DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins were compelled to overhaul their defense.
They ranked 22nd in yards allowed last year. Only six teams, most of them scrubby, allowed more points or generated fewer turnovers. They gave up back-breakingly large chunks of real estate almost every week.
Their attitude in training camp, however, isn't about merely improving on defense. The Dolphins plan to be great.
New coordinator Mike Nolan is the primary reason.
"He's going to put a top-five defense on the field," said Dolphins defensive end Marques Douglas. "If we don't do that, we're not living up to our potential. Coaches don't play on Sunday, but the scheme is tried and true. If we're not top three at the end of the year, it's on us."
Much of the offseason attention in South Florida -- before LeBron James came along -- was on new receiver Brandon Marshall and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby.
But the Dolphins' greatest pickup could turn out to be Nolan, the former San Francisco 49ers head coach with an impeccable defensive résumé. He's entering his 13th season as a coordinator, coming to Miami to reinvigorate a unit that receded under Paul Pasqualoni.
"It's not a stagnant defense," Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder said of the change. "Last year, some of the games you knew what we were going to do. I would know what the coach was going to call before he calls it.
"Mike Nolan has so many different calls and blitzes and ways to attack. He mixes it up. Corners get a chance to blitz. Safeties get a chance to blitz. Defensive tackles and ends are covering people. It's fun to learn and fun to be in because you're always doing something new and not just banging your head against a wall."
Nolan's 3-4 defense is built on all-inclusive aggression. He'll blitz his players from anywhere. He orders them to fly to the football, create turnovers and have an offensive attitude. But he also encourages them to shake off calls and make suggestions.
While defense has some inherent reactionary elements, Nolan is more interested in dictating terms.
"We'll establish the foundation and the core of what we do, but what the players do with things will be important," Nolan said in a rare interview at Dolphins training camp. "One thing about our system is everybody gets turns.
"If they're good and playing fast, you're going to enjoy it. When you're good at something, you're having fun."
Nolan has a history of spiking a defense's productivity. His first chance was in 1993 with the New York Giants. They improved from 26th to first in points allowed and 18th to fifth in yards allowed.
He left the Giants in 1997 to oversee the Washington Redskins' defense for three seasons. He then went to the New York Jets in 2000, when Dolphins football operations czar Bill Parcells was general manager.
Nolan galvanized his reputation as a defensive mastermind with the Baltimore Ravens, where he influenced a defensive line coach named Rex Ryan. After a rough first season in 2002, Nolan ran a defense that ranked sixth in points allowed each of the next two seasons. The Ravens ranked third and sixth in yardage allowed.
His four years in San Francisco were turbulent. He went 18-37 and was fired seven games into the 2008 season. He went to the Denver Broncos to work with Josh McDaniels last year, but it was difficult for Nolan to take orders from a 33-year-old rookie head coach.
"I have a lot of respect for Josh, and I would think he has respect for me," Nolan said. "That's what we've always spoken between each other. There's a lot of philosophical similarities, but there's some differences as well. So, at the end, we just mutually agreed we'd go our separate ways.
"He's an extremely confident man, and I think he shows that in his every-day actions. I admire that about him. He's got a great football mind. But at the end of the year, he and I both felt there was enough philosophical difference that if we parted it would be good for both."
Despite their incompatibility, Nolan perked up a Broncos defense that was in the doldrums a season before. The Broncos went from 30th in points allowed to 12th, from 29th in yardage to seventh. Nolan helped outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil become a star.
Nolan was excited to learn of the Dolphins' interest in him. He admired Parcells from their season together with the Jets and respected head coach Tony Sparano from afar.
In fact, Nolan attempted to interview Sparano, then a Dallas Cowboys assistant, to be offensive coordinator in San Francisco. The Cowboys denied the request, just as they did New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton's attempt to interview Sparano.
Nolan deflected any notion his presence alone will make a substantial difference in Miami. He said the results will be up to the players.
"This is the seventh time I've done coordinating on a different team," Nolan said. "If you look at them, they all look different.
"There's not a call in our book that I'll do just because it worked last year. Not going to do it. I'll call a play because these guys can do it. That's the part I like most. It's like a scientist a little bit. You try to mix things up and try to make sure it doesn't blow up in your face."
Yet it's safe to assume he'll remain aggressive.
"Whether you rush three, four, five or six, which we do, they all have to appear that way. There's nothing better than rushing six and hitting the quarterback and then rushing three and him thinking he's going to get hit again and [he] throws you the ball," Nolan said.
Douglas, who played the previous two seasons for Ryan, joined Miami specifically because of Nolan. Douglas spent three years with San Francisco when Nolan was head coach.
"He understands in order for everybody to love this defense they've got to take ownership," Douglas said. "He's letting everybody, including the guys up from and in the back end, have their shot.
"We all want to make the highlight play, and if you play in this defense, every single position has a chance to make the highlight play. When you understand that, you don't go out there with a selfish attitude or think 'I'm not getting mine' because everybody will have a chance."
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