Seven wins is not what the 2009 Miami Dolphins had in mind
as an encore to their 2008 AFC East Championship season. Starting 2009 with a
terrible 0-3 record, a skid that was lowlighted by a bad loss to the Indianapolis
Colts, the Dolphins seemed forever on their heels. While the team deserves
credit for posting a 7-3 mark over their next 10 games to fight their way back
into the playoff picture, a disappointing 0-3 finish left a universally bad
taste and overall negative impression of the season.
I could write paragraphs laying out all the reasons for the
slide. It doesn’t matter now. In the end, Bill Parcells’ simple words are more
than sufficient: you are what your record says you are.
It’s easy to forget about all the good progress that has
been made by Bill Parcells and friends in just two seasons. For example, only
eleven players remain from the Cam Cameron era. And time has validated Tony
Sparano as the best coach this team has had since Jimmy Johnson.
General Manager Jeff Ireland is right in taking the long
view here. From his perspective, 2008 was a bonus. He didn’t expect it then,
and perhaps he didn’t expect it last year. He knows where he wants to take this
team, and he isn’t afraid of the journey to get where this team needs to go.
That’s not to mean that he was happy with last season. He
wasn’t. Not by a long shot.
“Are we where
we want to be?”, asked Ireland.
“Hell no, we’re not where we want to be. I’m not happy with it. (Sparano) is
not happy with it. Bill Parcells is not happy with it. We’ve got to do a better
job coaching. We’ve got to do a better job making decisions, finding players.
What I do know is that when we watch the tape, we played some pretty good
football. We just (didn’t) finish games. We had some of the best teams in this
league where we wanted them in the fourth quarter, and we just didn’t finish
games. That’s all “coulda, shoulda, woulda”, right? That’s part of not being
good enough. We’re close to being a pretty good football team. What’s it gonna
take (to get there)? Hard work.”
Yes, hard work. That means training camp.
Here are my top 10 questions (in no particular order) as the
Dolphins get ready for the July 30 start of Training Camp 2010:
1) How do we properly judge Year 3 of the Parcells regime?
This is a question I’ve wrestled with a lot this summer. On
one hand, three years is a pretty fair barometer for measuring progress in ANY
business. Then again, the Dolphins were so badly broken when Parcells and pals
took over that three years might not be enough fairly judge the body of work
thus far. This much I do know: The first two drafts have been the strongest
we’ve seen since Jimmy Johnson was calling the shots. But free agency continues
to be a problem of consistency. Trades? An incomplete grade on that, though
Brandon Marshall is the benchmark that will weigh heavily in our future assessment.
Coaching? As I said above, they got it right when they hired Sparano. Overall,
the performance is positive. Do the Dolphins need to make the playoffs this
year for us to deem the Parcells regime a success thus far? Not necessarily.
However, another 7-9 result under healthy circumstances would be difficult to
2) Will QB Chad Henne be improved?
This is probably the biggest on-field question. There was an awful lot to like last year in his
first extended playing time as a pro. He did more than enough to deserve the
starting job. But if Henne is to ever lead this team to a Super Bowl
championship, he must improve considerably in three key areas: touch passing,
footwork, and decision making. Henne is very smart and is a hard worker, so I
am not too worried about the decision making. It’s the footwork and the touch
passing that worry me; not all QBs can develop these skills fully. Can Henne?
3) Will the Dolphins be able to generate a pass rush out of
their front seven?
I penned an article on May 3 questioning the ability of this
defense to apply heat on opposing quarterbacks. While this observation has
finally caught on with others in the media, my original points still stand:
Jason Taylor (9 sacks) and Joey Porter (7) are gone, and Randy Starks (7) is
now at DT (a bad place in a 3-4 defense to generate a lot of sacks). Those were
your top three sack producers last season. Aside from Cam Wake (5.5), an OLB
who has yet to prove he deserves to be an every down player, who across the
front seven has the skill to bring the heat when it matters most? No one seems
to know the answer to this question yet. The answer could lie more with schemes
than individuals. This is why we should expect defensive coordinator Mike Nolan
to employ more blitzes and dogs than his predecessor (Paul Pasqualoni) did;
good overall speed across the front of the defense encourages this approach.
4) How much can we expect from RBs Ronnie Brown and Patrick
History tells us that we’d better be patient with RB Ronnie
Brown as he recovers from his foot injury, which could have been a potential
career-ender; it was that serious and the Dolphins know it. Personally, I don’t
expect to see him anywhere near 100% until October at the earliest. In fact, I
wouldn’t be surprised to see him land on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP)
list if soreness is a persistent problem during two-a-days. As for Cobbs
(knee), he seemed to be healing very quickly towards the end of last year and
should be 90% or better when camp opens. Depending on how he feels, he could
return to his myriad of offense and special teams duties gradually or right
away; he’ll be closely monitored. Fortunately, team MVP Ricky Williams, Pat
White, Lex Hilliard and Kory Sheets give the Dolphins the luxury of easing
Brown and Cobbs back into the mix.
5) Has QB Pat White improved?
Veterans, including Williams, have said that White is the
“most improved” player from last season. Aside from adding bulk and strength, they
cite his improved passing accuracy. All of this is good news, but it needs to
carry over from the OTAs into live drills and preseason games. If it does, the
Dolphins will have a very dangerous offensive weapon in 2010. In particular,
the Wildcat could literally become indefensible with WR Brandon Marshall
factored in. Keep a close eye on Pat White as August unfolds.
How much will the Dolphins miss NT Jason Ferguson?
A lot. Ferg was a complete player and leader, someone who
got it done on the field and in the locker room on a consistent basis. Players with
his experience and talents are very hard to replace. With the added departure
of Mssrs. Taylor and Porter, a gaping leadership hole exists on defense. Expect
ILB Karlos Dansby to fill a big part of that void, with SS Yeremiah Bell and
perhaps ILB Channing Crowder contributing as well. On the field, Randy Starks
will start at the nose, with Paul Soliai as his top reserve. They are good men,
but can they truly fill Ferg’s oversized shoes?
What did the Dolphins really get in Brandon Marshall?
Marshall is one of the top five receivers in football today,
an elite weapon who cannot be defended by one player. His three consecutive
seasons of 100+ receptions is very impressive. Watching Henne and Marshall
working together is certain to be a favorite pastime of media and fans alike. Marshall seems to be a
sure thing, perhaps destined to break O.J. McDuffie’s team record for
receptions in a season (90). Yes Dolfans, the sky is the limit; it almost
doesn’t matter who starts opposite him. Yet we must also remember that Marshall’s prolific play
means that he has a lot of wear and tear on his body. This is why Marshall’s hip issue may
be problematic over time. How will he hold up over 16 games of pounding? For
that matter, how will his body hold up beyond 2010? Did the Dolphins get a
player for the next 5 years, or just 2-3? It will be interesting to see how the
Dolphins utilize him, given the miles on his treads.
Is Chris Clemons the answer at Free Safety?
Fact: the Dolphins improved themselves the day they cut
Gibril Wilson, last year’s starter at FS. Wilson
was, without a doubt, the single worst personnel acquisition in the Parcells
era. His departure creates a big opportunity for Clemons to prove to the
coaches that he is the answer for 2010 and beyond. There was a lot to like
about him in his rookie season, especially his speed and nose for the football. But like all rookies, inexperience and
lack of comfort with the pro game made him somewhat tentative. That won’t be
the case this season. Said Sparano, “I see speed, I see range. These two things
have showed up out here (in the OTAs). Speed, range, and he knows, he understands. He’s been pretty vocal and those are all qualities
that your free safety has to have”. But Clemons hasn’t made the sale yet; he must
prove to Sparano that he can tackle. If he can do that, the job is his.
What about CB Will Allen?
Season-ending knee injuries tend to affect a player well
into the following season. Allen tore the ACL in his left knee a third of the
way into 2009 and probably won’t be 100% by the time training camp starts. Because
of that, and only because of that, I think Allen’s chances of earning his
starting job back are slim. The positive side of it is that his presence gives
Nolan options when the Dolphins go to multiple DB sets and affords quality
depth in the event that injury strikes elsewhere. While it’s possible that we
may see Allen used as a nickel safety from time to time, don’t expect him to
contend for a starting safety job; he doesn’t have the body for it.
Who is DE Jared Odrick and OLB Koa Misi?
Dolfans know very little about Odrick and Misi, the team’s
first and second round picks respectively. It’s odd in a way how little buzz
these two have generated thus far. That’s about to change. The only question is
how long will it take for these two rookies to introduce themselves to the NFL.
The take on Odrick’s play during the OTAs was that he
has very good quickness. But like all linemen, especially rookies, it is very
difficult to judge performance in early season non-contact scrimmages. Yet with
the loss of DE Phillip Merling to an Achilles injury, Odrick has a golden
opportunity to earn a starting job right away. As for Misi, he impressed the
coaches almost immediately with his nose for the ball and his speed; he also has
a very good chance to earn a starting job right away. We will learn a lot more
about Odrick and Misi once the hitting begins and the playbook grows from
pamphlet to dictionary thickness; with rookies, it’s almost always about how
quickly they can absorb and internalize the pro game.