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Jeff's Take on the Dolphins
With the acquisition of Ricky Williams, the Miami Dolphins and their fans entered the 2002 season with Super Bowl aspirations. However, despite Ricky's stellar season (he rushed for the eighth highest yardage total in NFL history), the Dolphins fell flat and finished the season 9 - 7, missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
How could this have happened? Certainly, many factors contributed to the disappointing season - questionable coaching, poor QB play, turnovers, penalties, etc.
Head coach Dave Wannstedt assures everyone that will listen that the Miami Dolphins are in fact closer than ever to competing for the NFL championship. In my opinion, that's a pretty misguided statement coming off a season that ended without a playoff berth.
So the question is - are the Dolphins really that good? With the # 3 overall defense, the league's best DE and RB, emerging stars at WR and TE, and a solid corps of veterans it would appear that the talent is there. But for some reason, I can't stop thinking about one of Bill Parcells' favorite lines - "You are what you are." In other words, if a team finishes 9 - 7, they're a 9 - 7 team. No "almosts", "if onlys", or "should haves" can change that.
With that in mind, I will take a look at the Dolphins' roster position by position with a focus on how a 9 - 7 team can become a contender. I'll start with the offense.
Without question, the QB position elicits the most emotional responses from Dolfans. Hank Goldberg jokes on his radio show that on a slow day, all he has to do is utter the name "Jay Fiedler" and the phone lines will light up. He's not wrong.
Fans and media either love or hate Fiedler - there is no middle ground. There are those who feel that with enough talent around him, Jay can lead his team to the Promised Land. Others feel that if Jay was surrounded by Hall of Famers at the peak of their careers, he still couldn't get the job done.
My own opinion is that, if the stars are aligned properly and the football gods smile on the Dolphins, Jay can win a Super Bowl. You'll notice in that statement that I based Jay's success on factors outside himself. That is no coincidence. I firmly believe that Jay Fiedler isn't now, never was, and never will be what I consider a good NFL QB. He is mediocrity defined, and mediocrity doesn't win championships.
At season's end, a tired-looking Dave Wannstedt essentially blamed the Dolphins' poor season on Fiedler's thumb injury, which caused him to miss 6 games. Yes, back-up Ray Lucas struggled in Fiedler's absence, and single-handedly lost the first Bills' game. But the bottom line is this - had the Dolphins beaten the Vikings and Patriots to close out the season, they would have won the division and had a chance to claim the AFC's top seed. The Dolphins as a team made a lot of errors in those final two games. But one thing stands out to me - the lack of any semblance of a passing game. The fact is, when the Dolphins needed points, Jay couldn't produce. Forget about defensive collapses - Jay could not complete a meaningful pass, and ultimately that is why the Dolphins lost.
Those last two games pretty well sum up Jay Fiedler as a QB. When the Dolphins' backs are against the wall, when opposing defenses put everyone - even the waterboys - on the line to stop the run, when one TD means the difference between victory and defeat, Fiedler cannot deliver.
Clearly, the Dolphins MUST upgrade the QB position in order to get to the next level. Unfortunately, the Dolphins are stuck with Fiedler as the starter as long as Wannstedt is the head coach. I have no confidence that Dave will attempt to get a better player. There are several QBs available via free agency and the draft that can come in and infuse the position with talent. Some - like Brian Griese, who may be available in June - can step in and start immediately. Others - like Louisville's Dave Ragone - will need time to develop. Whatever the case, the Dolphins cannot sit idly by and watch good QBs get taken by other teams. Unfortunately, I don't believe Wannstedt will do anything to significantly improve the QB spot.
Outlook: Bleak, with little hope for improvement while Wannstedt is in charge
Ricky Williams was a godsend. He was the best RB in the league, and he far surpassed the expectations of even his most devoted fans. Ricky's combination of power, speed and vision make him an elite player, and he will keep Dolfans happy for years to come.
Back-up Travis Minor is a solid player with good speed and play-making ability. He has definitely earned a spot on this team.
Robert Edwards staged an amazing comeback and performed great early in the year. By season's end, however, Robert found himself on the inactive list more often than not. Edwards can be a valuable role player, and I would trust him as a starter if Williams got hurt. Edwards is an exclusive-rights free agent, which means that he will likely remain with the Dolphins next season.
The Dolphins appear to be set at RB. However, I would still keep an eye on free agents and rookies. Minor and Edwards are good players, but that doesn't mean better options won't be available. And don't forget about Leonard Henry - he could be a factor with a strong training camp.
Outlook: Excellent, with some room for improvement
In 2002, Rob Konrad enjoyed his best season since his rookie campaign. He has developed into a very good lead blocker, and now that he is finally a part of the passing game it is evident that he has good hands and great ability to run after the catch. As good as Rob was, I thought he could have been used more effectively in the passing game. Basically, I would have put the ball in his hands more often and lined him up in different positions - not just as a decoy, but to make plays. Konrad is a free agent, but with a multitude of free agent FBs of equal or greater talent available this offseason, I think the chances are good that he will remain in Miami. As insurance in case Konrad leaves, the Dolphins recently signed Obafemi Ayanbedejo, who fits this offense well and spent time with the Dolphins in pre-season last year.
Back-up FB Deon Dyer could develop into one of the league's top blocking FBs if given the chance, but the Dolphins rarely used him in 2002. I think Dyer could be a difference-maker with his tremendous blocking ability, and I'd like to see offensive coordinator Norv Turner find creative ways to get him on the field. Maybe a triple-I formation with a backfield of Dyer, Konrad and Williams. Or, line Konrad wide with Dyer and Williams in the backfield. I'd even try to use Dyer as a ball-carrier in short-yardage situations.
Outlook: Very good, but personnel may change via free agency
This position was a bit of a mess for the Dolphins in 2002, and upgrades are needed.
Chris Chambers had a disappointing season after a promising rookie year. Chris missed some time after receiving a concussion on a vicious hit by Broncos' headhunter Kanoy Kennedy. There were stretches of games where Chambers did absolutely nothing. I would place the blame more on the QB than on Chris, however. Jay Fiedler missed Chambers on numerous occasions when the receiver was wide open deep. And the gameplan when Ray Lucas was QB did not allow for much deep passing. Chris Chambers is a playmaker, and needs to be utilized as such. I believe Chambers has the talent to be mentioned in the same breath as Eric Moulds, but I fear that he will never live up to his potential until the Dolphins improve at the QB position.
Oronde Gadsden was injured in the Denver game, and ended up on injured reserve. He is a free agent, and may not return to the Dolphins. As much as I like Gadsden, I believe he is replaceable and I wouldn't re-sign him unless the price was right. Oronde was a non-factor in 2002 even before his injury. He's not getting any younger, and with arthritic feet his career could be cut short at any minute. I am not against retaining Gadsden, but I think all other options need to be explored. The Giants' Ike Hilliard is available, and he would be a fine replacement for Gadsden, in my opinion.
James McKnight proved to be a playmaker this season. He showed tremendous speed, and though he still made his share of mistakes, he came through in the clutch many times. I think McKnight should return and battle for a starting position.
Dedric Ward was a major disappointment, and I can't think of any reason for the Dolphins to keep him on the roster. The same can be said of Robert Baker. It was good to see Baker finally see some action after a couple of injuries, but he made no impact whatsoever. It's time to move on.
Last but not least, there's Cris Carter. The Dolphins signed the future Hall of Famer after Gadsden's injury, and it was hoped that at the least he'd be a big weapon on third down and in the red-zone. Carter wound up missing a few games with a major kidney problem, and he never showed the form that made him a star in Minnesota. It was a tough position for Carter, as he was thrown into the fire with no training camp and no opportunity to learn the offense. But to me, Carter looked slow and hesitant. He is a free agent and the Dolphins have expressed interest in re-signing him, but I don't think that's the right move. I think Cris is finished and should stay on TV.
Free agency, trades and the draft can help the Phins at the WR position. The Bears are reportedly shopping Marcus Robinson, and the draft could yield some interesting possibilities (Georgia's Terrence Edwards - Robert's brother - for example). Also, 2002 draft pick Sam Simmons could be a factor as a role player.
Outlook: Other than Chris Chambers, this position is up in the air. Youth and size are needed.
Rookie Randy McMichael turned heads around the league with his phenomenal performance in the first half of the season. McMichael proved to be an enthusiastic, chest-pumping playmaker, and he instantly became a fan favorite. I was extremely impressed by Randy's blocking ability - something that was supposed to be a weakness. McMichael struggled in the second half of the season, though, as he made some rookie mistakes and the Dolphins stopped getting the ball to him. Like Chambers, I think Randy can be a superstar if the Dolphins ever improve the QB position.
Jed Weaver was invisible early in the season, but he became a frequent red-zone target toward the end of the year. Weaver has good hands and can run after the catch, and should be a bigger part of this offense. He is a free agent, and will likely look to become a starter elsewhere.
Desmond Clark was signed early in the season, and when he recovered from a shoulder injury I thought he'd be a big weapon for the Dolphins. He caught over 50 passes for Denver the previous year, and appeared to be a perfect fit in Norv Turner's offense. Inexplicably, though, Clark was used primarily on special teams and rarely got a chance to play on offense. I'm sure Clark, a free agent, has no desire to remain on this team.
The starting TE spot is set for years to come with McMichael, but with Weaver and Clark likely gone the Dolphins need to add one or two more players that can handle significant playing time. One option would be to let long snapper-extraordinaire Ed Perry play some as a third TE. That would mean the Phins would need to add only one other TE, and they could save a roster spot by utilizing Perry at two positions. Still another option would be to give Shawn Draper a chance to show his skills.
Outlook: Budding superstar at starter, but literally no reserves.
The offensive line was considered a weak area entering the season, but that opinion changed once Left Guard Jamie Nails entered the starting lineup.
Nails actually reminded some Dolfans of the great Larry Little, and his tremendous, overpowering blocks paved the way for Ricky Williams throughout the season. It was not unusual to see Nails take out three defenders on a single play. Nails was the best thing to happen to the Miami OL since Richmond Webb was drafted all those years ago. Unfortunately, Nails tore his Achilles' tendon late in the season and has a long rehab process ahead of him. Hopefully, he'll be ready to go by June.
Mark Dixon started at Left Tackle this season and did a solid, if unspectacular, job. As always, Dixon missed a few games with injury, but the line clearly performed at a much higher level when he was in the line-up. Dixon is a free agent and, after briefly considering retirement, has stated that he'd like to stay in Miami. The Dolphins have also expressed an interest in retaining him.
I think Dixon should be re-signed, as long as his salary isn't too high. He should not, however, return as the starting LT. If Nails isn't ready to play by the start of the season, Dixon should be moved back to his old position at LG. Otherwise, Mark can be a valuable back-up anywhere along the line. I might even give Dixon a shot at Right Guard.
Speaking of Right Guard, Todd Perry had an up and down season at the position. There were games where Perry was dominant, and games where he was a non-factor. His inconsistent play does not match his salary, and I'd release him. Quite frankly, the Dolphins should be able to upgrade this position with relative ease.
Right Tackle Todd Wade had a decent season, although he must find a way to cut down on penalties. While Wade has failed to live up to the high expectations raised by his great rookie season, he is a solid, steady player and will hopefully remain with the Dolphins for a long time.
I don't have a crystal ball, but I feel confident in saying that Tim Ruddy's tenure with the Miami Dolphins is over. The Dolphins offered a boatload of money to free agent Olin Kreutz last offseason, and they drafted a Center (Seth McKinney) with their first pick. The message was sent to Ruddy, and he responded with a rather lackluster season. I believe Ruddy is a decent player, and he will be in this league for a long time. But I think it is time for the Phins to make a change at the position. Ruddy has never been a good run blocker, and he gets pushed around far too much to justify the money he makes.
McKinney played some at Gurad this season, and is ready to take over for Ruddy at Center. One possible scenario I thought of is to draft a Center (I like Brett Romberg from Miami, but I am admittedly biased as a big fan of the `Canes) and insert McKinney into the starting line-up at RG - assuming the rookie Center can come in and start right away. With McKinney's versatility, the Dolphins have options.
The Dolphins are in serious need of a big, nasty Left Tackle. The only viable candidate this offseason will be free agent Wayne Gandy of the Steelers. In my opinion, signing Gandy should be the Dolphins' top priority this offseason, and if it means overpaying him than so be it. A dominating Left Tackle could make a big difference in this offense, and Ricky Williams would be unstoppable running behind a left side of Nails and Gandy.
One player to watch is recently signed Jarvis Borum. Borum, a HUGE, physical lineman, was great in college and could prove to be a factor at some point.
Outlook: Expect a major overhaul along the line. Size is needed.
Norv Turner is one of the great offensive minds in the game. Having said that, I wasn't always happy with his play-calling this season.
Norv (along with Ricky Williams and Jamie Nails) finally delivered a successful running game - something that has been sorely lacking for decades in Miami. But clearly, the running game by itself was not enough.
The Dolphins' passing offense was one of the worst in the league, statistically ranked number 26 overall. I don't like to rely on statistics alone, because someone can always come up with a justification or way to spin the numbers. Forget the rankings - if you watched the Dolphins this season you know that they did not have a good passing game at all. The problem, as I mentioned earlier, is the QB position. Fiedler and Lucas were both horrible, and it was evident to me that Norv did not allow either player to run his full offense the way it is meant to be run. Fiedler cannot make the deep passes that Turner has always relied on. As the season wore on, opposing teams stacked the line to stop the run, essentially daring Miami to throw deep. The Dolphins couldn't.
I think Turner needs to be more creative in his use of certain players, most notably the running backs and fullbacks, and Chris Chambers and Randy McMichael. And most importantly, Norv needs to convince Wannstedt that an upgrade is needed at QB.
Outlook: Norv Turner is a great coordinator, but needs to exploit the talents of his personnel better - and he needs a new QB.
I think that the Dolphins have a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball, and they have one of the league's top coordinators. Ricky Williams is phenomenal, and Chris Chambers, Randy McMichael and James McKnight are legitimate big-play threats. The Offensive Line will likely receive an overhaul, but there are already pieces in place to work with. I've thought about this long and hard, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the one thing that really stands out when I look at this team is the QB position. A couple more WRs and a big LT are needed, but I don't believe this team can advance to the next level with the QB situation as it currently stands.
Next time, I'll look at the defense and special teams.