The Miami Dolphins surprised just about everyone including the fans, media, and probably even the front office in 2008.
The offense was held together by Chad Pennington and the team went from 1-15 all the way to 11-5 and won the AFC East for the first time in almost eight years. The unfortunate reality about taking a team and overachieving one year is that the next season becomes even more increasingly difficult, not only because of the expectations but also a much tougher schedule.
Miami opens on the road in Atlanta, comes home to play Indianapolis, and then takes to the road again to go cross-country and play San Diego. All three of those teams made the playoffs last year and are expected to do very well this year. The Dolphins also must play four road games in the month of November and they close the season at home against the reigning Super Bowl Champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I believe expectations should be tempered by the fans although, as I will show, there is a lot of reason for optimism this season. I will break down the sections of the team from offense to defense so we can examine the reality of what is about to become your 2009 Miami Dolphins.
Offensive Line: Since Bill Parcells arrived in Miami, there has been a major shift in focus as to what is really important and what wins championships.
The Dolphins have poured over $150 million into the O-line. Jake Long signed for $57.5 million and they re-signed Vernon Carey this offseason to just over $42 million. Miami went out and signed Jake Grove from Oakland for a cool $30 million and then turned around and traded their previous starter at center, Samson Satele, to the Raiders. Last year Miami signed LG Justin Smiley for $25 million.
Money does not necessarily equate to wins but Jake Long, the first pick in the 2008 draft, ended up making the Pro Bowl, so Parcells’ philosophy is certainly working. I believe this is one of the stronger O-lines in the NFL that has been assembled. Miami is probably a little soft at the guard position, but the signing of Jake Grove is going to take a lot of pressure off those positions.
Quarterback: Chad Pennington was the biggest gift Miami has gotten in a long long time. I am not eager for him to move out of the way for Chad Henne or Pat White for that matter.
Pennington showed superior leadership skills in 2008 by taking a rag-tag group of receivers and making Miami play like champions. Pennington completed over 67 percent of his passes and threw 19 TDs versus only 7 interceptions, almost a 3:1 ratio, which is unheard of.
The downside of Pennington is that this was only the second time in his career that he was able to start all 16 games in a season. The other time he did it was in 2006 and the Jets that year went 10-6; so good things happen when he is healthy.
The development of Chad Henne and Pat White will be critical to the long term success of Miami.
Henne has a big strong arm and Bill Parcells loves this kid. When looking at WRs in the draft this year, Parcells had Henne jump on a plane with him to throw balls to all the prospective players that Miami could have had a chance to grab.
Pat White, who Miami selected in the second round this year, is going to make an excellent wildcard in the wildcat offense that is quickly becoming a part of the permanent playbook in Miami.
Running Backs: Ronnie Brown leads the way for Miami. I believe he is primed for a huge season with the O-line that Miami has put in front of him. Brown has a nice combination of speed and power. Ronnie also knows how to grind out positive yards on plays when there aren’t any holes to run through.
Ricky Williams is OK as a change-of-pace-back, but he is getting old and will turn 32 before the season starts. Not many running backs get better with age, and 32 is very old when talking about a running back. Quite frankly, I am surprised Miami did not try and upgrade the running game some in the offseason, but the reality is Ricky is cheap for them right now.
Wide Receivers: This is one of the weakest areas for the Dolphins. Ted Ginn Jr. remains one of the lone holdovers from the Cam Cameron regime and if he didn’t cost Miami so much already in singing bonuses and pay, I think he would have been moved already. Ginn is anything but tough, will never be the guy across the middle, and quite frankly he is a WR3 playing a WR1.
Camarillo might actually start the year on the PUP list and leads to guys like Devone Bess, and rookies Patrick Turner and Brian Hartline. The depth just is not there for Miami and it is a glaring weakness for this team.
Tight End: Anthony Fasano has a very bright future in my opinion.
Last year he scored 7 TDs, and the combination of Fasano and David Martin combined for 64 catches, 900 yards, and 10 TDs. As a team, that is a lot of production plus they both block very well too, which helps the running game. Look for more of the same this season as the WRs continue to struggle some.
So overall, I think the offense is pretty good, but they have some issues at WR. Let’s look at the defense now.
Defensive Line: Miami needs for Kendall Langford and Phillip Merling to make great strides in 2009 as the level of play and types of teams they face will be much tougher than what they saw as rookies.
I want to believe in Bill Parcells and his ability to find talent, but neither of them took the field by storm last year.
Sacks are not the main issue here as traditionally in 3-4 defenses, the DEs do not record double-digit sacks all the time. They mainly eat up a lot of blockers to allow the outside linebackers to roam more freely. At defensive tackle, Miami is pretty thin after an aging Jason Ferguson who turns 35 this year.
Inside Linebacker: Akin Ayodele didn’t make a lot of highlight reels last year, but he was solid across from Channing Crowder, who the Dolphins resigned. It’s not the best one-two punch in the middle ,but they get the job done.
I would like to see Miami upgrade here but they had other pressing needs in the offseason.
Outside Linebacker: The re-signing of Jason Taylor rounds out a very interesting group that has a lot of diversity. Joey Porter and Jason Taylor are going to combine for 20-25 sacks; that is a given. But behind those two are two more guys that are very strong against the run.
Matt Roth did make the highlight reels a few times last year and now the Dolphins have brought in Cameron Wake, a standout from the CFL, into the cuts. Wake can also play inside if asked to.
This is a very deadly group of guys that Miami has assembled and I hope all of them make the roster as they all have different strengths for different situations.
Cornerbacks: Miami drafted Vontae Davis and he will develop into a solid CB for Miami.
The guy I really like that was drafted though is Sean Smith, who didn’t get the press but the guy is built like Bobby Taylor, who many remember from Philly. Smith is about 6'4" and will be asked to help out on guys like Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, who Miami will face both twice.
And not to worry about rookies starting because they will have both Jason Allen and Will Allen to learn from. I expect one of the rookies to unseat either of the Allens' the season starts. This is rapidly becoming a strength for Miami.
Safety: Yeremiah Bell and Gabril Wilson make for a solid one-two punch at safety. Wilson was a standout for the Giants when they won the Super Bowl and then went to the black hole in Oakland, where he was eventually released. Good thing Miami was on top of the Oakland mistake. Depth is a problem but I wouldn’t be surprised if Eric Green or even one of the Allens roll over some at safety as well.
Overall, I believe Miami is set up with this murderous schedule to win about eight games. But just as Miami fans are worried about other teams, those teams are also looking at Miami and not thinking "automatic win" like they have the past couple of years.
If Miami’s O-line is as good as I believe it can be, Ronnie Brown has a career year, and if the defense can wreak havoc for opposing QBs…it’s not out of the question that Miami could win 10 or 11 games, assuming they can keep the momentum going from last year.