Miami Dolphins: Two Steps Forward, but What's Next?

Jeff ShainContributor IJune 4, 2009

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 4:  Quarterback Chad Pennington #10 of the Miami Dolphins directs play against the Baltimore Ravens in an NFL Wildcard Playoff Game at Dolphins Stadium on January 4, 2009 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

June 4, 2009

The Miami Dolphins earned a place in the NFL record book last year by matching the biggest one-season turnaround in NFL history.

Now, though, looms the flip side.

History shows that of the 12 previous NFL teams to produce a one-year jump of at least eight wins, 10 took a step backward the following season.

One of the exceptions? The 1997-98 Jets under Bill Parcells, who engineered a jump from 1-15 to 9-7 in his first season and kept rising to 12-4 and an AFC title-game berth the following year. So the Dolphins have that nugget going for them.

However, a similar path figures to be difficult in an AFC East that last year produced a Dolphins/Jets/Patriots jumble down to the final weekend—and now finds a healthy Tom Brady back at New England’s controls and the Jets (Mark Sanchez) and Bills (Terrell Owens, Dominic Rhodes) making bold moves to spur their offenses.

“I don’t want to take anything away from what our football team did this past season, but that’s over,” coach Tony Sparano told reporters as the offseason program commenced. “In my mind, the next step is the harder step, it really is.

“To continue to push on and get into the playoffs and maybe take the next step in the playoffs is the most difficult step.”

Miami’s 10-win leap required some other remarkable achievements. The Dolphins set another NFL standard by committing just 13 turnovers. Chad Pennington’s 67.4 completion percentage established a team record. Joey Porter, amid rising murmurs his best days were left back in Pittsburgh, rose up with 17.5 sacks.

Even so, the Dolphins needed a tiebreaker to claim the division crown over a Patriots squad quarterbacked by a guy who hadn’t started a game since high school.

What are the odds of getting things to similarly fall in place again?

Of those previously mentioned 12 big leapers, the only other team to avoid the next-year blahs was the 1975-76 Baltimore Colts, who moved from 10-4 to 11-3—at a time when the Dolphins were the only dependable winners in the AFC East.

The 1929-30 New York Giants spun their wheels, matching their 13-win total but suffering three more losses. Everyone else lost traction—including three who slipped right back to a losing record.

“The task of becoming a championship-caliber team – there’s one [champion] every year and they’re usually different, and so that’s a monumental task,” GM Jeff Ireland said. 

The Dolphins’ schedule alone stands as a major obstacle to avoiding a falloff. Last season, Miami drew five out-of-division foes who would go on to finish with double-digit losses. The non-division opponents combined for a 65-95 record.

Now plugged into a first-place schedule via the NFL’s formula, the Dolphins say goodbye to Kansas City, St. Louis, Seattle and Oakland. The 2009 docket features five non-division foes with double-digit wins a year ago. Combined record: 89-71, with only Jacksonville finishing below .500.

Fortunately, the Dolphins return nearly all the key pieces from last year. The tough call to cut loose defensive end Vonnie Holliday was offset to some extent by the return of Jason Taylor, though he’ll line up at outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme. Rookie corners Vontae Davis and Sean Smith upgrade the most glaring weakness, along with free-agent pickup Eric Green.

But in terms of splash, the Dolphins trail the rest of the AFC East. Even if Sanchez doesn’t make an immediate impact in New York, new coach Rex Ryan and five key imports should tighten the Jets defense. The Bills rolled the dice by surrounding Edwards with Owens and Rhodes. And Brady’s return may be all New England really needs.

It’s not far-fetched to see the Dolphins improving, albeit tempered by a lesser record.


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