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Time For Some Changes Parts I & II
Once again, the Miami Dolphins have choked in December. And once again, it has most likely cost them a shot at not only a bye week, but possibly the playoffs altogether. However, I for one would not complain very loudly if we were to miss the playoffs this year. The Dolphins have been miserable on the road, and without the bye and home field advantage, I'd really rather just skip the embarrassment of the playoffs on the road.

Every year, I get upset and depressed around this time of year. So do a lot of people. The holiday season has nothing to do with it. The depression rate skyrockets in December because Dolphin fans watch their team choke the last few games of the season, and then get pummeled in the playoffs. This team is a psychologist's nightmare!

But this year, it is different. This year, I'm not depressed. I'm pissed. I am a raging maniac. I'm down right hostile! Santa Claus had better be good to me this week, or watch out!

Why am I angry? (At least more so than usual?) Because this year, we have the talent to win home field advantage through out the playoffs. We have 6 players going to the Pro Bowl. That's the most from a single team in the AFC. Each one deserves to be there. Three more players were named as alternates to the Pro Bowl, bringing the number to 9. We also have two players listed as alternates for special teams. So in reality, 11 different Dolphins could be headed to Hawaii in February. We also have the NFL's leading rusher this season. We have a defense which boosts the most sacks in the AFC, and is second in the NFL. We have a defense end which leads the NFL in sacks. Our defense is second in the AFC in interceptions, and boosts three defensive backs heading to the Pro Bowl. (Two as starters and one as an alternate.) Yes, we have the talent.

So if we have the talent, then why are we 9-6 and looking at the possibility of missing the post season altogether? You can say "lack of heart" all you want to, but I believe it all starts up front, with the men calling the shots.

I have been a Wannstedt defender since the day he got here. But no longer. It is time for some changes. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not calling for his head. I think he has done a pretty good job up until the last several weeks. But I have a growing concern with our coaching staff, and I think it is time for some things to change.

Penalties are a sign of a lack of discipline. How many holding calls and false starts by our offensive line have killed drives? How many personal foul penalties have short circuited Dolphin drives, or given new life to the opponent?  We didn't have these kinds of mistakes under coach Shula. In fact, Miami was generally the least penalized team in the NFL.

Mismanagement of the play-clock is a direct result of poor coaching.  Why is it that on at least 3 different games this year, we did not try to stop the clock before half time to allow ourselves to get into scoring position? Why is it that we waste time outs in the second half?

Poor play calling is another complaint. This is especially true on defense. Why do we allow the opponents' best receiver to be covered by a nickle back and/or a backup safety? And I'm not just talking about Randy Moss. Marvin Harrison and Eric Moulds also torched our backups. Why do we not make the adjustments in the 4th quarter? Why do we get conservative when we have only a small lead but plenty of time left?

Continued poor play on special teams can and should be attributed to poor coaching. Why is it that EVERY week we have at least one huge return negated by a dumb penalty? Why do we have punt returners running away from punts, allowing the other team to pin us inside our 10 yard line? Why can we not block a field goal or punt to save our lives?

And finally, why do we have coaches who say the following after we lose a game we should have won? ''Home field and all that other stuff doesn't mean anything. As nice as it was for people to talk about, it was never a conversation inside our locker room.'' Does he not understand that we are 7-1 at home, yet 2-5 on the road? Does he not understand that every year we embarrass ourselves on the road in the playoffs? I want to know why home-field advantage wasn't a conversation!

I like said earlier, I'm not calling for Wannstedt's job. At least not yet anyway. But I do think it is time for some changes, both personnel wise and philosophically.

First, it is time to fix our special teams. This unit was one of the best in the NFL under Mike Westhoff. Now, it is average at best. I, for one, feel that it is time to replace Keith Armstrong.  I wasn't happy to see Westhoff shown the door. But I'd be quite pleased to see the same thing happen to Armstrong.

Next, it is time to look at our defensive playcalling. I've tried to be supportive of Jim Bates, but I'm quickly losing faith in him. His defense has FIVE starting Pro Bowlers, more than any other defense in the league. But they completely fall apart on the road, or in big games. They blow assignments, they miss tackles, and they generally look lost at times. Especially on the road. Maybe it is time to infuse some fresh blood and new ideas into this group. And that should start with Bates.

Third, it is time to instill some motivation and drive in our team. Competition is the key. Open up in training camp, and make the team COMPETE for the starting job. Right now, I see only 3 players that don't need competition. One leads the NFL in rushing. The second leads the NFL in sacks. And the 3rd has set a career high in single season INTs this year. Everyone else needs to compete. And it needs to start with the QB position.

Now for all of you who are going to yell, "He's bashing Fiedler!" don't. I'm not. It should be obvious to all Dolphin fans that it is time for a new backup. So why not find a decent player in free agency, and let him compete for the starting job? If Fiedler wins out, great! It will hopefully push Fiedler to play to an even higher standard. But either way, the better player should be under center. The starting job should be earned, not awarded.

And finally, the Dolphins need to get back to basics. The coaching staff needs to go over game fundamentals with the players again. When the ball is fumbled, FALL ON IT!!!!! Don't try to pick it up and run! When fielding a punt, keep track of where you are. Don't try to return a punt out of the endzone if you are surrounded by defenders! Keep track of the snap count! Jumping off-sides can kill a drive. If the receiver is covered, run the ball or throw it away! Don't try to force it between two defenders. And finally, if you have a little time left before the half and all three time-outs, USE THEM!! If it is 24-3 late in the fourth, then I see no reason to try and run up the score. But you cannot sit on a 14-0 or 14-3 lead at half time. You need to continue to score. You need that killer instinct. It is something that I have not seen from Dave Wannstedt. And we wonder why we haven't seen it in the players….

--James Lancaster

Part II

I lied. Two weeks ago, I said that if Miami missed the playoffs I would not complain too loudly.  Well, as my wife can attest, that is not entirely accurate. In truth, she threatened to lock me out of the house if I kept going on and on about it. She understands my love of the game, but I guess after 3 days she'd had enough. Who can blame here? I've had enough of it myself.

I do have to say that the football season for me did not end entirely negatively. I watched my alma mater completely dominate their opponent in our college bowl game. So that helped take some of the pain and anger away. But it still bothers me the way that the Dolphins ended their season.

At the end of every year, I always give my grades on the Dolphins at each position. But not this season. To have as much talent as Miami does and not even get into the playoffs makes this season a complete and utter failure in my opinion. Instead, I decided to write a sequel to my last article, "Time For Some Changes."  The changes I listed there dealt primarily with the coaching staff and their philosophy. But since Wayne Huizenga has stated that he is supporting coach Dave Wannstedt, I thought I'd look at some changes that need to take place on the Dolphins roster.

Miami is currently about $3 million under the 2003 salary cap. They will create even more room under the cap by restructuring some players' contracts and by cutting a few players. So the Dolphins will have some money to bring in some solid free agents. According to the Miami Herald, Senior Vice President of Football Operations Rick Spielman said that the Dolphins would focus on wide receiver, outside linebacker, and the offensive line this off-season. I also expect Miami to be looking for another QB, as Ray Lucas's days in Miami are most likely numbered.

Without a first round and fourth round pick, Miami will undoubtedly look to the free agent market to shore up their weak areas.

According to the Miami Herald, ''It's a strong market at linebacker,'' Spielman said of the free agent class. ``There are some high-quality offensive linemen.''

This leads me to believe that Miami will use free agency to find outside linebackers and offensive lineman. And with a strong group of receivers in this year's draft, Miami could very well hope to duplicate their success with Chris Chambers, and find a jewel of a receiver in the second round of year's draft.

However, I tend to believe that rookie receivers making an immediate impact are the exception and not the rule. So personally, I'd use the extra cap money to bring in a top notch receiver via free agency, and use my first pick in the draft on a talented OLB. My feeling is that a rookie LB has a better chance of contributing right away as opposed to a receiver. And right now, I'd be looking for immediate help more so than long term projects.

I would use both the free agent market and the draft to strengthen the offensive line. Both Marcus Spriggs and Brent Smith are unrestricted free agents. Both will probably not be back. There is also talk about Mark Dixon retiring. Throw in the fact that Tim Ruddy is scheduled to make $3.1 million and Todd Perry set to take home around $1.5 million in 2003, and the Dolphin's offensive line could experience a major shake up. Hence, the need to really stock up on offensive linemen.

At this point, I think Lucas is done in Miami. So the Fins will need to find another veteran QB. And like I said earlier, the starting job should be up for grabs. I can't really fault Fiedler for Miami's latest debacle. He did an admirable job considering his limitations. He reduced his mistakes, and did not cost Miami a game all season. (Miami was already way behind when he started throwing INTs in Kansas City.)  But let's be honest, his lack of arm strength hurts Miami at times. Why not bring in an experienced vet, and let them compete? If Fiedler beats him out in training camp/preseason, fine. He has improved each season, and has cut down his mistakes. But he just can't throw the ball deep consistently. And that has hurt the Dolphins at crtical times.

I expect Miami to try and find some help in the defensive backfield. First round pick Jamar Fletcher has improved some from last season, but he continues to struggle at times and is not living up to his 1st round draft pick status. Arturo Freeman was also inconsistent at times, but I think his job may be safe for at least one more year.

In light of the impending roster alterations, I still maintain that the changes need to begin at the top. Dave Wannstedt's job is safe for at least one more year. But if he wishes to improve his job security, then he needs to do more than just shake up the player roster.

--James Lancaster