Lately, the Dolphins have been more exciting off the field than on it. That trend continued following the dispiriting 2010 season, during which the offensively anemic team lost seven of eight home games, including the final three to losing teams.
Dolphins owner Steve Ross flew across the country with general manager Jeff Ireland to try to convince then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh to take the coaching job still held by Tony Sparano. Harbaugh chose the San Francisco 49ers instead, leaving Ross in an embarrassing position. He admitted that, “I could have done it a different way,” claimed that he had never offered Harbaugh a contract, and quickly gave extensions to Sparano and Ireland.
That doesn’t mean either is safe, however. The Dolphins haven’t just been bad (14–18) the past two seasons, but also boring. So it’s natural that their fan base’s patience and enthusiasm are waning.
Three points and a cloud of criticism. That’s the most the Dolphins could usually muster during the 2010 season, when they were held to 15 or fewer points in nine of their 16 games. That wasn’t supposed to be the case, with Chad Henne taking over as the starting quarterback, Brandon Marshall added as an elite receiver, a retooled offensive line and two proven running backs, all led by experienced coordinator Dan Henning.
Henning was forced out in favor of Brian Daboll, whose Cleveland scoring offense was a rung lower than Miami’s (31st compared to 30th). Henne, however, is back. He tried to take more of a leadership role during the lockout, but he won’t be given a long leash, after Sparano pulled him for both Chad Pennington and Tyler Thigpen during his first full season as a starter. While Henne has the necessary arm strength, he often chooses to check down. He must improve his accuracy, pocket presence and poise, while gaining the confidence of teammates and coaches.
The volatile Marshall caught plenty of passes for marginal impact, made comments fueling the narrative that Henne is too robotic — and then was allegedly stabbed by his wife in a domestic dispute. Miami needs his head right. It also needs to find someone to help him, beyond Davone Bess, the slippery, valuable slot man. Anthony Fasano is a steady tight end, and Brian Hartline led the team with 10 catches of at least 20 yards, but neither is feared. That makes the development of speedy rookie Edmond Gates nearly as critical on the outside as Daniel Thomas’ will be in the backfield. Thomas, a 230-pound one-cut runner with average speed, is expected to get the starting role, and then the ball quite a bit. Reggie Bush, acquired from the Saints in a post-lockout trade, will provide a nice change-of-pace option out of the backfield. He will catch passes and help out in the return game, too.
Sparano is touted as an offensive line specialist, but he has struggled to build a stable unit, even with Jake Long’s emergence as one of the game’s premier left tackles. Long is a force in both pass protection and run-blocking and proved his toughness by playing with a serious shoulder injury down the stretch. Richie Incognito was a nice surprise in 2010, harnessing his talent while controlling his infamous temper. He’ll probably slide back to guard, with first-round pick Mike Pouncey taking over at center. Vernon Carey has been a fixture at right tackle but has never gotten into premium shape and has tended to wear down with assorted injuries. Inside, Joe Berger is a serviceable, versatile player, and John Jerry has potential.
Considering the burden it bore in 2010, this unit performed admirably in its first season in Mike Nolan’s 3-4 scheme, and its youth bodes well for the future. The budding star is electric outside linebacker Cameron Wake, the former CFL Defensive Player of the Year who was in contention for the same award in the NFL, with 14 sacks and improved play against the run. This season, the Dolphins will need others to apply more pressure, starting with promising second-year man Koa Misi, all-around playmaker Karlos Dansby and newcomer Kevin Burnett. A former Cowboy and Charger, Burnett was signed to replace Channing Crowder.
Massive nose tackle Paul Soliai emerged as a force last season, allowing the undersized Randy Starks to slide back to his more comfortable spot at end. There’s quality depth on the line, especially if Jared Odrick and Philip Merling can fully recover from serious foot and Achilles injuries, respectively.
One of Miami’s goals in 2010 was to allow fewer big plays, and that occurred to a degree. But the Dolphins also didn’t make many either, recording only 11 interceptions and failing to get off the field consistently. Vontae Davis, whose technique is starting to match his toughness, should be a multi-season fixture at one cornerback spot. The question is whether the lanky Sean Smith, who was benched for part of 2010, can be the other. If not, Miami will turn to savvy veteran Will Allen (coming back from a knee injury), second-year player Nolan Carroll or nickel back Benny Sapp. Yeremiah Bell, the rock of the secondary for several years, led the team in tackles again, but he can be exposed in space, and he’ll be pushed by second-year player Reshad Jones. Chris Clemons showed some range at free safety in his first season as a starter. Still, Miami could use competition for his spot.
What had been a sore spot for the Dolphins became what Sparano called “a tidal wave” on Oct. 4 when Miami allowed two blocked kicks and a kick return touchdown. That led to John Bonamego’s firing and Darren Rizzi’s promotion, but the overall results improved only slightly. The Dolphins need to put a greater premium on special teams play when making final cuts.
Dan Carpenter returns as the kicker after getting off to another great start before fading late. For the season, he missed 11-of-26 attempts of 40 yards or more. Brandon Fields is one of the league’s better punters; in several games in 2010, he was the Dolphins’ best player. The return game, ordinary for years, could use a boost, and should get one from Bush and Gates.
With Bill Parcells officially out of the building, Dolphins fans need not wonder who is in charge. It’s Ireland, at least for now.
“We’re going to do what we need to do to get this thing done,” the GM says. “I know there’s a lot of passion in the fan base, and I understand the frustrations. But we’re not going to sleep around here until we get this thing turned in the right direction.”
Dolphins fans can sleep well about the young defense, which has the potential to be among the best in the conference. It’s the offense, and especially the guy tossing the football, that will lead to all the tossing and turning. Unless Henne develops, or the Dolphins find another solid solution, the playoffs will be out of the question.
Outside the Huddle
The Dolphins have become a faceless organization, especially when compared to their NBA neighbors (the Heat). That’s best typified by the fact that their highest-ranked player, according to the peers who voted for the NFL Network list, was a left tackle. Jake Long was ranked No. 28. The only others in the top 100? Brandon Marshall at No. 61, and Cameron Wake at No. 63.
This will be the last season that the Dolphins need to deal with the dirt infield during the first few weeks of their season. The Marlins, at long last, will be moving into a new stadium, roughly 20 miles southeast, in 2012. Of course, during the 19 years that they shared the stadium, the Marlins won two World Series titles, while the Dolphins didn’t even reach the AFC Championship Game.
In most NFL cities, fans love to see their coaches pump their fists. Dolphins backers, however, came to dread when Tony Sparano did it in 2010, since he had a habit of doing so after field goals. It even spawned a number of YouTube videos and songs.
Mad Dog Tribute
Jim Mandich, the former Dolphin tight end and popular analyst, died during the offseason after a fight with bile duct cancer. Nearly 3,000 people attended a memorial at Sun Life Stadium, including Don Shula, and the night closed with a chorus of Mandich’s catchphrase, “All right, Miami!”
Chad Chad Pennington rehabilitated from a third surgery on his right shoulder, only to re-injure it on his first regular season play in November and miss the rest of the season. Then, in March, he tore his ACL playing basketball. So he’ll spend this season in the safety of the studio, as a FOX analyst.
Making Ends Meet
While millionaire players and billionaire owners squabbled during the NFL lockout, rookies got caught in the crossfire. Those included Dolphins sixth-rounder Charles Clay who, to pay for his trainers, did odd jobs, including cutting grass at oil wells.
How anemic was Miami’s aerial attack? The Dolphins threw for 17 touchdowns. Dan Marino threw for that many in the first six games of the 1984 season.
Bill Parcells rarely spoke to the media during his three years with the Dolphins. He’s been chatty since, taking responsibility for the busted Pat White pick (second round, 2009), and explaining that Jake Long was a “surer bet” than Matt Ryan at No. 1 overall in 2008. White tried baseball before turning to the UFL.