Most NFL teams have a plan for how to win their division, get to the playoffs and maybe even win the Super Bowl.
Then you have the Miami Dolphins—a team undergoing a fundamental identity change in 2012.
Not much is expected of the Dolphins, and why should there be? They will be starting a rookie quarterback that some pundits thought was drafted too early. They have a new head coach with no head- coaching experience, and a wide-receiving corps that's so talent-deprived that some Dolphins fans are getting excited by the prospect of signing Jabbar Gaffney.
You could say that the Miami Dolphins are already as dead as Alison on Pretty Little Liars. However, I can see this team being as much of a pest to the teams on its schedule—specifically the AFC East—as "-A" is to the main characters on that show.
The Dolphins do have talent, but in order to at least go 8-8, they're going to have to maximize their strengths (running back, front seven, special teams) while minimizing their weaknesses (wide receiver, secondary).
So how do they do that? What will be the keys to Miami surprising most of the experts that have them pegged for a last-place finish? What are Miami's most winnable games and why?
Let's go on a magical journey to find out.
One reason why there's such little optimism about the Dolphins is because their secondary has more holes than Swiss cheese.
With the trade of Vontae Davis, Miami now has two serviceable cornerbacks in a passing-oriented league where you need three.
How could you possibly hide that? Once the ball is in the air, you will see the Dolphins' deficiencies.
The best solution would be to not even let the opposition get the ball in the air.
Miami's front seven is capable of doing just that. Cameron Wake is coming off a season that was weirdly effective. His sack numbers went down to 8.5 from 14 in 2010, yet he also drew twice as many holding penalties as any other player in the NFL (holding penalties are like a sack except there's no loss of down).
Now there's a new defense, switching from the 3-4 of Mike Nolan (now in Atlanta) to the 4-3. Being in the 4-3 means Miami will need another pass-rusher, and the Dolphins found him in the draft with Olivier Vernon.
With more players to occupy opposing offensive lines, Wake will be freed to run amok in the pocket, and Vernon won't exactly be an easy person to deal with, either.
Then you have Miami's linebacking corps, which can be a tad overrated (mainly Karlos Dansby) but is still solid. Koa Misi has shown improvement this preseason, and that's despite not playing with Dansby or Kevin Burnett beside him.
During the regular season, they will be there, and much like last year, they shouldn't have a problem stopping the running game (last season Miami's defense was third against the run).
Miami's front seven can cover up the deficiencies in the defensive backfield and will have to in order for the Dolphins to stay in their games.
Only one thing can cover up a defense's weaknesses, and that's forcing turnovers.
Part of it is luck. Sure, you can strip the ball, but there's no guarantee it is going to bounce your way.
And don't get me started on those pile-ups.
Last season Miami's defense was effective, especially in the second half. However, you wouldn't know it from looking at the turnover stats.
Miami's defense—which was ranked third against the run, sixth in points allowed and 15th in total defense—only forced 19 turnovers.
This is why its turnover ration was at -6, which ranked it 26th in takeaways.
You might blame that on the defense. However, Grantland.com's Bill Barnwell pointed out that the Dolphins only had one fumble recovery despite forcing 12 fumbles. One fumble recovery out of 12! This is a bad luck stat if you've ever seen one. Barnwell even wrote that "forcing fumbles is a skill, but recovering them is mostly luck."
Miami also had 16 interceptions (the fumble recoveries that made up the other two turnovers were on special teams), a number that could go down without Vontae Davis, who had four interceptions last year.
But Miami's defense can cause big plays, and should. They will have to. Last year, the Dolphins only returned one turnover for a touchdown—an interception by Kevin Burnett in Week 13 against Oakland. This number should increase.
Ask the 2009 New Orleans Saints (ranked 25th in total defense but second in forced turnovers) or last year's Green Bay Packers (ranked last in total defense but first in forced turnovers). Big plays can make you forget about the deficiencies in even the worst defenses.
When Bill Walsh, as offensive coordinator of Cincinnati Bengals, devised what became known as the West Coast offense, he did so in part because of their lack of a running game.
Ironically, as the Dolphins look to transition into the West Coast offense this season, they are going to have to rely on their running game to be successful.
Reggie Bush is coming off his best individual season, running for 1,086 yards while averaging five yards per carry. Bush could match those numbers, but doesn't figure to carry the ball as much in an offense that will require him to do other things as well.
Daniel Thomas' rookie year began with two strong games against the Houston Texans (18 rushes for 107 yards), and the Cleveland Browns (23 rushes for 95 yards). And despite seeming to hit a rookie wall, he still finished with 581 yards on 165 attempts, averaging 3.5 yards per carry.
If Thomas can raise his average by just half of a yard, he could give Miami's running game a shot in the arm while spelling Bush or freeing him to be used as the versatile weapon he should be.
Lamar Miller had a decent preseason, rushing for 91 yards on 30 attempts. However, he also showed flashes of being as explosive as he was at the University of Miami (prior to his shoulder injury). He will get some carries at times and will have to be effective this season.
Miami's running game gives it its best chance to win. Coach Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman are going to have to run the ball more than they would prefer in the West Coast offense, especially with a talented but rookie quarterback under center.
Due to their issues at wide receiver, the Dolphins are going to have to make heavy use of the running game in order to get the offense flowing. But in the West Coast offense, these same backs will also be used a lot as receivers. Luckily, the Dolphins backs have that skill.
Bush is versatile enough to catch passes out of the backfield and line up as a receiver. Last season, he had 43 receptions (which was eight more than wide receiver Brian Hartline and 11 more than tight end Anthony Fasano) for 296 yards.
The only reason he didn't have more receiving yardage was because most of those receptions were either on check-downs or screen passes. By running designed plays where Bush can get open and use his elusiveness once he has the ball, he could match the receiving production of running backs like Randall Cobb, James Starks and Ryan Grant of the Packers in the West Coast offense.
Lamar Miller could be used for the same purpose, and don't sleep on Daniel Thomas as a receiver out of the backfield. Last season, Thomas had only 12 catches for 72 yards, but is certainly capable of much more.
Dan Carpenter is going to have to be Dan Carpenter.
Brandon Fields is going to have to be Brandon Fields.
But Miami's kickoff- and punt-return units have to do something they haven't done in a while—create big plays.
Marcus Thigpen looks like he's going to be Miami's main return man. He's a safe choice (much like Davone Bess has been in years past), but doesn't seem to make game-breaking plays.
If Thigpen can take one to the house or get great returns every once in a while, Miami will be in much better shape.Then again, the Dolphins would likely be in better shape if they had kept Clyde Gates in this role or used Lamar Miller.
Great special-teams plays turn the momentum of a game. We've seen it happen to the Dolphins, but now they're going to have to create those plays instead of just watching them happen to them.
A punt return for a touchdown could be worth two to three wins this season, and that would make a big difference.
Three years ago in the West Coast offense in Green Bay, tight end Jermichael Finley had 55 receptions for 676 yards and five touchdowns. Fellow tight end Donald Lee added 37 catches for 260 yards and a touchdown.
This year in Miami, the Dolphins are hoping for similar production from tight ends Charles Clay and Anthony Fasano.
Clay is capable of putting up Finley numbers. However, it's not just about being capable of doing it: He has to do it.
It won't be easy, but with a West Coast offense that emphasizes the tight end, it can be done.
We only saw Clay scratch the surface last season in an offense where the tight end was but a safety net for the quarterback and blocked most of the time. Even as a second-stringer who was hampered by injury at the start of the season and transitioned from fullback to tight end, Clay still managed to grab 16 catches for 233 yards and three touchdowns.
And since Fasano, the veteran, will likely see more snaps than Clay (at least at the start of the season), he is expected to be the solid security blanket rookie QB Ryan Tannehill needs to develop.
Davone Bess and Brian Hartline are Miami's two most reliable receivers.
This isn't an opinion, this is fact, backed by stats from last season. Bess had 51 catches for 537 yards and three touchdowns, while Hartline had 35 catches for 549 yards and one touchdown.
Without Brandon Marshall, both will have to be even more solid this season. A young quarterback is counting on this, as is a young team.
I spent an entire article picking out the one quality I didn't like in Philbin and got chastised from Dolphins fans for it—despite also pointing out things I liked about him as well.
Now I'm going to talk about the quality I liked the most from him, and one that he has to continue to show for Miami to succeed this season. That would be his cool and calm demeanor.
Impatience is not an option for this team. The Dolphins are a very young (average age is 25.91) with a young quarterback (Tannehill is 24 years old) and will grow throughout the year.
Of course, this means growing pains, which means Philbin has to be as cool and measured as he has shown himself to be.
So far, Philbin is on the right track. He hasn't panicked and is sticking to the course. He knows as well as we do that there is a tough road ahead.
To quote another Miami-area coach, Philbin and the Dolphins have to keep on grinding and "not let go of the rope."
How well a team does is usually determined by the efficiency of its quarterback. While he's learning, Tannehill must be efficient.
If it means he has to be a game-manager in Year 1, so be it. If you want to win, you have to do whatever puts you in the best situation to win.
Now, just because Miami's best chance for winning means Tannehill has to be efficient doesn't mean he can't be great. He the talent to be both. However, he is a rookie and is going to have growing pains. This means he will make mistakes. Let's hope they will be minimal in nature.
From what we've seen in the preseason, that's what we will get from Tannehill. While he threw three passes that should've been picked off, only one was. An even better sign is that he only made three bad passes in 78 attempts.
Usually, this means a quarterbacks has to have taken several sacks, yet Tannehill has shown the presence of mind to avoid them.
He was sacked just as many times as Matt Moore (four), yet played more during the preseason and attempted 27 more passes. He also didn't fumble the ball (compared to Moore, who had two fumbles in the preseason game against Atlanta).
The lack of offensive weapons will keep Tannehill from doing spectacular things. But he doesn't have to be spectacular right away. If he can be efficient while showing the flashes of greatness we'd like to see from him in the future, the Dolphins will be in great shape.
Just remember to follow these rules, written by Dave Hyde of the Sun-Sentinel.
I mentioned earlier that Philbin has to show patience with this team. We have to do the same, especially with Tannehill at quarterback.
Now that we've seen the keys, here's the biggest one: actually winning the games.
Miami must win the games they're supposed to win, then pull off a few upsets.
Looking at the schedule, the games the Dolphins are "supposed to win" are Week 2 against Oakland, Week 3 against the Jets, Week 4 at Arizona, Week 6 against St. Louis, Week 9 against the Colts, Week 10 against Tennessee and Week 15 against Jacksonville.
That's seven games. If Miami wins those, then pulls off one upset, they would finish 8-8. I didn't count the game against the Jets in the Meadowlands as "winnable" because Jets vs. Dolphins is somewhat of a venue call. So that would be one upset, with other possibilities all over the schedule.
The good news is Miami's schedule isn't too difficult, but that's based on last year's results.
Every year is different, and a game that looks winnable at the start of the year may not stay that way. Teams on paper are different than on the field. For example, the Dolphins have no business even competing with the Houston Texans in Houston on Sunday. However, we know how it can be in the NFL, and I'm reminded of 2003, when a team had no business even competing with the Miami Dolphins at home opening week.
Of course, I'm referring to the Houston Texans.
Miami could storm into Houston and beat the Texans, thus setting them on a tailspin from which their season never recovers as they fall to 6-10. By then, a possibly 9-7 Dolphins team could look back on that Texans game and think "Why was it even as close as it was?"
So while winning the winnable games is the most important part of finishing 8-8 (or better, which is the hope, of course), remember that this isn't the NBA, where if you wager on the Heat winning the Eastern Conference, you're making a fairly safe bet.
Every year, teams that are Super Bowl contenders somehow finish 6-10, while teams that are supposed to finish 6-10 wind up hosting a playoff game.
Isn't that correct, 2008 Miami Dolphins and 2011 San Francisco 49ers?
While you may still have doubt about the Dolphins (and even after writing this I do), hang on to this quote:
Just know that there's a good team waiting for the right opportunity here. If they can catch even a couple of breaks, the Dolphins could even become relevant.
Let the games begin! See you this Sunday!