Since moving to Miami at the end of last season, Bill Parcells and general manager Jeff Ireland have managed to restore a measure of competency to the Dolphins administration. They’re probably still not playoff caliber, but they’re certainly far removed from the team that was one poor Brian Billick play-call away from the league’s first 0-16 season.
OFFENSE (#11 total yardage, #17 rushing, #8 passing, #t23 scoring):
The Jets deemed Chad Pennington expendable when they acquired Brett Favre during training camp, and Miami quickly snapped him up. Pennington may not have too many 60-yard throws left in that rebuilt right shoulder, but given some time in the pocket, he’s one of the best ever at moving the chains with the dink-and-dunk stuff ... and still a definite upgrade over the Beck/Lemon mess the Dolphins had at quarterback after Trent Green went down for the count last season.
He could use some better receivers, though. Ted Ginn is a deep threat on a team that doesn’t throw deep, and he’s got a lot of work to do to become a consistent option in the kind of offense Dan Henning wants to run. Marty Booker wasn’t invited back after leading the team in catches last season, so Miami gave Ernest Wilford a four-year, $13-million deal to start opposite Ginn. This might possibly go down as one of the worst free-agent moves of the offseason; the former Jaguar has exactly one catch this year, and hasn’t even been activated for the last two games. (Ditto for 2006 third-round pick Derek Hagan.)
The Fins’ best receiver right now is Greg Camarillo, Trent Edwards’ Stanford teammate, who leads the team with 27 catches for 337 yards and one touchdown. Some of you may recall that it was Camarillo who broke loose to score in overtime against Baltimore for Miami’s only win last year, and he seems to be developing the same kind of rapport with Pennington that the quarterback once had with Wayne Chrebet in New York. Rookie Davone Bess, an undrafted free agent out of Hawaii, works out of the slot.
As one might expect from Henning after watching his tenure in Buffalo, he uses a lot of two-TE sets. Parcells and Ireland know how valuable a good tight end can be to an offense, and spent a fourth-round pick to acquire Anthony Fasano from Dallas. (Linebacker Akin Ayodele was also part of the deal.) Surreal stat of the week: Fasano (17 catches-234 yards, 13.8 average, 2 TDs) and David Martin (16-233, 14.6, 1 TD) both have a higher yards-per-reception average than either starting wideout.
Given that uninspiring corps of receivers, it’s a good thing the running backs can all catch: so far this season, the trio of Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, and Patrick Cobbs has accounted for over 25 percent of the Dolphins’ receptions and almost half of their total yards from scrimmage. Brown appears to be fully recovered from the ACL tear that ended his 2007 season in Week 7. Just ask the Patriots, who he trampled for four rushing touchdowns in Miami’s Week 3 beatdown at Gillette Stadium. Oh yeah, he also tossed a 19-yard touchdown pass to Fasano in that game, which marked the debut of the heralded “Wildcat” formation. Williams almost had his own 100-yard game that afternoon, as the Fins rolled up their first 200-rushing-yard performance since the 2002 season finale – coincidentally, also against New England. Cobbs gets some work as the third-down back. And considering Miami’s emphasis on running the ball – Pennington has thrown 30 or more passes in just two of six games this season – keeping the Bryan Scott/Donte Whitner tandem at safety makes sense.
With the No. 1 overall pick sewn up well before the end of the season, the Dolphins braintrust had plenty of time to decide on their selection. They settled on Jake Long (Michigan), signed him to a contract before draft day, and immediately installed him as the starting left tackle, allowing Vernon Carey to move back to the right side. Center Samson Satele was by far the most productive member of Miami’s 2007 draft class; barring injury, he could solidify the middle of the Miami line for a long time. Ireland also decided the team needed an upgrade at both guard spots, signing Justin Smiley (49ers) and drafting Shawn Murphy (Utah State) and Donald Thomas (UConn). Thomas won a training-camp battle at right guard, but a Lisfranc injury sent him to injured reserve after just two games, and holdover Ikechuku Ndukwe inherited the job.
DEFENSE (#21 total yardage, #12 rushing, #t27 passing, #15 scoring):
Defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni came along on the Dallas-to-Miami shuffle; the Dolphins were already playing some 3-4 last year, but now use it as their base defense. There aren’t many familiar faces left, though, as team captains Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas were unceremoniously dumped in the offseason.
Jason Ferguson’s status is uncertain for this game – he’s listed as questionable, despite practicing Friday – and his absence would be a huge setback for the Dolphins. The 12th-year veteran is a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle; his potential replacements, Paul Soliai and Randy Starks, aren’t. Third-round pick Kendall Langford (Hampton) starts at left end, with Vonnie Holliday shifting to the right side to replace Taylor. Second-rounder Phillip Merling (Clemson) will eventually replace Holliday, and get a few snaps on passing downs in the meantime.
Joey Porter was miscast as a strong-side linebacker last season; back at the Will position, he’s showing flashes of the talent some observers thought he’d left behind in Pittsburgh. He leads the team (and is tied for second in the league) with 8.5 sacks. Matt Roth, his replacement at SLB, is making the switch from a 4-3 end to the 3-4 hybrid’s “flex” position. Ayodele and Channing Crowder man the middle of the Dolphin defense.
Will Allen is a decent cornerback, but he could use some help in the secondary. Andre’ Goodman, the Dolphins’ nickel back last year, is the other starter, and the only defensive back with an interception. Michael Lehan’s attempt to return from a dislocated ankle ended this week, when he was placed on injured reserve. 2006 first-round pick Jason Allen, who has yet to make an impact at any position he’s played, will move from safety back to corner.
The Fins signed Chris Crocker to start at free safety, but that plan only lasted two weeks. He’s now off the team, with Renaldo Hill joining Yeremiah Bell in the lineup. Bell, whose 2007 season ended with a torn Achilles tendon, has recovered well enough to lead the team in tackles.
The out-with-the-old theme continued, with kicker Jay Feely cut in favor of rookie Dan Carpenter. So far, Carpenter is 5-for-6, with his only miss from 42 yards out. Brandon Fields, who posted a mediocre 36.6-yard net average in his rookie season, is even worse this year, with a net that ranks near the bottom of the league.
Of course, a coverage squad allowing 14.6 yards per return isn’t helping. They’re even worse on kickoffs, giving up a league-high 27.6 yards per runback despite not allowing a touchdown. It’s tough to predict special-teams scores, but this could be a very good week for Roscoe Parrish and Leodis McKelvin.
Remember when Cameron tried to defend using a top-10 pick on Ginn by extolling his kick-return ability? Bess, the rookie, has been a better option so far this season. Ginn got the job back last week, but how long he’ll keep it this time remains to be seen.
While the Dolphins are starting to resemble a real football team again, they still have some holes to plug. Can the running backs carry the load until Pennington finds some NFL-quality receivers? Maybe. Has the secondary improved to the point where they’re not a weekly liability? Probably not.
The Bills have won seven of the last eight games in the series. Making it eight of nine might not be a cakewalk – after all, they barely escaped Miami Gardens with a win last year, against a club far worse than this one – but Buffalo is still the better team, and if they follow Baltimore’s blueprint for declawing the “Wildcat,” they should win this game.
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