One year ago Miami Dolphins were facing a huge restructure and nobody would predict a 11-5 record coming from 1-15 and facing twice New England and Brett Favre.
But Bill Parcells cleared the house and using Tony Sparano's analytical style and a very creative crew, they developed one of the most spectacular offense in years, including the famous Wildcat offense.
That and the fact they enjoyed one the easiest NFL schedule (on paper), allowed this team to move from laughingstock to brave contender. This was in part a result of many lucky moments, starting with the acquisition of Chad Pennington, a healthy roster for most of the season and not giving turnovers.
But this year Miami Dolphins have the hardest schedule (according to last season records) and Wildcat lose its surprise factor. So this team must be better than last season in order to keep growing.
Preseason games are used to test players, adjust schemes and position battles, holes to fill and strategic experiments that may setup a competitive team entering the season.
So halfway in preseason allows to figure out the big picture of a team, but also there are important facts to watch on two final games before season starts.
The weakest area since Patrick Surtain left Miami has been to establish a respectable secondary defense.
After several experiments ending in having a bunch of third teamer at any other place, during 2009 draft Miami spend two high profile selections on cornerbacks Vontae Davis (25th overall) and Sean Smith (61th overall).
Both showed enough talent and performed so well, that front office decided to cut Erick Green, the guy expected to fill the position while they adapted.
But the real doubt about it is who of them is going to win a starting role.
Aside of these rookies and two safe starters (SS Yeremiah Bell & CB Will Allen) there's a big cloud for guys like former first rounder Jason Allen, rookie Chris Clemons and several other that must show their worth in order to make the team.
With Matt Roth sidelined with an unclear groin injury, the rest of linebackers are fighting to win his spot as starting strong side OLB. Jason Taylor seems to be an upgrade there and only Quentin Moses looks like a contender for JT.
Starting right DT role has been open since entering training camps and there's nothing for sure, as there has been a large casting.
The entire defense has been battling with running issues as shown with Carolina Panthers' DeAngelo Williams, who made clear this unit must refine their tacking techniques.
Cameron Wake has been adjusting into NFL, and he got his first sack against Jacksonville.
That sounded almost crazy on my ears, knowing CFL is very different from NFL on LB, as with just three downs instead of four, offensive teams must throw a lot, that and the gap among OL and DL create different styles of LB and stats can become impressive for NFL standards.
But if this specimen is half the monster he was in Canada, he's the greatest acquisition of the year.
So hoping Matt Roth may recover and return in order to battle for the starting job and expecting to see a mayor upgrade of tackling techniques, both DL & LB can offer some surprises.
Even there's no doubt Chad Pennington will be the starter on 2009, there have been questions on his arm power and nobody believes when Sparano refuted such thing.
During his days on NY there was a constant mention that he can't throw fast deep passes. Somebody may defend him arguing the horrible winds of the Meadowlands, but I can't remember Marino having any trouble while throwing there.
But let's face it, Pennington style is "the smooth bomb", a smart pass with more collocation than speed, most of times better than cannonballs to nowhere.
That serves during regular season, but after checking, the last six Super Bowl winners are excellent throwers: the Manning brothers (one ring each), Big Ben (two rings) and Tom Brady (two rings). In fact, eight of the last ten champions won with important passers, excluding Tampa Bay and Baltimore.
So it makes sense to think on adding more arm power.
Chad Henne looks like the QB of the future and Sparano is preparing him to take the lead in 2010 or in this season if necessary. Henne need some refinement as he throws very well but has some inconsistency, yet.
The kid is learning from Pennington whose work ethics are awesome and his leadership is unique. His arm power looks similar to Tom Brady.
But there's no big QB without excellent targets. As today there's no number one WR target on Miami's roster.
But that may change if Ted Ginn Jr. explodes in his third season.
The chances are unlikely as he hasn't shown separation from coverage yet. If he can create that space between him and his defender he will shut up all his critics.
The rest of the receiving corps are fine options to be route receivers and people like Greg Camarillo, Anthony Fasano and David Martin are QB friendly as they always find a way to lose their marks.
During the rest of preseason every QB will have his doses of repetitions in order to prepare for the season. While receivers will prove their worth and try to grow individually to become better players.
The focus is on two guys: Pat White as extension for the Wildcat and Ted Ginn as potential receiver number one.
Other questions to see is who is going to be starting as wide receiver aside of Ted Ginn and how many receivers can succeed in order to make the team or at least stay at the Practice Squad.
The biggest issue on running attack for the Dolphins won't be related to any RB/HB, but the upgraded offensive line. There are significant signs that Sparano is pleased with his current starters and he trust on his roster members to backup them.
The most recent clue about it, is the fact that based on a close Parcells-Pioli relation, front office traded two o-linemen (Ikechuku Ndukwe and Andy Alleman) to the Kansas City Chiefs for an undisclosed 2010 draft choice.
That deal can result dangerous as Donald Thomas is returning after two injuries and Shawn Murphy needs more development to succeed.
Last season was marked with Donald Thomas first week injury and lose for the rest of the year, and former center Satele failing against mammoth NT, forcing to use a creative offense with the introduction of the now famous Wildcat package, a formation based on very old school offensive schemes.
Today with new center and the return of Donald Thomas, this offensive line looks upgraded to the point that creates such protection than anyone on the backfield can run effectively.
That includes one of the strengths of this team, a running unit that one time was considered a "two headed monster", now is a three or even four headed monster as with: a healthy Ronnie Brown (who also leaded the Wildcat)), a rediscovered Ricky Williams (who won't be as dominant as in 2003 but can share the load and still create big plays), the multifunctional Parick Cobbs (a favorite of Sparano) and even Lex Hilliard (now on his second season looks promising).
This way 2009 Dolphins looks like having the old school style of running unit of 70's Dolphins.
The Wildcat package, where a RB gets direct snap, serves to privilege a run and create options that sometimes transform in pass. But as Sparano and crew have expressed may be upgraded in order to stay as effective as last season.
I believe them, as this coaching staff have shown a respect for fundamentals and a creative way to use them. This is also confirmed with one piece of the draft: Pat White. He's a QB with the abilities of a RB, so under the Wildcat, he increases the possibilities for passing options.
These means it won't be the same Wildcat that Ronnie Brown leaded, but one that is being implemented as I write.
This new version of the Wildcat (Wildcat 2.0, WildPat or however you may name it) won't be exposed during preseason games, but for the next two games it's expected to see Pat White using the same Wildcat of last season as practice for the new one.
The big fact for next two games, is there's no position competition or a big number of doubts on O-line nor backfield, but to enjoy the running power of the team, and perhaps to watch some Wildcat moments.
After the disastrous experiment of undrafted rookie Chris Williams, both punt & kick return specialist are unclear.
With super talented Ted Ginn Jr. focused on starting offense, it's going to be an open audition for speedy, agile guys like: Davone Bess, Chris 'Deer' Clemons and anybody who can work it.
But no matter how interesting this may look the real thing to examine is whoever performs better on punt coverage. This has been a mess since Cam Cameron leaded this team and has shown few or none improvement.
Also special teams represent a last chance to make the team for several players and being a critical area to upgrade, this is going to be where every second and third teamer will be pushing to stay.