beers with friends, the subject of Sport is often discussed. This is not a
homogenous discussion, for many of my friends come from different countries.
Inevitably, American football (“football”) comes to task.
take is that football is the greatest of team sports; eleven men on the field
at once, all performing in precise coordination to achieve a desired goal. All
must do their jobs well, or the team fails. My argument is that no other sport
relies on this violent ballet to the degree that football does.
is the idea of my annual Miami Dolphins “keys to success” column; to identify
the most important things that will make the difference between team success
season the Dolphins went through OTAs and training camp as a team looking to
build on a solid veteran base. But that thinking went squarely out the door
this past week, along with a shocking slew of cuts that dug sharply into the
depth of the roster.
only eight starters remain at their posts from 2009’s season opening crew. This
is both unexpected and troubling, because it gives the appearance of a team
still in the throes of rebuilding three years after the current regime took
coach Tony Sparano has professed unwavering confidence in what he calls his
most complete team as Dolphin coach. That profession of faith is a bit
difficult for me and others to swallow, but that will be washed away if his
team wins. This is how Sparano and the 2010 Dolphins
will ultimately be judged.
so, with the season opener on hand versus the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson
Stadium (1pm ET, CBS), the time has come to share my ten “keys to success” for
the 2010 Miami Dolphins.
1) Get a Fast Start
Under the first two years of the Sparano era, the
Dolphins have started their campaigns 0-2 and 0-3. The result both times was an
uphill grind that left the team 1-1 in terms of playoff berths. They cannot
afford another slow start, not with three divisional games over the first four
weeks and certainly not with the red hot Miami Heat starting their season in
November, threatening to make a bad Dolphins team irrelevant before
2) QB Chad Henne
It’s Year Three for Henne and the time has come for
us to find out if he is indeed the Chosen One, the man who will lead the
Dolphins to their first world championship in 36 years. If he plays well, the
Dolphins are talented enough to be a playoff team. If he is just average, the postseason
will be a question mark through December and people will begin to doubt him.
3) The Cohesion of
the Offensive Line
Sparano may be able to sleep at night, using the
thick book of stats he compiled during the preseason as a pillow. But the cost
in obtaining that information, so he could make the most well-informed player
decisions possible, cost the offense dearly in terms of cohesion time and a
stupid knee injury to LT Jake Long that could nag him all season. Offensive
coordinator Dan Henning called it a “necessary evil”, but he and Sparano won’t
be so dismissive if the line cannot protect Henne and is unable generate a
respectable run game over the course of the next month. The line is the engine
that makes the offense go; they need to quickly get it together or the season
will be ruined before Halloween.
4) The Wildcat
If the Dolphins enjoy an unmatched advantage over
the rest of the NFL, it’s that they run the Wildcat better than any other team.
This season they take it up an extra notch with QB Tyler Thigpen, a legitimate
dual threat triggerman, as well as WR Brandon Marshall, a man most teams cannot
single cover. But it’s really Thigpen who will force defenses to back out of
the 8 and 9 men fronts that opponents have employed to stop the Wildcat in the
past. Expect to see broader use of the Wildcat at some point this season.
5) Manufacturing a
Pass Rush for 16 Games
I use the verb “manufacture” because the Dolphins
just aren’t talented enough to bring consistent heat out of base defensive
looks. It will be up to coordinator Mike Nolan to employ a variety of blitzes
and dogs to confuse and neutralize opposing quarterbacks and runners. I expect
Nolan will have good success in doing this over the first half of the season.
The worry is the second half, once opponents figure out the tricks. Will Nolan
be able to keep opposing offenses guessing?
6) The Play of DBs
Chris Clemons, Jason Allen, and Sean Smith
Clemons is the new starter at free safety, while
Allen has surprisingly wrestled a starting CB job away from Smith. Clemons,
though talented, is inexperienced. Allen is seasoned, but has seen limited duty
on defense. Smith started all 16 games last year, the first Dolphin rookie CB
to do so, but has struggled lately; he’ll come into the game in extra DB
situations along with Benny Sapp. While logic tells us that the secondary
should be better simply with the departure of Gibril Wilson, it’s not as easy
as that. Clemons must continue to show that he is a sure tackler and cover man,
couldn’t accomplish. Allen, probably the team’s most physically-gifted
defensive back, must prove he can stay sound fundamentally. And Smith must
prove he is tough mentally, that he won’t let setbacks or distractions knock
him off his game. With the bevy of talented receivers in the AFC East, these
three need to be up to the challenge.
7) The Play of the
The glaring weakness on the defense is the OLB
position, as none of the players there are completely well-rounded. Cameron
Wake, the team’s best pass rusher and starter at the Will position, is not the
stoutest when it comes to stopping the run. Veteran Ikeaika Alama-Francis, the
starter at the Sam position, is good at setting the edge but is slow of foot in
defending the passing game. Speedy rookie Koa Misi is better at defending the
pass, but has struggled to stand firm against the run. Opposing teams will
chose to target them until they prove they can stop people.
8) Win the Turnover Battle
When asked this week what the top key to victory
over the Bills was, Sparano cited winning the turnover battle. This shouldn’t
be a surprise; the Dolphins were amongst the worst in the league last year with
a -8 ratio. For the sake of comparisons, Super Bowl champ New Orleans was +11. Enough said.
The Coverage Teams
For the third year in a row, we are worried about
the effectiveness of the special teams…especially the coverage teams. Field
position is so important to winning in the NFL, and porous coverage units have
cost the Dolphins dearly under Sparano’s tenure. The dogs haven’t been eating
what special teams coach John Bonamego is serving. Will Year Three be the
10) Avoiding the
The Dolphins were a much deeper team before the
latest and very surprising wave of veteran cuts and assignments decimated the
roster. These cuts did nothing to help the 2010 Dolphins win games. In fact,
the primary purpose of those cuts was to save money. Will these moves rebound
to hurt the Dolphins during the second half of the year? Given the quality of
the talent now in those positions, Sparano better hope (no, pray) that his
starters stay healthy….especially on the offensive line and across the
defensive front seven.