When the Miami Dolphins season officially ends next Sunday, there will likely be little rancor among the team’s most fervent followers. Disappointment, perhaps, but not a lot of finger pointing.
In part, that good will was earned by head coach Tony Sparano and staff last season when they improbably resurrected a 1-15 team and steered through tumultuous waters en route to a division title.
Part of that cachet, too, comes from the sobering reality of this year’s schedule, empirically the most difficult schedule in the league.
Furthermore, the Dolphins navigated this season’s nightmarish schedule with both their starting quarterback and running back on injured reserve.
Put in the form of a rhetorical question: What other team in the NFL had to navigate an imposing schedule with both their starting quarterback and running back out? The answer, of course, is none.
Yes, Carolina lost both Jake Delhomme and DeAngelo Williams, the Lions lost rookie Matthew Stafford and Kevin Smith, the Rams Marc Bulger and Steven Jackson. But none did so early in the season, which was the cross that Miami had to bear.
In spite of everything, what characterized this Dolphin team was a kind of valiant-heartedness. We saw this time and again when Miami fought to overcome obstacles like getting out to an 0-3 start, even though they completely outplayed Indianapolis in their home opener.
The Dolphins overcame the obstacles imposed by an unproven quarterback, an aging veteran running back, and the loss of a stalwart nose tackle.
The Dolphins valiant-heartedness can be measured too, by two gutsy performances against division rival New York and a hard-fought victory against the New England Patriots, who in actual fact outplayed Miami. It was even evident in the Saints game, where the Dolphins manhandled the undefeated opponent until an unfortunate turnover at the end of the first half set in motion a reversal of fortune.
It can be measured by the sideline demeanor of coach Tony Sparano exhorting his team to play better.
If anything, the only game where I feel the Dolphins laid an egg was the trip to Orchard Park, Buffalo, where they clearly let one get away from them. And that, unfortunately, has become an annual theme of an regrettable nature. (Toronto, anyone?)
None of this, of course, means that the Dolphins are free from reproach and not in need of repair. They most certainly are. For one thing, they gave far too many points in the fourth quarter. In fact, they gave up far too many points, period.
By the numbers, Miami has ceded an average of 24 points per game in 2009, which is far too many, and over 4 points a game worse than 2008. Yet, breaking down those numbers, that decline is hard to pinpoint.
The Dolphins' third-down defensive efficiency has improved over 2008, yielding first downs only 33.7 percent of the time, as opposed to 37.8 percent a year ago. Their pass defense has allowed only two more touchdowns than last year, playing largely with two rookie corners and a far more difficult schedule. I mean, the Dolphins had to face Manning, Rivers, Brees, and Brady twice each this year. Roethlisberger is yet to come. And they have only given up two more passing TDs thus far.
Their pass defense is actually ranked higher than last year, but 23rd is still nothing to write home about.
They have virtually the same number of sacks as 2008 with one game to play and just four fewer interceptions. Their run defense has fallen, but only slightly, and not enough to trip the alarm bells.
Still, allowing 24 points a game is too many—no one can argue that is a good number—and so it begs the question as to whether that is mostly a personnel problem or a coaching problem, or both. No defensive coordinator whose unit allows 24 points a game can feel too safe.
On offense, the Dolphins became more a running team in 2009. In the early going, they used the wildcat formation, effectively mixing Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, and Patrick Cobbs with Pat White. It was an effective cocktail that yielded good results until Cobbs and Brown were lost for the season, and the Dolphins had to rely on Ricky Williams to shoulder the load.
And he did. There should really be a special award for Ricky Williams, who has just about completed a renaissance year in 2009. He has done everything that could be asked of him and has done so without a lot of fanfare.
With one game left, the Dolphins are fourth in the league in rushing, with an impressive 21 touchdowns, 2,132 rushing yards, and a 4.4 yards per carry average. That is good stuff—good enough that it kept Miami in the top half of the league’s overall offense, though they have fallen three places to 15th.
The Dolphins passing attack has declined in 2009; they have fallen from 10th to 19th, with seven fewer passing touchdowns and nine more interceptions.
This begs another question: What to do with Chad Pennington?
There is no question that Pennington was Miami’s most valuable player last year, and in spite of the growing pains and difficulties inherent in being a first-year starter, Chad Henne did not match that performance.
Again, what to do with Chad.
Or, what to do with the Chads?
One can only speculate how the Dolphins might have fared this season had the other Chad been at the helm all season, had Ronnie Brown squirted out of the backfield until now.
Most likely, our requiem would be played to a different tune. As it stands, with one game to play and with the mathematical permutations necessary for the Dolphins entering the postseason approaching astronomical improbabilities, it is likely that the theme song for Miami’s season is the one about the valiant heart. If the Dolphins do make the playoffs next week, that song will only be played louder.