I know a lot of Miami Fans are very disappointed in the season right now. Playoffs? P-P-P-PLAYOFFS? Not bloody likely!
Especially with the Baltimore Ravens pulling out an unlikely overtime win against the inept Houston Texans (stupid Texans).
But as the likelihood of making the playoffs has faded, I have noticed that I am a little less concerned about the outcome of the games - and that has allowed me to be a little more objective in watching and evaluating the play of the team in different areas, instead of harping on the "unit du jour" that is falling down and contributing to a loss during a particular week.
Instead of just seeing the parts that are not working, I am actually starting to see some reasons for hope. Maybe not much hope for a Super Bowl run this season (I don't think I am bursting anyone's bubble here, but if so - sorry to go all Debbie Downer on you... go ahead and hope amongst yourselves for another game or so), but certainly the foundation is there to build on for next.
Let me 'splain.... No, there is too much... let me sum up:
For one thing, Bill Parcells has left. Hmmm.... Hey Lefty... the Dolphins are still rebuilding; they have not identified their long term solution at Quarterback (easy Hennsters! I'm not saying he's done. I'm just saying it is still unsettled); there are personnel questions on every unit; and the coaching staff is far from bulletproof - are you trying to say this is a good thing or a bad thing?
I am saying that it might just be what the Dolphins need in order to take the next big step forward! Let's face it, the Tuna is great at building big, strong, solid lines, and pretty doggone good at picking Linebackers! And this is the first thing that has to be done when trying to turn a team around from being a cellar dweller in the NFL to being a contender from week to week. And that is exactly where the Fins are this season - contenders in every game (please don't bring up the Chicago Bears game), but not truly good enough to be contenders for a title.
We fans are all frustrated because the Miami Dolphins seemed like they were in the same position last season, and so we expected them to take that next step this year.
And they haven't done it - in spite of the big name free agency signings - in spite of the 3rd offseason of rebuilding - in spite of the return of key players from injury - and in spite of the solid year of seasoning, and 2nd year of playing for the quarterback that was expected to be the solution at the position. Were our expectations unreasonable? Clearly not, when other teams in the NFL have been able to perform major overhauls from pretenders to contenders in a single season, and other teams are able to remain contenders every season despite losses of key personnel.
But the teams that successfully put it all together have to start with solid lines. No one in the NFL goes very far in contention without good Offensive and Defensive lines. And while the Dolphins have made quite a few gaffs in personnel decisions, they have established a top D-line, and an O-line that could be one player away from being in the same class. Imagine acquiring a Top 5 Center! Even assuming Vernon Carey comes back at Right Tackle, with Richie Incognito, John Jerry, and Jake Long all having a solid year of playing together, an upgrade at Center would make the entire running game better! With Berger and Garner, the Fins have solid depth. Keep Joe Berger as a very good backup, and let Nate Garner try to earn a starting spot at Guard or RT.
I still fault Sparano for mucking around with a pretty good O-line from last season, and turning it into a mediocre unit. I swear if he starts playing mad scientist again this offseason, I am going to drive down there and go all rabid Igor on him! (what hump?)
But what does all this have to do with Bill P leaving? I kind of think that MAYBE, just maybe, Sparano and Ireland will perform better without the pressure of having Parcells second guessing them. If not, we can always fire them! (well, not US, but... you know... )
AND, the other part of the equation is that Bill P has already pretty much executed on his forte... building the base. I never really thought of Bill as being especially talented in the skill areas. Sure, he had a few hits like Terry Glenn and Drew Bledsoe, but if you ask me about his time with Dallas Cowboys, I would say he doesn't get credit for Tony Romo. Jerry Jones rammed that one down his throat. Same with Terrell Owens. But hardly anyone would argue about Bill's talent in building the base - Lines, Linebackers, coaching staff....
So, perhaps with a little leeway, Ireland and Sparano will grow a pair (yes, one pair between the two of them) and draft some SPEED this next offseason, rather than just bulk! Or grab a QB in the first round! Or fire Dan Henning and bring in a vertical passing game! Something UN-Parcells-like! MAYBE that is what the Fins will need to get to the next level?
But I digress........
What I started out talking about was the improvements I have been noticing over the last few games... even when parts of the team were falling apart. And it is these improvements that give me hope.
First, the Defense in general. I have not really focused on the D the last few articles, but that is mainly because I have been ripping on the play calling or offensive execution! But the Miami Dolphins Defense has been quietly improving all season long. Some of the improvement is due to rookies getting their legs under them and contributing, like Nolan Carroll and Reshad Jones. But most of the improvement seems to be coming from the veterans actually playing better - guys like Paul Soliai and Tony McDaniel. And guys that are relatively new or young, like Tim Dobbins or Sean Smith are getting better as the season goes on (although let me tell you something about Smith! The guy had a chance at SIX balls in this past game! More than a chance, they were bouncing off his hands! You remember Clifford Franklin? and that gooey stuff they smeared all over his hands? If I'm Sparano, I am slopping up his hands with that stuff and putting him on the jugs machine for 2 hrs a day this week!)
where was I....
Oh yeah... so this Miami Defense looks good, but it is because of talent AND coaching. I give Mike Nolan tons of credit, and the worst thing that could happen to the Fins next season is for Nolan to leave. If this defense is kept in place for two years in a row, I expect them to be Championship caliber next season.
The other thing I like is the development of some of these young guys. I mentioned Nolan Carroll for his defensive improvement, but I have been on his bandwagon for Kick Returner all season long. And I like what I continue to see. And despite that lame-ass tripping stunt by that ex-Jets coach, Carroll took the high road and refused to get drawn into making immature or spiteful comments in the media about it. The kid is only going to get better.
Other young guys like Reshad Jones, Chris Clemmons, Marlon Moore, Roberto Wallace, Koa Misi, and John Jerry all are also playing well and look to have quite a bit of upside. It is this kind of youth movement that is so difficult to get going, but so worth it once you get established and only have to bring in a handful of new guys each season - rather than overhaul the roster with youth all at once.
Also, the team has pretty good depth (don't forget they have 11 guys on Injured Reserve - ELEVEN!). While all those guys won't be back next year, some of them are quality players and will upgrade the roster when they return.
And it actually looks like Special Teams has started to improve. At least the are not losing games on their own, and occasionally they are winning them (Brandon Fields for MVP?).
Lastly, I don't want to make excuses for Chad Henne but I am not ready to write him off yet. I would like to see him play with an improved line and a strong running game. Right now teams can shut down on running game with 7 guys - they aren't even playing 8 in the box. That is tough on any QB, but Henne also has a poor offensive game plan (more than one team this season has commented on how predictable the Dolphins offense is), and a rotating stable of WRs. Henne may not ever get to the level the Fins need him to be in order to take the team deep into the playoffs. And I sincerely hope they draft a quality QB next offseason. But many QBs on poor teams take longer to develop and are not fully baked by the end of their second playing season. These last few games should tell us a lot about Henne's future.
The kicker here is that the Miami Dolphins are having a winning season. I ain't over till it's over, but they could easily end up over .500 with a possible 10-6 record. The team isn't BAD.... they just aren't good enough yet.... YET.