With less than a week remaining before the start of the regular season, a recently convoluted picture of the 2010 Miami Dolphins is beginning to come into clearer focus.
As go-time approaches, it grows increasingly apparent that the Fins have more than a few wrinkles to which they must quickly press a hot iron. Without quite a few areas of marked improvement, fans should fear another very long and disappointing season.
Fortunately for Miami fans, all the necessary tools for a hallmark season are currently in-house, it is very simply a matter of each man calling forth his true ability and stretching it to the maximum.
There's the sort of player who says he is hungry; and quite another sort who is so starving that he can't even speak. This team will need the help of the latter before all is said and done.
So, aside from pure heart, what is it going to take to get the job done for the Miami Dolphins?
Hit the Ground Running
There is little room for error in a championship season. The Dolphins have a relatively tough schedule down the home stretch, so it is absolutely imperative that they explode out of the gate, and appear in mid-season form from the very beginning.
The Dolphins have struggled with this concept in the recent past, but it can no longer be a problem if this is to be their year. These guys are going to have roughly zero time for adjustment once the regular season hits—a concerning prospect, considering the fashion in which Miami commenced its preseason exhibitions.
Fortunately, opening day includes a trip to Buffalo to face a Bills team that could very well be one of the worst the NFL has to offer in 2010.
Week Two will certainly present a challenge, as Brett Favre will indeed be returning for his 20th season, and the Dolphins are scheduled to meet the Vikings in Minnesota. The 2009 NFC runner-up Vikes are, however, by no means an insurmountable obstacle, and perhaps just the early-season test Miami needs to prove that they are legitimate contenders for a deep playoff run.
Assuming the Dolphins are able to pull off their first 2-0 start since 2006, they will be primed for subsequent back-to-back divisional meetings with the Patriots and the Jets in Weeks Three and Four. Both rival teams will be visiting Sun Life Stadium, so the pressure will be on for the Fins to play their hearts out in front of the home crowd.
If Miami's home performances against these teams last year serves as any indication, 4-0 going into the bye week is a very real possibility that Dolphin-foes may have a hard time accepting.
All of the players currently working under Mike Nolan have nothing but praise for the way the defensive guru attacks offenses. Each of the guys seem excited about the new system that Nolan is planning to employ, and the general consensus is that vast improvements have been made over last year.
All off-season people were debating as to whether or not the Dolphins could generate pressure on passing downs, after the loss of veteran Joey Porter and another former Miami sack-leader whose name we shall not speak.
There are still several players on the defense that possess penetration abilities, and the new talent being cultivated vis-a-vis Koa Misi and Jared Odrick is intriguing, as the two rookies' progressions through camp and into the preseason have been more than satisfactory.
Channing Crowder openly admits that he knows more is going to be expected of him than he has shown in the past, and he showed up to the first preseason game in a big way, proving that he is up to the task—or at least willing to give it a try. Questions about his health, unfortunately, still loom going into Week One.
The continued passion I am hoping to see exhibited by Karlos Dansby is of a brand that permeates a locker room and a defense. He did more than excel in Arizona, he was a motivator for the entire team, and I expect to see nothing less from him in a Dolphins uniform.
Great promise has also been exhibited by young corners Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, upon whose shoulders rest the duties of covering some of the best wide receivers the NFL has to offer. Both men have garnered notice for their increased awareness, not to mention the fact that they possess an invaluable training tool in Brandon Marshall. That should help to speed their development significantly. I consider the recent benching of Smith to be a managerial tactic to get the young man to work harder.
The defense was the only thing holding Miami back from a strong record in 2009. Even in as battered and depth-testing a state as they found themselves part-way through, the offense rarely had trouble putting points on the board. If not for defensive breakdowns, the Fins could have logged victories over the league-leading Colts, and the Saints.
With a new, improved, and hunger-driven defense in 2010, the Miami Dolphins could very well shock an entire nation of football fans into a state of compulsory respect, and wildly-intense envy.
Phinish, Phinish, Phinish!
This concept cannot be stressed enough when it comes to this team. You've simply got to play as hard or harder in the fourth quarter than you would at any other time during the game, otherwise everything you've worked at during the first forty-five minutes is for naught.
There is nothing more agonizing than a loss stemming from a blown lead, and in recent years the Dolphins have practically made it into an art-form.
The Dolphins are one hundred percent capable of playing at the absolute highest level—that much is indisputable. Yet, it is the sustenance of such a high level of play that has eluded them in the past. There will no longer be room for error, hesitation or the mismanagement of strength to last an entire football game.
An all-too-common occurrence in recent Dolphins' contests has been the increased frequency of penalties in the closing minutes of a game, a time when loss of yardage can mean the difference between a win or a loss.
Last year in the case of the Titans game, it was an overtime penalty coupled with a Chad Henne interception that helped Tennessee into field goal range to end it on a single possession in overtime. It is sub-standard clutch play like that that sunk the Dolphins' playoff hopes in 2009, and for a repeat of 2008's success to be possible, precisely that which will not be satisfactory.
I hope a lot of time has been spent over the past few months attempting to simulate situations in which the game is on the line, because the Fins are almost certainly headed for some interesting trials to that effect in the upcoming season.
Spreading the Ball Around
It was a big disappointment for everyone to see Brandon Marshall drop his first two passes as a Miami Dolphin, but even so, many people are going to be screaming for Marshall's number to be called all year. That's why he was brought to Miami.
But he was also brought in for another reason: Brandon Marshall is a coverage magnet. He gives the Dolphins the look of an offense that can strike deep, but with the ability to pull defenders away from those of his compatriots that may seem less of a threat.
Marshall will get plenty of chances for redemption, and probably enjoy another year of impressive receiving stats, but the opportunities that his presence can afford his teammates will perhaps overshadow it all.
Henne's tendency to throw interceptions at the very worst times is another variable that will need to be corrected, but perhaps will be positively affected by the newly-anchored receiving corps. Much will be depending on the group's ability to get on the same page with Henne, and each other.
Chad Henne and his receivers have their work cut out for them, but now have everything they need to develop the sort of passing game that forcibly transforms solid defenses into something that greatly resembles Swiss cheese.
Running Game Reboot: Stretching the Field, Wildcat 3.0
The return of Ronnie Brown will only exacerbate the issues that opposing defenses are going to have with a Miami Dolphins offense that looked good last season, even at the worst of times.
Chad Henne and his rag-tag crew of backups and transplants (O-line musical chairs, anyone?)
went to little trouble putting up points against the league's very best defenses, and with potency restored through acquisition and recovery, it can only get better.
One of the major advantages to both having Ronnie back and boasting one of the NFL's top five receivers, will be in shrinking opponents' margin for error on defense. Imagine trying to defend yourself against a snake that has a head at both ends of its body. As you attempt to engage one head, the other can wheel around and use your distraction as an opportunity to strike where you are most vulnerable.
That's exactly the sort of lose-lose situation facing the Dolphins' foes when a happy Brandon Marshall takes the field with a Ronnie Brown who will be playing for a new contract. Try to protect too much against the run, and you have to deal with B-Marsh in the open field. Pay Marshall too much attention, and you just gave an extra step to a running back that doesn't really need one.
Also accompanying Brown's return, will be the Dolphins' ability to test defenses' power to stop the run in 11 on 11, man-on-man situations. That is precisely the reason why the famed Wildcat (or as I like to call it, the Single-Fin Offense) will continue to be a key aspect of Miami's running game. While Ricky was able to utilize the formation to score more than a few points following Brown's injury, Ronnie is really the NFL's number one back out of Wildcat, and it will be nice to see him run it once again.
Some people may forget that 2009's fourth-ranked rushing attack was achieved by a man in his thirties, and a bunch of backups. With Ronnie back in the mix, and the Jets' dominant rushing unit dismantled over the off-season, there is practically nothing standing between the 2010 Miami Dolphins and a number one running game.
Discipline, On and Off the Field
This is a big one. Attitude is everything, and in order to win the Dolphins will have to be passionate about winning. More so than they have been in recent memory. Winning has to be the objective of primary importance, but the manner by which you reach victory is also of great significance.
First of all, the Fins can forget about a golden season if penalties cannot be kept to a minimum. A huge part of the team's success in 2008 was in being the league's least penalized squad. New offensive lineman Ritchie Incognito has had trouble with drawing penalties in the past, as well as a few other Dolphins who will need to be on their best behavior this year.
It's all about remaining disciplined, and never letting your guard down until the final whistle is blown.
Even after that, the need for well-behaved players does not stop. Miami players were arrested more than those from any other team in the league this off season, leading many people to question management's commitment to reprimanding unruly players. Players who many forget are mostly young men in their early twenties, still with much to learn about life, and how productive members of society are expected to act.
This team will need to conduct itself with military-level polish and precision for every second of the next five months if there is to be any hope for post-season glory. Mistakes cannot be eliminated, but they can be greatly minimized by players who care about being among the league's elite more than anything else.
There are a few pieces to the Dolphins' puzzle, the success of which is largely dependent upon a player reaching an expected level that he has not already attained.
Chad Henne is the first guy who comes to mind, since this is now officially his team, and simply because without a stellar performance from Chad this year, this pod could be in some serious hot water.
By Week 13 of 2009, Henne looked like the leader. He began his NFL career as a starter going 7-3, and turning a lot of heads while doing so. What happened to sour the final three weeks of the season is unclear, but we do know that the team came unhitched, and when that happens, blame falls to the anchor.
Chad will have no time to adjust to being a full-time starter this year. With such importance placed on a strong start, Henne will need to look sharper than ever. It's going to be a matter of how quickly he can get on the same page with this upgraded offense, and begin to have the greatest season of his football career to date.
Another progression to watch will be Randy Starks' transition to nose tackle. While he does have a stalwart backup in Paul Soliai, Starks is going to relied upon to dominate the space around him in his new position, and disrupt teams' efforts to attack up the middle.
The defense also provides many subplots along the lines of improving players on the linebacker corps, and in the secondary. Many people are excited to see how quickly the unit transitions to Mike Nolan's new schematic, as it seems to have been well-received by the players in camp.
While a Dolphins victory is contingent upon so many guys reaching their ultimate potential, one gets the sneaking suspicion that it is not as long of a way to travel. Three years ago, a championship season seemed light-years distant. Now, it seems only a matter of time.
Time is working against the Miami Dolphins, but don't be too surprised to see this group in impressive form from the very first kickoff of the year.
Top-Notch Performance in the Division
For the first time in a long time, Miami is going into a season with the distinct talent and ability to outmatch every opponent on its schedule. Of course there will be bumps in the road, no one expects the Dolphins to go undefeated (again), but no team has the luxury of counting a game vs. Miami as an automatic "W".
Most importantly, 2010 may represent the Fins' best chance to sweep the AFC East than has presented itself in many, many years.
With the other teams in the division facing retirements, untimely injuries, and more; at present Miami perhaps looks the least damaged. Could the Dolphins finally sweep the Patriots this year? Repeat on the Jets?
Series splits could very well be the order of the day, and I think 4-2 in the division is a very real possibility, but the bottom line is, the Dolphins have a shot to sweep this division. I know it, and you know it; Rex Ryan and Bill Belichik know it.
Call New York the team to beat if you want, but that would simply make you another of the media's faithful sheep. Call New England a shoo-in if you like, but only makes you a cliché. Say that the Bills are the likely winners, and I'd recommend you get your head examined.
As far as I'm concerned, a Miami team that stays healthy shouldn't have too much trouble laying claim to this year's title in the AFC East.
Staying healthy is another hurdle altogether.
Changing the Playoff Story
In the last decade, Miami has been sporting a goose egg in the playoff win column, and in all honesty, what is the point of concerning ourselves with making it there, just to be promptly sent home?
Nothing can be done about the playoff runs that might have been. All that remains is to build a future that does not resemble the past. It does not behoove players to get wrapped up in the big picture, so it is for them to simply focus on the game at hand.
But what makes a team capable of playing at the highest level all the way through to the end of the post-season? It goes back to passion.
Much like overtime in a long and hard-fought game, towards the end of a deep playoff run, players' bodies are physically spent, and the will to continue to flourish comes from pure heart. When a player reaches his limit, and from deep within he finds the power to push through that wall, it's almost as if he ascends to a higher plane.
The Dolphins' ability to embody this concept will be critical all year long, and most importantly, from Week 12 until the end. It was a nose dive that they took in the final weeks of 2009 that dashed playoff hopes, and it began with a devastating week twelve loss to Buffalo in which the Dolphins' had begun to play as if they had been completely drained of the will to win.
Regardless of outward skill and ability, as individuals and as a team, it will be the Dolphins' internal commitment to playing winning football that will ultimately determine their fate with respect to the 2010 playoffs
A Little Luck Never Hurt
All the pieces of a championship puzzle now reside in Miami. How well this young team can sort through, and put that puzzle together to reveal a winning picture remains to be seen. We can only hope that the football gods have deemed Miami fit for a title, because there never was a championship won without a little luck.
At times last year, it seemed fortune was on the Dolphins' side, until the cruel hands of fate removed every last bit of fight the team had leading up to the season's disappointing culmination.
The moment I realized that 2009 would unmistakably end in disaster, was in Week 15. After overcoming a 24-9 fourth quarter deficit to the Titans, sending the game into overtime, the Dolphins won the toss and looked poised to write their own ticket. That ticket was voided when Chad Henne almost immediately threw a pick on a terribly executed pass play. Greg Camarillo added insult to injury for a late hit at the end of the same play, putting the Titans in field goal range without having to take a single snap.
We all know how that fiasco ended. Four plays later Rob Bironas would kick the winning field goal for Tennessee, and send the Fins on a three game losing streak to end the season.
Beyond luck, the Dolphins have everything they need. There are no excuses for failure this year. If they do not triumph, it will only be because someone else wanted it more, not for lack of sufficient talent. If these players max out their potential, the sky is the limit for the Miami Dolphins.
In the meantime, it never hurt anyone to cross their fingers, and wish.
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