dolphins' front office will need to decide to retain or not.
But if Ireland can find a way to successfully navigate the tumultuous off-season path that's laid out in front of him, he could go from menace to savior in the span of a year.