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Is It Football Season Yet?
Well folks, it is that time of year again. Time for all the preseason football magazines to hit the newsstands. And yours truly, like so many other die-hard football fanatics, will rush out and spend at least $35-50 on magazines that seem to be written by sports writers who must have typed their articles from a cave in Afghanistan. The stats are wrong. Players are left out of the analyses. It just seems that their material is about 3 months out of date.
Well, don't worry. I am here to give my humble opinions and preseason analyses on the Dolphins, and I promise to be current and up to date. And most importantly, I promise that it won't cost you $6.99. I'll cover the offensive side of the ball first, and I hope to have my defensive take up in the next few days.
The Dolphins enter the 2002 season with high expectations. The team feels like it has added the missing pieces to the Superbowl puzzle, and Miami seems poised to make a serious run into the playoffs. With the addition of RB Ricky Williams, many sports journalists instantly labeled Miami as a "Contender". So did many of the Dolphin faithful. However, one big question remains. Can the Dolphins overcome their playoff jinx? Five straight times the Dolphins have entered the playoffs. And five straight times they have been unceremoniously dumped by a combined score of 164-16. It's enough to make almost anyone a pessimist. And yet Dolphin fans' optimism is at an all time high. For the first time in decades, Miami has a franchise RB; a missing component to the Dolphin's offense since the mid 1970s. Norv Turner, an offensive guru who helped the Cowboys reach the Superbowl on more than one occasion will be calling the shots on offense. The Dolphin's strong defense is still intact. And players like Chris Chambers and Morlon Greenwood are returning with a year of experience under their belt. So while I would urge Dolphin fans to avoid "irrational exuberance", I can't help but feel giddy myself.
QB - Fiedler, for better or worse, is the man in Miami. After signing a 5 year deal in the off-season, Fiedler is firmly entrenched as the starting QB in Miami. While his critics point to his numerous turnovers and his poor performance in the post-season, his supporters will quickly point out his five come from behind 4th quarter rallies, and his heart and determination. Either way, Fiedler is not a big playmaker. But under Norv Turner's tutelage, he should play well enough to give Miami a chance in each and every game.
Ray Lucas is a decent backup and has played well when called upon. Battling for the #3 job are rookies Tim Levcik and Zak Kustov. Cade McNown was traded to the 49ers, leaving the 6-foot-6, 234-pound Levcik as the front runner for the job.
Overall, this is not a superb group, but with the talent around them, they have the tools, abilities, and heart to succeed.
RB - For years, the Dolphin's running attack sputtered. Occasionally the Dolphins would find a serviceable work-horse, like a Lamar Smith or Abdul-Jabbar. But their success was always limited. Not since the days of Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris have the Dolphins had a RB to be truly feared.
The trade for Ricky Williams could not have come at a better time for both the Dolphins, and for Ricky. Norv Turner has had great success with RBs like Emmitt Smith, Stephan Davis, and LaDainian Tomlinson. Now he has a chance to do the same thing with Williams. And the Dolphins are primed to make a Superbowl run. Williams could be the player that takes Miami from a "Good" team to a "Great" team.
Travis Minor had a fairly successful rookie season as a 3rd down, change of pace back. But with Ricky's ability as both a rusher and a receiver, I wonder if Minor's role might not diminish a little. He will have to battle former Patriot Robert Edwards for playing time as well.
One player who should find his role expanding is FB Rob Konrad. Former Dolphin offensive coordinator Chan Gailey did not utilize Konrad's rushing and receiving ability. But Turner's offensive schemes will. Look for a lot of more Konrad this season. As for his backup, I think Dyer will find most of his playing time in goalline and short yardage situations.
WR - Rookie sensation Chris Chambers is slated to be a starter this year, opposite the ever dependable Oronde Gadsden. Chambers is on the verge of stardom, and looking to improve on his 883 receiving yards from a year ago. He should be able to do just that in Norv Turner's deep passing attack. He will also take pressure off of Gadsden, who found himself constantly double-teamed when the Dolphins got inside the redzone.
Look for James McKnight to move to the outside in 3 receiver sets, where the coaches are hoping that his speed will help compensate for his inconsistent hands. Dedric Ward started off a little slow after being injured for much of training camp. But it seemed to me that he was a key receiver on many 3rd and long situations, especially as the season went along. Hopefully with a full year of training camp, he can improve and become an even bigger factor in the passing game.
OL - After a solid outing in the 2000 season, the Dolphins offensive line struggled mightily last year. Injuries plagued the LT position, and OG Todd Perry was never really comfortable on the right side. But the Dolphins are hoping that with players returning from injury, and the addition of former Pro Bowler Leon Searcy, that the front line can return to its 2000 season form.
Reports out of Miami say that Marcus Spriggs hasn't fully recovered from his injuries and is struggling. So look for Brent Smith to start at LT. Smith has played well when called upon, but has never been the starter full time. Todd Wade should be just fine on the right side, and will hopefully be more productive if everyone stays healthy.
Mark Dixon has not yet stated whether or not he'll retire, but my money says he'll be back. He is the Dolphin's most productive lineman when healthy. I also expect Leon Searcy to beat out Perry, and start on the right side at OG as long as he stays healthy. If so, Perry will back up both OG spots along with Jamie Nails and Anthony Cesario.
As for the Center position, the Dolphins tried to sign Pro Bowler Olin Kruetz but came up short. With their first pick in the draft they selected Center Seth McKinney out of texas A&M. So the message to Ruddy should be crystal clear. Improve your performance or you will not be around much longer.
Other than a concern with our OL, I think our offense seems to be loaded and ready to go. At least on paper anyway. But it is best to wait until the pads come on and the real hitting starts before we get too excited. Still, I haven't felt this optimistic about the Dolphins in years.
Is It Football Season Yet? Part II
DL - This unit was once strength for the Dolphins. But defections, injuries, and fatigue have all taken their toll. (The Dolphin defense ended last season by giving up 226 yards rushing to a Raven offense that was using their 3rd string RB.) Both Kenny Mixon and Lorenzo Bromell are gone via free agency this year; Trace Armstrong last year. To counter this, the Dolphins signed DT Larry Chester. The Fins hope that this will allow Daryl Gardner to slide over to the DE position. Chester, and the resigned Tim Bowens should be able to plug the middle, where they will be backed up by Ernest Grant and Jermaine Haley.
Jason Taylor sack number fell from the 2000 season, but his play against the run improved quite a bit. If Gardner can solidify the other DE position and take the pressure off of Taylor, his sacks should increase. Look for newly signed Rob Burnett to come in on passing downs, with Ogunleye and David Bowens acting as backups.
Can this group overcome their lapses that plagued them in key games last season? I think a lot of that depends upon Gardner. If he can make a successful transition to DE, and if he can overcome the back injuries he has suffered over the last two years, then I think the defensive line will be just fine. But if Gardner can't, then it will be up to Bowens/Ogunleye/Burnett to pick up the slack. And that is not a sure thing.
LB - Zach Thomas continues to post more tackles than Quaker has oats. But Thomas's sense of urgency is increasing. He realizes that the window of opportunity is closing. This defense is solid, and he is the heart of it. But Thomas only has a few more Pro Bowl type years left. Already, injury problems are slowly creeping up on Thomas. So while it is too soon to say "now or never", time is of the essence.
Derrick Rogers has been a starter since 1997. He has never been a playmaker, but he has been fairly consistent on the weak side. On the strong side, Morlon Greenwood struggled early. But he seemed to improve late in the season. If he can pick up where he left off, the starting group will be okay. Depth, however, is still a concern in my opinion.
Scott Galyon is still around, but he has never produced. Twan Russell is a solid special teamer, but he won't ever be confused for Zach. Tommy Hendricks, a converted safety, does have some potential, but does not have much experience. The Dolphins cut Corey Moore, did not draft a LB this year, and do not appear to be in the market for a veteran LB. I guess the coaching staff feels a lot better about the depth at LB than I do.
DB - One of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL, Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain were hampered by injuries last season. But make no mistake. This is still a duo to be feared.
Brock Marion returns after another solid season. If Zach is the heart of this defense, then Marion is the brain. However, Brian Walker is gone, leaving the door open for Arturo Freeman. Freeman isn't the hitter that Walker is, but he is quick and has good cover skills. Shawn Wooden was resigned to back up both Freeman and Marion.
The Dolphins have a lot of depth in the defensive backfield. Jamar Fletcher was slowed when he missed part of training camp, but he showed flashed of talent. He'll be given every opportunity to shine as the nickleback, taking over for the departed Terry Cousin. Omar Lowe was drafted with depth at the CB position. He could challenge for the dime slot and for time on special teams.
Trent Gamble and Scott McGarrahan both resigned, and both excel on special teams. Ray Green has also turned some heads in training camp as well. With the depth at safety, Green will be given a shot at CB.
SP - Olindo Mare's accuracy has improved every season, and he is clutch inside the 50 yard line. Matt Turk is gone, replaced by Mark Royals. Royals doesn't have the leg strength of Turk, but he should be more consistent.
Last season, Jeff Ogden returned punts and made his fair share of mistakes. Fumbles, drops, and poor decisions plagued him. But the Dolphins resigned him this year. However, I look for Travis Minor to step up and get more involved in the return game. Rookie Sam Simmons will also be given a chance.
Overall - The Dolphins have quite a bit of talent on the defensive side of the ball. The one big concern here is depth with the front seven. If Gardner's back does not hold up, or if the LB corp suffer from an injury or two, then things could start to go down hill.
The other concern is making the big plays consistently. At times the defense made a dominating stand, like they did against the Falcons. Other times they completely disappear ala the 49ers and the Ravens. This defense must play consistently against quality opponents if they hope to go further than the first round of the playoffs.