Miami Dolphins 2010 Season Previewhttp://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2010 ... n-preview/
By ANDY BENOIT
The seeds of this Miami Dolphins team were planted in the 1980s – biologically (all but five players on the roster were born in the decade of big hair, synth pop and Republicanism), and, more important, philosophically. We’ll focus on the philosophy. Last season, the Dolphins ran the ball nearly 32 times a game, finishing fourth in the league in total rushing.
They return that formula in 2010, with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams – two smart, bruising, ball-control backs – working behind the game’s best lead-blocker, Lousaka Polite. Left tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2008 draft, is the cornerstone of the brutish front five.
Of course, power running has become an outdated approach. Last season, 8 of the league’s 10 best passing offenses made the playoffs (the only teams that fell short were the 9-7 Steelers and the 9-7 Texans). Just 5 of the top 10 rushing offenses reached the postseason.
Then again, if there’s anyone who knows how to win with a throwback mantra, it’s Bill Parcells.
Parcells, the Dolphins’ football czar, goes about his business quietly, having General Manager Jeff Ireland do most of the talking and Coach Tony Sparano do most of the executing. Parcells does the constructing.
As focused on black-and-blue football as Parcells might be, he isn’t oblivious to the necessity of creating explosive plays. The Dolphins finished 7-9 last season primarily because their passing attack produced fewer big plays than any offense outside Cleveland (four plays of 40-plus yards and 29 plays of 20-plus yards). To fix this, Parcells traded a pair of second-round picks to Denver for Brandon Marshall, the immature but supremely gifted receiver. Marshall, 26, was awarded a four-year, $47.5 million extension ($24 million guaranteed).
Adding Marshall makes perfect sense. After all, if the Fins are going to live up to the prediction of owner Stephen Ross – a Super Bowl appearance this season – they’ll have to ride Chad Henne. Miami has a genuine quarterback – and potential star – in Henne, whose build (6’3”, 230), rocket arm and pocket poise are ideal ingredients for an N.F.L. passer.
Of course, Henne is entering just his first full season as a starter, which is why Miami is relying heavily on a defense that, after this off-season, couldn’t be a more direct portrait of Parcells if it had a somber, blue-eyed scowl. The Dolphins spent a first-round pick on Penn State defensive end Jared Odrick, giving them one of the firmest defensive line rotations in the game. The second round brought Utah defensive end/linebacker Koa Misi, a 250-pound force who will team with rising star Cameron Wake (also 250 pounds) on the outside. Misi and Wake may not have Joey Porter’s and Jason Taylor’s experience, but physically, they’re a better fit for this system.
Additionally, Parcells spent $22 million in guaranteed money to acquire 250-pound free-agent inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, one of the most versatile and surest-tackling thumpers in the game. Former 49ers head coach/Broncos defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was hired to oversee the unit.
This Miami team, despite its old-school (and some would say boring) style, has a rejuvenated fan base, thanks to the shrewd, flashy marketing of Ross. The New York real estate mogul has sold snippets of the franchise to A-list celebrities like Marc Anthony, Gloria Estefan and Venus and Serena Williams. (The novelty of having TMZ stars in the luxury boxes will quickly wear off if the Dolphins produce another sub-.500 record.)
This isn’t a team designed to succeed for 16 games. Rather, it’s a team designed to succeed in one game, 16 times. That’s why Sparano’s role is so significant. Each week he prepares his men for a 60-minute slugfest, with the outcome often decided in the final minutes. This brand of football is all about the details. Let’s take a look at those details.
There was not enough praise heaped on running back Ricky Williams last year. At 32, Williams rushed for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns. Many assume the mystical veteran is merely a complement to Ronnie Brown. To some degree, that’s fair. But in the seven games Brown missed at the end of last season (Lisfranc foot injury), Williams averaged 19 carries and 80 yards per outing. What Williams has lost in speed and power – which isn’t much – he has compensated for in vision and patience.
Brown is healthy once again and, with a long-term contract on the line, seems poised for a great year. His presence enables Miami to run the Wildcat – a somewhat gimmicky tactic for 31 teams but a staple in this offense.
Brown and Williams benefit from the lead blocking of Lousaka Polite, a noble team leader and physical tone-setter. Left tackle Jake Long is the gem of the front five. Long gets out of his stance quicker than any offensive lineman in the game. He has excellent technique to go along with his natural power, and he’s able to generate movement as a run-blocker.
Getting movement may be tougher now that left guard Justin Smiley is gone. The Dolphins would love to see quick 328-pound rookie John Jerry replace Smiley. If the third-rounder needs time to develop from the second string, Donald Thomas will be asked to hold the fort. Thomas is not an awful athlete, but he turns into a vulnerable plodder when his confidence wavers.
Jake Grove, if healthy (big if), should hold off Joe Berger for the center duties. Grove lacks the size and power to drive, but he can neutralize stronger opponents. Right guard Richie Incognito has the nastiness and mobility to be borderline elite, as long as his temper and susceptibility to injury don’t get the best of him. Vernon Carey is a classic right tackle: limited lateral agility and quickness, but good girth and strength.
Offensive coordinator Dan Henning will have to trust this line’s pass protection more in 2010. Last season, the Dolphins frequently substituted traditional drop-back throws with screens and quick hitches. Part of that was due to Chad Henne’s inexperience, and part was due to a lack of talent at wide receiver.
Henne turned 25 this month. He has veteran poise but needs to avoid the handful of glaring misreads that result in turnovers. Chad Pennington is still around as a mentor. Pennington would make a great No. 2, although Sparano has hinted that he’d like to see pocket-passing Tyler Thigpen or Wildcat specialist Pat White earn the top backup job.
The receiving corps was obviously bolstered by the addition of Brandon Marshall, one of the game’s most dynamic intermediate targets. Marshall, who has three consecutive 100-catch seasons, doesn’t have the raw speed to consistently stretch the field, but his physical style commands double teams. Because of this, the No. 2 receiver (Brian Hartline or Greg Camarillo – both are sure-handed, scrappy possession guys) will be able to run a greater variety of routes.
Slot receiver Davone Bess lacks speed, but shifty quickness makes him a worthwhile option underneath. Bess started just two games in ’09 but still caught 76 balls. Coaches want to get tight end Anthony Fasano more involved as a receiver. The ex-Cowboy is already a good blocker. No. 2 tight end Joey Haynos will never be a star, but he has a future as a help-blocker and dump-off receiver in a conservative offense.
The focus of Mike Nolan’s defense in 2010 will be on the remodeled front seven, but the success of the defense hinges on the back four. Miami’s second-year cornerback tandem of Vontae Davis (first-round pick) and Sean Smith (second-round pick) has a bright but somewhat uncertain future. Davis shows great athleticism and playmaking prowess. And, like a true corner – and true brother of Niners tight end Vernon Davis – he’s supremely confident. However, he’s a youthful gambler who has several bad habits. Smith, with rare size –6-3, 214 pounds — for his position, is already an elite press corner. But there are serious concerns about quarterbacks exploiting his poor lateral agility.
The Dolphins are depending on their young corners to prosper. The only real depth they have at the position is veteran Will Allen, who was a stellar starter before an October ’09 ACL tear. If Allen is healthy, he could be the league’s best nickelback. If he’s not, the Fins will look to athletic but disappointing former first-round safety Jason Allen, or fifth-round rookie Nolan Carroll.
More unsettling than the shallow depth of the cornerback position is the revolving door at free safety. Gibril Wilson was terrible in this role last season and was cut. The Dolphins tried to sign free agent Antrel Rolle, but the Miami native refused to accept a hometown discount. Coaches know deep down that Tyrone Culver isn’t starting material, so expect them to look to either last year’s fifth-round pick, Chris Clemons, or this year’s fifth-round pick, Reshad Jones. Clemons offers sub 4.5-speed, but minicamp observers thought Jones had the inside track on the job. (Makes sense – if coaches really liked Clemons, they wouldn’t have drafted Jones.)
Strong safety Yeremiah Bell rounds out the defensive backfield. The Dolphins need more players like this open-field-tackling veteran; last season, this defense gave up an alarming 14 touchdown passes of 20 yards or more. Over all, Miami gave up 57 passes of 20 yards or more, third most in the league.
A good pass-rush does wonders for a pass defense. With the departure of productive but declining veterans Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, Miami is rolling the dice and counting on Cameron Wake and second-round rookie Koa Misi. Wake is virtually a sure thing to break out. The undrafted 28-year-old was marvelous in the C.F.L. – 39 sacks and two Defensive M.V.P. awards in two years –and possesses rare speed and explosiveness in his chiseled 250-pound frame. Coaches love the potential of Misi, who is built similar to Wake. In fact, if underwhelming veteran Charlie Anderson does indeed start at the strong outside spot, expect Misi to start ahead of Wake.
Signing inside linebacker Karlos Dansby wasn’t solely about replacing lumbering Akin Ayodele – it was about bringing aboard a playmaker. The Dolphins have been waiting for Channing Crowder to fill this role, but after five far-from-dazzling seasons, it’s apparent that the former Florida Gator is merely a role player. Dansby is a hunter in run defense and a turnover creator against the pass.
It will be interesting to see how Randy Starks performs in his new nose tackle position. The Dolphins decided to slide him inside after injured veteran Jason Ferguson was suspended (Ferguson has since retired). Starks was a defensive tackle with the Titans, though he was rarely responsible for two gaps. As Miami’s two-gap end, he was tremendous in playside run support. The bet is that his strength and leverage will translate inside. If they don’t, the Fins will reluctantly call on Paul Soliai.
The selection of Jared Odrick in Round 1 was a surprise. Not only did Odrick play in a one-gap attacking 4-3 scheme at Penn State, but Miami already had two fairly promising third-year ends in Phillip Merling and Kendall Langford. Merling, however, is now out for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon. The Dolphins signed 3-4 veteran Marques Douglas to replace him. Langford is stellar as a lateral run defender when he maintains separation from blockers. However, he did take a step back in ’09, which is why he’s now set to come off the bench. Defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers likes to dive deep into his rotation, so Tony McDaniel and former Lions second-round pick Ikaika Alama-Francis could also get snaps.
Pro Bowl alternate kicker Dan Carpenter made 25/28 attempts in 2009. Punter Brandon Fields averaged 46.3 gross yards per punt (ranked 6th) and 39.8 net yards per punt (8th). Ted Ginn will be missed in the return game, although Davone Bess had already taken over punts before Ginn – a disappointing ’07 first-round pick – was dealt to San Francisco. Thick, methodical third-string running back Patrick Cobbs can return kicks.
This is a very solid team – especially if the defense can find a way to stop the pass. The offense has just enough firepower to support its heavy ground attack. The problem is that the Dolphins share a division with the powerhouse Patriots and powerhouse Jets.
Prediction: 2nd A.F.C. East
Andy Benoit is the founder of NFLTouchdown.com and a writer for CBSSports.com’s N.F.L. blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.