After a 1-15 season with first—and only—year head coach Cam Cameron, the Miami Dolphins seemed to be on a long road back from obscurity. Dolphin fans that were around for the Marino and Csonka days could hardly watch as a team of back-ups and pad fillers lost week after week.
However, after that season ended, something happened. Bill Parcels, "The Big Tuna", joined the Fins, giving the Dolphin fan base hope that Bill Parcells would wave his magic wand and make Miami a playoff team again.
Of course it wasn't going to happen though. The Fins didn't have the talent or a stable enough offensive line. Before too long, Miami was without a head coach and a clear direction on offense aside from Ronnie Brown.
And then another turning point; Tony Sparano was given the head coaching job, sparking a new era in Fin football. The team drafted offensive tackle Jake Long with the first pick in the draft and picked up many other offensive lineman and bread and butter positions.
The Dolphins' 2008 draft could've been seen as a message to their fans that they were trying to get better, but no fan could imagine how quickly they would.
Perhaps the biggest off-season move for the Fins occured after the New York Jets cut ties with Chad Pennington. Before Pennington could blink, he was signing a Dolphins contract and holding up a teal and orange jersey. At that point, Sparano knew he had a consistent, level-headed backfield running his offense.
After this, Sparano turned all of his attention to changing the lack of mental toughness and the losing atmosphere that surfaced in the recent years.
Thanks to a big year from Ronnie Brown and some other key role players, the Dolphins turned it around in a big way in '08-'09 season with an 11-5 campaign. Behind the Fin resurgence was Sparano, fist pumping and headset flailing, pushing his team of overachievers the entire way.
With the running game the Dolphins' main focus now, the difference in '09 will be the gelling of the defense and a step forward for the passing attack.
The offensive scheme will have to find more ways to get their burner Ted Ginn Jr. into the open field to capitalize on his blazing speed. Second year wideout Devon Bess will have to continue being the reliable sure handed receiver that he was in his rookie year.
For the most part, the offense should look the same with Pennington dinking and dunking down the field for six and seven yard gains. However, the wideouts will have to do more after the catch to get those larger chunks of yards that the passing game lacked at times a year ago.
With an offense that will primarily feature the running game, offensive efficiency will be crucial in the upcoming campaign. The Wildcat will also have to take another step forward if it's going to stay one page ahead of the defensive adjustments. Former West Virginia quarterback Pat White could add some serious wrinkles into the evolving Wildcat formation.
Overall, the Dolphins look like a solid football team heading into the upcoming campaign. It will be interesting to see how the defense will gel with the return of Jason Taylor and the continuing resurgence of Joey Porter. With a healthy Yeremiah Bell returning to his enforcer role and some steps forward by his inexperienced help, the secondary could be a fierce unit next year.
First round pick Vontae Davis will also get a chance to show his hyped athleticism and speed. However, he will have to learn quickly on the job with receivers like Randy Moss and T.O. dwelling in the AFC East.
Tony Sparano is a hard-nosed guy, and you saw his grit through his Dolphin team last year; they made the playoffs because of the heart and guts they played with every week.
Most of the wins weren't landslides, nor were they even aesthetically appealing. But they were wins, and every win was a message sent from Tony Sparano and his players to every team that thought the "Fish" were a doormat.
Now with winning and playoff expectations, Tony Sparano is entering foreign territory as a second-year head coach. However, something tells me that Sparano's message to his team will be familiar.
A message of grit.