Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Exceeding Expectations: The 2008 Miami Dolphins

It's become commonplace to state this recently, but it bears mentioning here too: the Miami Dolphins control their own destiny. Win their next three games (vs San Francisco, @ Kansas City, @ NY Jets) and the Dolphins - yes, the Dolphins - will win the AFC East. It would be their first playoff appearance since the 2001 season, when they lost a Wild Card matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.

How did this happen? How could a team that was a meager 1-15 just a year ago become competitive and push for not only a playoff berth, but a division title? There are plenty of reasons.

  • BILL PARCELLS - It all started with the hiring of Bill Parcells, nearly a year ago to be the Executive Vice President of Football Operations. On that date the Dolphins began their rebuilding. The moves he made over the next month were huge building blocks for the rejuvenation of this once proud franchise.
  • JEFF IRELAND - Another huge step to righting the ship was hiring Jeff Irleand on January 2nd, 2008. Ireland replaced Randy Mueller, who never quite grasped talent evaluation at the college level. Though Mueller technically only had the final say over roster moves for one year (former head coach Nick Saban had the final say over the personnel during his two year regime), the 2007 Dolphins draft has been a bit of a disappointment. The final judgment on his lone class can't really be passed until after next season (you have one more year to prove yourselves, Ginn, Satele, and Soliai).
  • TONY SPARANO - After searching for a new head coch for close to two weeks, Tony Sparano was officially hired on January16th, 2008. Sparano has been a pleasant surprise. He has shown the ability to motivate players, learn on the fly, and make needed adjustments. His evaluation of the proper play calling during key situations has been huge to the Dolphins success thus far.
  • ASSISTANT COACHES - The other coaching staff positions that were filled have been a huge success to date as well. QBs Coach David Lee, hired before Sparano, has done wonderful things with the two Chads (Pennington and Henne, more on both later). Hiring D coordinator Paul Pasqualoni has done wonders for the defense. Under Pasqualoni the Dolphins have vastly improved. After ranking 23rd in total defense in 2007 (342.2 yards/game), the team has improved to 13th through 13 games this season (317.2 yards/game). They are allowing only 20 points/game this season, down 7.3 points/game from '07. Through 13 games they have already eclipsed their sack total from last season. A big reason for this huge improvement is the run defense. In 2008 the Dolphins are allowing under 100 yards rushing/game (96.0, 11th in NFL). Last year they gave up an average of 153.5 rushing yards/game, dead last in the league. The last major staff position filled was offensive coordinator, which went to Dan Henning. As we'll see later, he's done plenty for this team.
  • ROSTER PURGE - Once the coaching staff was assembled it was time to overturn the roster. Gone were underachievers and overpayed veterans; young and "cheap" was in. QB Trent Green was one of the first to go, indicating that the Dolphins would be turning to their 13th starting QB since Dan Marino retired. The biggest offseason move - the one hardest to swallow for many Dolfans - was the release of Zach Thomas. Thomas had been the heart and soul of Miami for over a decade. The perennial pro bowler left everything on the field. It was a sad day to see him go. After the initial purge the front office began restocking.
  • FREE AGENCY/TRADES - During free agency resigned starters Yeremiah Bell and Michael Lehan. They added some beef to the o-line (Justin Smiley) and much needed depth at LB (Charlie Anderson, Reggie Torbor). The biggest additions came via trades, both with the Dallas Cowboys. After missing most of the 2007, NT Jason Ferguson was no loner needed in Dallas. Miami took advantage and added the behemoth to fix the porous run defense (as you saw earlier, he has helped a ton). Later on they went back to Dallas and absolutely fleeced them for TE Anthony Fasano and LB Akin Ayodele, both starter for Miami. The cost? A mere 4th round pick. This initial free agency period was up and down as they churned through the roster to find the right players. Many signed have since been let go as upgrades were sought. The only major miss by the front office has been WR Ernest Wilford, who was signed to be a starter opposite Ted Ginn. He has been inactive for a few games and has rarely seen the field. They fared better in the draft.
  • THE DRAFT - The 2008 draft was a huge success for Miami. Not only did they secure their starting LT for the next 10+ years, they added a QB of the future (Chad Henne) and two future starters at DE (Phillip Merling and Kendall Langford). There's a possibility they even found a late round gem in OG Donald Thomas. Unfortunately Thomas' rookie season was cut short due to injury. You couldn't have asked much more from this first draft class as there are potentially five starters in the group, plus two additional depth players (RB Lex Hilliard, DE Lionel Dotson).
  • THE FUTURE - Though this next point hasn't had a direct effect on the 2008 season, it will help for the future. A few days prior to training camp the Dolphins traded 2006 Defensive Player of the Year Jason Taylor to the Washington Redskins for a 2009 2nd round pick and a 2010 sixth rounder. For the second year in a row Miami will have two 2nd round picks to work with. They struck gold in '08 (Merling, Henne). Can it happen again?
  • FINDING UNHERALDED TALENT - In addition to their nice bounty in the draft, they also hit on two undrafted free agents. WR Davone Bess is now a starter following the season ending injury to Greg Camarillo. Bess has done a decent job returning kicks but has a birght future as a slot receiver. The other big UDFA acquisition was K Dan Carpenter. Carpenter has been stellar this far, hitting 19 of 22 FGs and all his extra points. When Miami cut Jay Feely some people felt it was a big mistake. Not so. Carpenter has been money and may be on his way to the Pro Bowl.
  • CHAD PENNINGTON - Two weeks into training camp arguably the biggest offseason move was made. QB Chad Pennington, cut by the New York Jets after acquiring Brett Favre, was signed. All Pennington has done in 2008 is outperform Brett Favre. And that's being noted elsewhere, too. Through 13 games, Pennington is 261 of 393 (66.4%) for 3,062 yards with 12 TDs and 6 INTs resulting in a rating of 93.7, good for 6th in the NFL and 2nd in the AFC behind only Philip Rivers. Pennington is one of the biggest reasons Miami is in the hunt for a division title.
  • GAME PLANS - The coaches, both offensively and defensively, have shown the ability to not only adjust properly during the game but also to come into the game with a way to win. Take the now notorious "wildcat" for example. Considered a gimmick by many at the beginning, implementing and deciding to use this old formation has come in handy. During it's debut it helped to destroy the Patriots in New England. Since then it has been held in check but it still provides a wrinkle that can be unleashed at any time.
  • TURNOVERS - More specifically, a lack thereof. The Dolphins have turned the ball over a mere 11 times (6 INTs, 5 fumbles). They are +11 in the all important turnover differential.
  • LUCK - Sure every turn around needs it. The Dolphins were one of the unluckiest teams in the league last year. They lost six games by three points last year. This year they are 2-1 in games decided by 3 points or less.
  • SCHEDULE - The best cure for losing is winning. And the easiest way to win is to play inferior opponents. This year that would mean getting to play the West Divisions in each conference. Well guess what division got to do that this year? Yep, the AFC East. Miami has played Denver (Win), San Diego (Win), Oakland (Win), Arizona (Loss), Seattle (Win), and St. Louis (Win). They have San Francisco this week and travel to Kansas City during the penultimate week of the season. Win the next two games, secure a 10-5 record, and the Dolphins will have gone 7-1 against teams from the West. You don't get to choose your schedule or who is good/bad in a given year so we can't penalize the AFC East teams for this. It is what is. However, the team still had to play and win those games, games they should win. And they have.

So there it is. That somewhat chronological list helps explain why the Miami Dolphins, 1-15 in 2007, are currently 8-5 and control their own destiny for the playoffs. If the Dolphins could change just one play in two of their losses, they could be 10-3 (Jets week 1, Texans week 6). That just goes to show that this team is almost always in the game and has a chance to win every week, no matter the opponent. They may not be the best team out their but they play hard.

Will the Dolphins make the playoffs this year and complete the greatest turnaround in NFL history? Maybe. No matter what happens these last three weeks, even if they implode and finish 8-8, this season was a huge success. I had predicted Miami to finish between 5-11 and 7-9. They have already proved me wrong. This season has laid the foundation for a team to be competitive every year for the next 5-7 years. Maybe more. They weren't expected to be competitive until 2010. They are already. With another offseason they could prove that they are back and ready to compete for another Super Bowl title.

With the triumvirate of Parcells-Ireland-Sparano, as well as the rest of the coaching and front office staff, the sky's the limit.

1 comment:

E said...

i really believe that pennington would not have been this effective if he were to stay in NY. the stigma attached to him by the media was bogging him down and he really needed a change of scenery. i'm not really surprised that he's doing this well. i still believe we're a better team because we got Favre, despite much of his undeserved hype.