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On Porpoise 3-96
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Last Update:
    The Time has come, the DOLFAN said,
	To talk of many things....
    Of Runs and Rooks and Rushing Blocks,
	Of Cornerbacks and Rings....

And so begins another scintillating (and long overdue) issue of "On Porpoise", my personal column on the Dolphins. There was a time when this was a regular feature, coming out about once a week, but this year I've been so busy with other things that "On Porpoise" has not been getting the attention it deserved.

Well, it's time to correct that oversight. There are many things to talk about, now that the season is half over, and I'll do my best to cover some of them today.

Right now, the Dolphins are 4-4 and coming off a bad streak that has seen them lose 4 of their last 5 games. The month of September and it's 3-0 record seem like a distant memory, along with the devastating run defense and outstanding rush-oriented offense that we saw so much of during the first 3 games.

So what happened to that team? Were they just a flash in the pan? Are they a playoff caliber team? Is this the same team that has been so close and yet so far away from a ring these last 4 or 5 years?

Well, the answer to the last question is easy, so I'll tackle it first - this is clearly not the same team from a year ago. It's not the same team that we have come to expect disappointment from late in the season and it's not the same team that relied totally on Dan Marino to win all it's ballgames.

Now, I know that some of you will disagree with me. I have been watching the newsgroups and mailing lists enough to have read all the "Oh, Woe is Us!" posts from the nattering nabobs of negativity (I've always wanted to use that phrase...) that inhabit the Internet and I know that some of you out there would prefer to wallow in your woeful wounded wailing and see only the dreary darkness.....

Well, you get the point.

And the point is, of course, that one or two games do not a season make. As JJ points out, the season is a marathon, not a sprint. One or two games don't define the season. The only way we'll know whether or not this team has truly changed is to look back after the season is over and see how they've done.

But there are some encouraging signs that this team is different and I think they're worth mentioning. First of all, we have the running game. At this point in the season, the Dolphins have run the ball 227 times and thrown it 223 times. The results have been inconsistent at best, but the commitment is there to run the ball and I can't help but believe that that's a good sign.

On the other hand, the inconsistency of the running game is a concern. In that regard, the team looks a lot like the team of old. The problem seems to lie in the run blocking, especially on sweeps and runs outside the tackles. For some reason, the Dolphins can't seem to sustain those rushing blocks long enough or pick up the charging linebackers and cut them off.

Now, I believe that with experience and seasoning, the offensive line will get better at making and sustaining those blocks, but in the meantime, I'm afraid that we have to expect that the running game will be inconsistent. And by experience, I mean experience running the ball, which they haven't had a lot of in recent years.

Another sign that's indicative of change is the play of the rookies. First of all, the fact that 4 are regular starters is significant all by itself. In the past, that would not have happened. In addition to the 4 regular starters, Daryl Gardener is getting a lot of playing time and Larry Izzo is at least partially responsible for the improvement of the special teams. Of the starting rookies, Pritchett, Abdul-Jabbar and Zach Thomas are playing very well. All have had their off moments, but it's easy to see the talent and aggressiveness that characterizes their play. I think that Abdul-Jabbar has is, right now, the best Dolphins running back. There's no question that Zach Thomas is the best linebacker and Pritchett is really the only fullback.

As the first draft pick, Daryl Gardener hasn't been setting any rookie records, but he has been getting a lot of attention from opposing lines, which is a backhanded compliment. And even Shane Burton has gotten a lot of playing time.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Jerris McPhail. He has good hands and great speed and will undoubtedly make a serious impact in the future.

What all this rookie activity means is both good and bad. It's bad, because teams with a lot of rookie starters don't normally play in the SuperBowl. It's good, however, because it means great things for the future.

But nowhere is the change of the team more obvious than in special teams play. This year, the Dolphins special teams have dramatically improved, mostly from an infusion of youth and a sense of aggressiveness and importance that JJ has instilled in the special teams. The addition of speed and aggressiveness to the Dolphins really has shown a dramatic improvement in this area.

So where does that leave us in the middle of the season? Well, I think that it's clear that this team is a different team than it has been in recent years. More aggressiveness, speed and youth have shaken this team up and it's in the process of building itself into something new.

Still, change doesn't guarantee improvement. The changes in style and personnel and the reduction of experience really make this a transition year. And teams in "transition" don't play in the SuperBowl.

People who asked me privately in the beginning of the season about the Dolphins' chances got told that I thought they would end the year with a record of 8-8 or 9-7. Right now, that seems to be the way they are heading. I also said that I thought the team would play inconsistently, especially on defense, because of all the changes in personnel and schemes. I said that I thought they would be great one week and terrible the next.

Well, sometimes I don't like to be right. Sometimes, I'm happy to be wrong, but it appears, at the halfway point of the season, that the Dolphins, while on the right track, still have a bumpy ride ahead of them.

And that about concludes my remarks in this edition. I believe that the Dolphins can get to the playoffs this year, if they win both of their next 2 weeks, but I won't be too disappointed as long as they show improvement in the areas that still need work. As long as they play...

... On Porpoise...


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Curt Fennell
DOLFAN in New England