I love this time of year.
Everything is clean. Hope
springs eternal. The playoffs are possible. Everyone is tied for first. The
game is fun.
Pick your cliché, they all
This is also a good time for
the Miami Dolphins. A new start, more than anything else, is what this
franchise needs. Managing Partner Wayne Huizenga began the process, even before
last season’s 1-15 nightmare came to a merciful end, by hiring Bill Parcells as
his football overlord.
The Big Tuna, as he is
affectionately called, wasted no time in cleaning house. Coaches, front office
types, and players were changed. Even Jason Taylor, who wants to be elsewhere, was
put in his place.
Make no mistake about it;
the Miami Dolphins are the Tuna’s team. He knows winning football and how to
make it happen. And the Miami Dolphins have already begun to take on his personality.
It all starts with
toughness, intelligence, and hard work. On offense, this is expressed on the
field with power football featuring a big, physical line. On defense, it’s a
3-4 scheme with big LBs and DEs, and a two-gap DT.
While a lot of progress has
been made in turning the Dolphins around (about 50% of the roster has been
turned over, for example), much work remains. As the roster stands today, the
Dolphins don’t appear to have all the pieces in place to end their six year
playoff drought. The most glaring and frustrating problem continues at the most
important of positions, quarterback. This, more than any other single factor,
could keep the Dolphins home for the postseason yet again.
But games are not played on
paper, and this team is making important and meaningful improvements towards
regaining their rightful place in the game. In the NFL, really sports in
general, we’ve seen time and again how bad teams can become winners, even
champions, almost overnight. Witness the 2007-8 Boston Celtics as the most
recent case in point, going from rock bottom to NBA Champions in just one year.
No, I’m not suggesting that
the 2008 Dolphins are going to the Super Bowl. But they do have a chance to
become winners again. A decent chance.
That journey will soon begin
when training camp opens later this month. That’s when paper will become
reality, when we’ll begin learning how good the 2008 Miami Dolphins can be. As
always, there are key questions which must be answered. Here are my Top 10 (in
no particular order):
1) How long will it take
for the Dolphins to grasp Dan Henning’s offense?
If anything has served as a poster
child of the team’s futility, it is the persistent and frustrating instability
on offense (system, players). Did you know that Henning’s playbook represents Miami’s fifth new
system in five years, and that there have been five different
opening day starters at quarterback during that time? In this case, major change
was unavoidable as last year’s bunch flat out stunk. This is Henning’s second
stop in Miami,
having previously served on Don Shula’s staff for two seasons (1979-1980). The
sooner the offense can function instinctively well in Henning’s system, the sooner
the wins will come.
2) Who will start at
This is the single biggest
personnel question. Simple logic says that the starter should be John Beck. Why? Start with the
investment the previous regime made in him, a high second rounder. Add to it
the fact that the guy will turn 27 in August, and you quickly understand the
urgency in finding out if Beck is this team’s QB of the future. He has talent,
but how long will it take to get it out of him? Developing a future leader must
be a top priority this season. It’s probably not Chad Henne at first, simply
because it is so difficult for a rookie to start day one in today’s NFL. And
for sanity’s sake, it shouldn’t be Josh McCown. He hasn’t shown any signs in
six years of NFL duty that he is this team’s quarterback of the future, and
there’s nothing that indicates he’ll be any better as a Dolphin. Nevertheless,
it could be McCown who gets the initial nod if Beck or Henne can’t prove they
are ready to play on opening day. That, Dolfans, would be a major
3) Who will start at
Ronnie Brown is the former
second overall pick, on the verge of a Pro Bowl season before injuring his knee
trying to make a tackle on an interception return versus the Patriots. Ricky
Williams is the eccentric, oft stoned, oft suspended, former Heisman trophy winner
who holds the team’s single season rushing record (1,853 yards in 2002). Ronnie
is almost fully recovered, but probably won’t be all the way back by the time
training camp starts. Most agree that Ricky is the more talented runner, and
has already impressed Parcells and his lieutenants with his renewed dedication
to game. Both players fit the power ball style that Parcells favors, though
Ronnie is the better receiver. Will Brown be healthy enough to earn the job
outright? If not, does the new regime trust Ricky enough to start him?
4) How long will it take
Michael Lehan to recover from his ankle injury?
Lehan, whom the Dolphins smartly
re-signed, is coming off his best season as a pro (56 tackles, seven passes
defensed, a pick, a sack, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown). However, an
unfortunate ankle injury suffered during an OTA has set him back with his offseason
training regimen. Already thin at CB, the Dolphins are counting on Lehan to
challenge for a starting job opposite Will Allen. How long will it take Lehan
to fully recover, and how effective will he be when the season begins?
5) Who will prevail at Guard?
The newly signed Justin
Smiley is already penciled in at one guard position. Veteran Steve McKinney
would seem to be the logical choice for the opposite side, provided his health
is good enough. The other options, a collection of rookies and lesser talents,
are not all that palatable. One wonders what the Dolphins were thinking when
they decided to let Rex Hadnot leave in free agency.
6) What should the Dolphins expect from Ted Ginn, Jr.?
Improvement, a lot of it.
That’s a reasonable expectation with Ginn having a healthy offseason to train hard
and be coached up by crack WR coach Karl Dorrell. The result should be improved
route running and awareness of coverages. Of course there’s the speed, that
wonderful world class speed, and knowing how to better shift gears at key times
in the pattern. In the open field, no one separates better. As a kick and punt
returner, Ginn will be more dangerous now that he has better blockers. All
told, 2008 should be an exciting season for him.
7) What will happen with Jason Taylor?
JT has little choice now but
to report to camp as he has lost his battle with Parcells. He won’t retire, by
his own admission, nor is he likely to hold out and thus damage his reputation.
He won’t be traded, not now anyway, not with low ball offers on the table.
Whether or not you think the Dolphins should have traded him in a fire sale is
irrelevant, because it only matters what Parcells thinks. Simply put, Taylor is worth more to
the Dolphins as a Dolphin. Parcells figured this out early on, which is why he couldn’t
be suckered into a low value trade. Whether or not JT will be a Dolphin beyond
the trading deadline (around Week 6) is yet to be determined. Just know that
there is no way Parcells will unload his best player for anything less than
proper compensation. For now, enjoy watching #99 do his thing as a DE/OLB.
8) How will the Dolphins replace Zach’s productivity?
They won’t, not with one
guy. The newly acquired Charlie Anderson, Reggie Torbor, Akin Ayodele and
others will join Dolphin vets Channing Crowder and Joey Porter in figuring it
all out. The one guy in this group who can raise his performance the most is
Porter. He has all the tools and should be a nice fit in Paul Pasqualoni’s 3-4
scheme, versus his awkward and sometimes invisible presence last season.
9) Who will start at Safety?
Everyone at safety seems to
have some sort of blemish or issue to overcome. Yeremiah Bell (achilles) and
Renaldo Hill (knee), probably the two best players at the position, are coming
off of serious injuries. Jason Allen, the team’s 2006 first rounder, made solid
strides last season but has a reputation for being a poor practice player. Last
season he finally got a chance to play, but only because of injuries to Bell, Hill, and others.
To his credit, he led the team in interceptions and was seventh on the team in
tackles despite only starting nine games. However, if Allen continues his
pattern of being a poor practice player, he leaves it up to the new regime to
decide which version to believe in…the practice version or the game version. In
the end, some players are just better gamers and it could be that Allen fits
this profile. If anyone can see clearly on this one, it is Parcells. Meanwhile,
the biggest worry is that Bell
and Hill will be slow to return to form. Logically, Bell would be the bigger concern given the
unpredictable nature of his injury. The hope is that at least one of them is
good enough to go come opening day. If not, newcomers Chris Crocker and Keith
Davis will get a chance, as will second year man Courtney Bryan.
10) Is there enough talent to win more than they lose?
There is a big difference
between having a winning record and making the playoffs, as the Dolphins have
painfully learned in the past. However, going from a losing record in one
season to a winning one the following year is quite doable in today’s NFL. Yes,
the 2007 Dolphins went 1-15. But their talent was better than that, much
better. That’s why a good goal for these Dolphins would be to finish at 8-8 or
better. This is realistic if we closely examine the strengths of this team. On
offense, it is a solid line that should get better each week, two outstanding
talents at RB, and a WR (Ginn) who can threaten the deep third of the field
almost at will. If they can get reasonable efficiency from the QB position, it will
add up to a nice formula for ball control offense. Defensively, they will be
solid if the line is as improved as some believe. Whether or not they can
return to their dominant ways remains to be seen, though a Bill Parcells’ team
always prides itself on good defense. On special teams, it is already apparent
that the Dolphins helped themselves in free agency. Coverage teams should be especially
improved over what we saw last season. If the injury bug can stay away, and the
team’s improved conditioning should be an enabler to this, the Dolphins have a
decent shot at becoming a winning team again.