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  Six Keys to Success for 2011
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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It’s at the start of the season when hope blossoms at its fullest. That blossom of hope either glistens into the New Year or wilts away before the holidays arrive.

There have been far too many wilted holidays for Dolfans over the past 10 years. I could write volumes as to why, but this annual column is really about hope. It’s about why you should (or shouldn’t) have faith in the upcoming season.

After one of the most disruptive and unsettled offseasons in team history, GM Jeff Ireland and coach Tony Sparano set out to re-tool the offense (players and philosophy) while dealing with a crippling labor crisis and the major fallout from consecutive losing seasons. So, understandably and deservedly, criticism and skepticism were the themes du jour.

As the regulars here know, my own view of the Dolphins has been quite guarded since this past January. It had to be after back to back 7-9 seasons, with Bill Parcells skulking off and the owner looking like the second coming of Dan Snyder. And so the days of taking the word of team leadership at face value are past. Actions and results are all that matter now.

This is how the 2011 Dolphins must ultimately be judged. But more to the point, it is how the current regime will be judged.

That being said, I am encouraged by what I have seen during the abbreviated offseason and preseason. QB Chad Henne looks to have grown, both mentally and physically. The offensive skill positions are improved. Special teams, that ongoing burden, look as solid as I’ve seen them. And the defense, under the steady hand of Mike Nolan, has a chance to be elite.

The sum of all this should be a playoff berth, provided that the following “keys to success” are realized.

1) QB Chad Henne plays to his ability

Even the most arduous doubters must admit that Henne has had an excellent summer. He led team workouts during the lockout and moved the offense consistently during the preseason. On this alone he deserves to have that Captain’s patch sewed on his jersey. But for people to really believe in him, he must take the good work he did in the preseason and carry it forward to the New England opener (Monday, 7:00pm EST, ESPN) and beyond. Winning is a consistent thing; for Henne, this means more TDs than INTs (a 2-to-1 ratio is a good goal).

2) The Cohesion of the Offensive Line

Sparano mishandled and misjudged his offensive line last season and got LT Jake Long hurt in the process, his worst collective mistake as Dolphins head coach. This year Sparano was much smarter about things, saving Long and the other starters from unnecessary wear and tear. He upgraded the center and right guard positions and solidified the interior by retaining G Richie Incognito. So there should be plenty of talent up front to generate an excellent offensive game. But the line has been slow to come together this preseason, raising questions as to whether or not Sparano is as good in handling hogs as he thinks he is. The opener versus the Patriot defense will tell us a lot about this group.

3) Good production from the RBs

Ronnie Brown (Eagles) and Ricky Williams (Ravens) are gone, the latter coming up about 300 yards short of Larry Csonka’s team rushing record. Both men were between the tackles runners and had lost a step. They were replaced by a rookie with a similar style (Daniel Thomas) and one of the most versatile backs in the NFL (Reggie Bush). Bush is an important piece of this new offense, and coordinator Brian Daboll will use a myriad of ways to get him 15-20 touches a game. But he must stay healthy, and Thomas must learn quickly for this new approach to work.

4) Generate more turnovers

Winning is a lot easier when you have a short field and more chances to score than the other team. That’s why turnovers are recognized as a top gameplay liability. The defense had their fair shot at turnovers last season but repeatedly failed to capitalize. That must change if this group is to be truly elite, and the Dolphins need that level of play from their defense in order to make the playoffs.  

5) Solid special teams

Solid special teams play does two important jobs. The first is to create field position for the offense and defense. The second is to score points. The coverage work we’ve seen during the preseason has been very encouraging when compared to the past three seasons. Now it must carry forward. I just wish the Dolphins could have found a way to keep rookie Phillip Livas, an electric and aggressive returner who took a punt 75 yards for a TD versus the Falcons in the preseason opener. Who will provide that explosiveness and aggressiveness to the return game? Fellow rookie Clyde Gates could be called on to try and match it.

6) Generate renewed fan excitement

Only a clueless moron would attribute the empty seats and lackluster ticket sales at SunLife Stadium to anything other than two years of losing football, a 1-7 home record last year, and continued front office incompetence. Gimmicks, such as the ill-conceived “Gator Day” aren’t the answer. I’ve watched Dolphins football for almost 40 seasons, so trust me when I say the best tonic for the South Florida palette is WINNING. The reason is simple: Dolfans are among the most intelligent and discriminating fans in the game and they won’t settle for anything less. The Dolphins need to reestablish home field advantage, but they must earn back the trust and good faith they stupidly squandered. Perhaps Dan Marino Sr. said it best, “Danny, you don’t get what you want. You get what you deserve.”

 
     
   
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