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2002 Mid-Season Report Card
With the Dolphins approaching the mid-point of the season with a bye this week, I thought it would be a good time to evaluate the team, position by position.
Jay Fiedler B-
Ray Lucas F
Those who regularly read my columns and posts know that I am far from a big fan of Jay Fiedler. I don't like his arm, I don't like his ability to read the field, and I don't like the way he places his passes. Having said all that, this season Jay has once again proven that he is a winner, and he is one of the toughest QBs in the league. Under the new Norv Turner offense, Jay has limited his turnovers and has demonstrated an ability to effectively manage the offense. Fiedler has also mastered the art of the play-action fake, which is a big part of this offense. Jay has done nothing spectacular this year, but he has been steady and for the most part has made plays when he's needed to. Jay's toughness was never more evident than in the Sunday night game against the Broncos. Not only did Fiedler lead a game-winning FG drive with time running out in a hostile environment, he did so with a broken thumb. That is toughness. My only real complaint about Jay this season is his inability to throw the ball deep. I don't think he's completed more than 2 passes so far that I would consider deep. As a result, opposing teams are daring us to pass and keying on the run. This ultimately hurts our running game.
When Fiedler was diagnosed with the broken thumb and it was announced that he would miss 6 to 8 weeks, I didn't panic. I have been a supporter of Ray Lucas since he came to Miami, and I was actually convinced that he should've begun the season as the starter instead of Fiedler. After watching Ray play against Buffalo, however, I feel like a fool. Ray turned the ball over an unbelievable 6 times against the Bills, and he showed nothing positive at all. Basically, he looked like someone that's never played QB before. Was it rust, or is he just bad? Time will tell, but the Dolphins can't afford to wait too long to find out. The inexperienced yet talented Sage Rosenfels is waiting in the wings.
Ricky Williams is the real deal. I can confidently say that he is the best back to ever wear the Dolphin uniform (apologies to Csonk). Ricky is one of the toughest RBs I've seen, and it's exciting to watch him dish out pain and punishment to the opposition. This season, Ricky lost about 25 pounds and has added speed and outside running ability to his arsenal. He was run out of New Orleans because of an inability to make big-yardage plays, but he's made plenty of big plays already in Miami. Ricky has excellent hands (although I feel he's under-utilized in the passing game), and he is a tremendous blocker.
Ricky already has over 700 yards rushing, but his pace has slowed down the past few weeks. The reason is the lack of a deep passing game, as I mentioned above. Early in the season, the talent-level of our competition was fairly low, and teams were trying to figure out what kind of offense the Dolphins were running. Now that the Phins are playing tougher teams and the offense has been studied, opposing defenses have a definite game plan - stack the line to stop Ricky, and dare the Dolphins to win with the pass. Williams is facing 8 or 9 defenders in the box on every play, and I don't care if Jim Brown is back there - that will undoubtedly limit a RB's effectiveness. The solution is simple, if difficult to achieve - the Dolphins must start completing deep passes and get the opposition to back off the line.
Robert Edwards looked awesome the first few games, but has slowed down since then. Still, he's been a solid contributor and has displayed good hands and running and blocking ability. Travis Minor hasn't played much on offense, but he's done well when given the chance.
FB Rob Konrad is finally being used as a receiver in the Dolphins' offense, and he has responded with 16 catches and two TDs. Rob has also done a good job as a lead blocker for Williams. As good as Konrad has been, I think the Dolphins must put the ball in his hands more often. Back-up FB Deon Dyer has not seen much playing time so far.
Most fans and analysts predicted a huge season for Chris Chambers in his second season. It hasn't happened yet. Chris has basically only played in 5 games so far, having missed most of the Denver game and all of the Bills game with a concussion. But Chris has not been the big-play threat this offense needs. He has less than 25 receptions and only has 2 TDs and a meager 12.5 yards per catch average. I don't think the problem is the dreaded "sophomore jinx" - I think it's the play-calling and offensive schemes used by Norv Turner, combined with Fiedler's inability to effectively throw deep. More often than not, Chambers runs short to mid-range patterns, and that is not what he does best. It remains to be seen how Chris will respond after the concussion, but he really needs to take on a bigger role in this offense.
Oronde Gadsden has made some phenomenal catches so far, but he only has 16 receptions and hasn't scored at all. He's also dropped a few passes, which is unusual for him. Just this week, the news came out that Gadsden decided to have season-ending surgery on his injured wrist, and he may not return next season as he is a free agent. On the surface, losing Oronde is a big blow, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that he hasn't been all that big a part of the offense this season anyway. In 6 games, he averaged less than 3 catches per game and didn't find the endzone at all. I think he can be replaced - especially since future Hall of Famer Cris Carter was signed.
Carter is 37 years old and is coming off one of the least-productive seasons of his career. But in my opinion, Carter isn't much different than Gadsden - except that he's more experienced, has better hands, runs better routes, and knows how to get in the endzone. I think this move will ultimately improve the passing offense.
Much was expected of Dedric Ward this year, but he's been a major disappointment. Aside from his clutch catch on the game-winning drive at Denver, he really hasn't done anything. Ten catches and under 10 yards per catch just isn't good. James McKnight has rarely seen the field at all, but he has looked good when called upon. Robert Baker has been a non-factor in his limited role as the team's fifth receiver.
What was once a weakness is now a position of strength, thanks to the acquisition of 4th round pick Randy McMichael. The Georgia product leads the Dolphins in receptions, receiving TDs and big plays. McMichael makes the tough catches look easy, and he has excellent route-running skills and ability to run after the catch. He's also been a very good blocker - something that wasn't expected of him when he was drafted. Randy also appears to be the most passionate, enthusiastic player on the field, and his positive attitude and confident demeanor transfer to both his teammates and the fans. Randy has a few drops, but that's to be expected of a rookie, and it doesn't take away from what he's accomplished. My only complaint - as with Williams and Chambers - is that McMichael isn't getting enough touches. This guy is a playmaker, and needs to get the ball all game. By the end of the season, McMichael may be considered the best Dolphin TE ever - even after only one season.
I'm excited about Desmond Clark, even though he's only seen real action in one game. He caught 51 passes for the Broncos last season, and I expect him to play a large role for Miami as the season progresses. Jed Weaver has not been utilized at all in the passing game, but he has contributed as a blocker and on special teams.
The OL has done a decent job run-blocking, but has been inconsistent in pass protection.
Jamie Nails has come seemingly out of nowhere to become the Dolphins' best offensive lineman. Jamie is a wrecking ball in the running game, and a wall in pass protection. What really amazes me is Nails' athleticism; it's incredible to watch this guy pull out front and crush defenders while clearing the way for Ricky. Some fans have compared Nails to the legendary Larry Little, and I would agree that the Phins haven't had a guard of this ability since the glory days of that Hall of Famer.
Mark Dixon was playing well at his new position, left tackle, before going down with an injury at Kansas City. He is likely to return for the next game, and that should help solidify the line. Dixon's replacement, Marcus Spriggs, has not played well at all. He's missed too many assignments and blocks, and he has struggled with penalties. Dixon can't come back quickly enough for me.
C Tim Ruddy, RG Todd Perry and RT Todd Wade all started off great, and all have struggled in recent weeks. Perry and Wade in particular have played very poorly of late. If this continues, I expect to see rookie Seth McKinney step in for Perry at RG.
Before the season, this position received a lot of attention as an area of concern. Fortunately, it has become a strength of the defense. This is due primarily to Jason Taylor, who is playing the best football of his career and has arguably been the top DE in the NFL this season. JT has over 30 tackles, 5 ½ sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 5 passes defensed. He has been a force against both the run and pass, and he deserves s trip to the Pro Bowl.
Playing opposite JT, Adewale Ogunleye has enjoyed a solid season. I'm surprised at how well he plays the run, and his relentless pass-rushing ability has gotten him 2 sacks so far.
Newcomers Jay Williams and Rob Burnett have gotten snaps at both end and tackle. Both players had been relatively quiet this year before erupting for a combined 3 sacks against the Bills. David Bowens missed some time with an injury, but he's played well against the run and pass.
At tackle, the Dolphins don't seem to miss Daryl Gardener at all. Tim Bowens is healthy, and he's playing better than he has in years. He's been a disruptive force in the middle, along with fellow behemoth Larry Chester. Jermaine Haley has played great in relief.
Zach Thomas started out a bit slow, but he's been on fire lately. He leads the team with 64 total tackles and has one sack. Zach has played the run very well, and has looked good when allowed to blitz. He remains the heart and soul of this team.
Derrick Rodgers - often called the "Invisible Man" by yours truly - has enjoyed his best season since his rookie campaign. He's been very active against the run, and has 2 key INTs in pass coverage. He doesn't make as many big plays as I'd like, but he's been solid.
Morlon Greenwood has been steady, if unspectacular. He's been very active but just hasn't made many plays at this point. Tommy Hendricks has seen some time at LB this year, and he's been up and down.
This unit just continues to impress. Pat Surtain (3 INTs) and Sam Madison (2 INTs) remain the best CB tandem in pro football. Not surprisingly, both have played at a Pro Bowl-level thus far. Both players have also done a good job in run support.
When Surtain went down in the Indy game, Jamar Fletcher took his place and looked pretty awful. Since Surtain's return, Fletch has looked better in the nickel package and is actually starting to play well. Hopefully that continues.
Arturo Freeman has been excellent at strong safety - with the exception of the Chiefs' game when he played the worst game of his young career. Freeman has been terrific in run support and plays the pass well. Brock Marion has not made as many big plays as he usually does, but he's having a solid season and is second on the team in tackles.
Shawn Wooden has played very well in spot duty. Trent Gamble has seen time in both the nickel and dime packages, and has done a decent job.
Punter Mark Royals may not have the best leg in the league, but he has done an excellent job pinning defenders and placing his punts in a position where they can't be returned. For the most part, he gets great hang time and gives his coverage teams a chance to make plays.
Olindo Mare has uncharacteristically missed 4 FGs this year, and a toe injury may be to blame. However, he is 2 of 2 on attempts of 50 yards or more, and his 53-yard game-winning FG at Denver was a thing of beauty. Though he's struggled somewhat, I have the utmost confidence in Mare's ability to make the big kick. He's also done a good job on kickoffs.
Since Albert Johnson was lost for the season, Travis Minor has taken over kick return duties and Dedric Ward is handling punts. Minor has been excellent, averaging almost 29 yards a return with a long of 66. He's got excellent vision and ability to accelerate through the hole, and it's only a matter of time till he breaks a return for a TD. Ward has also done a great job, averaging 15 yards a return.
The kick and punt coverage units have been outstanding this season, led as usual by the hard-hitting Trent Gamble. Tommy Hendricks, Jed Weaver and Shawn Wooden have all made positive contributions, and a healthy Scott MacGarrahan should have a big second half.
Not much has been heard from long snapper Ed Perry this season - but that's a good thing. Generally, a long snapper's name is rarely mentioned - until he makes a mistake. No news is good news, and Perry has had a great season.
For the most part, I've been very happy with the play of the 2002 Miami Dolphins. There are some areas of concern, most notably the lack of a deep passing game and the ineptitude of Ray Lucas on offense, and the lack of big plays at key times by the defense, but overall I like this team's prospects the rest of the way. I think the defense has performed at a championship level more often than not, but the offense has struggled of late after a fast start. At this point, the play of Lucas (or Rosenfels) the next few games will go a long way toward determining the final outcome of the season, but the return of Chris Chambers and the acquisition of Cris Carter will help in that regard. Ultimately, I think Norv Turner needs to put the fate of the team on the shoulders of Ricky Williams, but he first needs to establish a passing game that will make Ricky's job easier. Utilizing Chambers, Carter and McMichael to the best of their abilities will do just that.
How far will the Dolphins go this year? Honestly, I have no clue at this point. After the Broncos' game, I was willing to anoint the Phins as the top team in the NFL, but after watching Lucas last week, I don't know what to make of this team. I do know this much - however it pans out, it should be a fun ride.