Those of us who watch football with a discerning eye
know that OTAs, quarterback camps, minicamps, and any other offseason “camps” coaches
think up have three primary purposes. I call them the Three Ts: Teaching,
Telling, and Teasing.
The Teaching part is critical; once the season starts,
coaches have precious little time to work on fundamentals and techniques with
their charges. Players practice in helmets but no pads or other hard gear per
se. As such, there is little or no contact. Coaches stress the importance of
players staying off of the ground to avoid injury.
The Telling…Telling Apart…is the process of figuring
out who can play and who cannot. Try not to laugh too hard when Nick Saban
professes to only be interested in Teaching, not Telling. In reality, coaches
evaluate their players all the time. They have to in order to understand what a
guy can and cannot do well. It’s part of the learning process and, ultimately,
part of the decision process.
Finally, there’s the Teasing. That’s the part where
the public, including the press, get to watch a few benign practices. You, the
fan, are the main focus here. The team wants you to get excited so that you
will buy Dolphin tickets, products, and services. Remember, the Miami Dolphins
are first and foremost a business; winning thankfully comes first but the
almighty dollar ain’t too far behind!
With the Three Ts in mind, that old football saying, “Everyone
looks good in shorts”, comes into better context. This is especially true for
the new faces in the Dolphin secondary.
During these non-contact camps, defensive backs cannot
jam receivers, cannot over aggressively guard them in the route, cannot tackle
runners, and cannot take on blockers. They can run in space, play the ball in
the air in a conservative fashion, and hone some of their technique. That’s
Given these constraints, figuring out if the secondary
will indeed be better is still a major guessing game; perhaps no other team
area will have more bearing on the 2006 season than this reconstructed unit.
Gone is the great Sam Madison, departed via free
agency to the NY Giants. Gone is Lance Schulters (unsigned), probably the
team’s best defensive back last year. Gone is Reggie Howard, departed via free
agency to the Carolina Panthers. Tebucky Jones and Kiwaukee Thomas are now with
divisional rivals (Patriots and Bills, respectively).
The prevailing sentiment of team watchers is that the
secondary will be improved over last year. Critics of the 2005 squad lamented
that a) Madison’s
style of play didn’t fit Saban’s philosophy, b) Schulters was too slow, and c) Howard
Among the 2006 defensive backs, three intrigue me the
most: Will Allen (free agency, Giants), Jason Allen (NFL Draft, first round), and
Will Poole (returning from injury).
Here’s why: In my view, there are two key questions
that prevail over all others related to the secondary. First, are the Dolphins
better off with the Allen boys over Sam and Schulters? And, second, can Poole return to form?
We know Will Allen can play; he is, after all, a six
year NFL veteran with a body of work to stand on. He plays the cornerback
position the way Saban wants it played, which is why he is a Dolphin.
Will Allen is especially good at one thing that Saban demands
from his corners; he can run and cover the deep ball. Another, tackling, has
been viewed as something of a concern by some, though you’d never guess it by
looking at his 2005 numbers (70 tackles, 62 solo).
My early perspective on Will Allen is that he will prove
to be a capable, yet unspectacular, successor to Madison.
Jason Allen is no stranger to Saban, having once been recruited
by him as a high school senior. For now the Dolphins are playing him at safety,
but he does have the ability to play corner. His college pedigree is very good,
though questions about his durability persist. As is the case with most
rookies, he looked tentative at the two camps he’s participated in.
Part of it is that Saban’s defenses are complex. This
means that we should not be surprised to see Jason Allen start slowly, provided
that he earns the starting FS job. We should also expect opposing offenses to
test him, trying to take advantage of his inexperience.
Right now we do know that Jason Allen’s ability to also
play corner should create opportunities for the Dolphins to deploy mixed looks.
Versatility and flexibility were things that Saban noted when the Dolphins
If Jason Allen can stay healthy, he will have chances
to make some big plays; those moments will tell us what we need to know about him
as a player. We’ll learn more once full contact drills begin.
Then we have Will Poole. Used mostly as an extra
defensive back in 2004, Poole registered 37
tackles and a sack while showing off excellent football instincts. His presence
on the roster was an important consideration when the team decided it could
afford to trade Patrick Surtain to the Chiefs. Shortly thereafter, however, disaster
struck at a May 2005 minicamp when Poole blew
out the ACL in his left knee.
The recent minicamp is the first we’ve seen of Poole on a field since last year. He has worked very hard
to rehabilitate the knee and get back to where he was. The question at this
point isn’t ability; we know he can play. Rather, it’s his health. While Poole appeared fine participating in the various drills,
we won’t know anything definitive until full speed contact drills begin.
When healthy, Poole
displayed legitimate shutdown corner ability. If he can regain that level of play,
and do things the way Saban wants them done, he would be an important improvement
to the defense and give Saban some additional options with the remaining depth
he has to work with. For example, Travis Daniels could be utilized as an extra
defensive back…a role he may be currently best suited for.
This is one of the many considerations in the
secondary the coaches may have to weigh in the coming weeks. How these
personnel changes work out will have a great deal to say about the success of
the 2006 Miami Dolphins.