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Dolphins Mid-Season Review: Shifting expectations

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We've officially hit the halfway point of the 2009 Miami Dolphins season and are now a season and a half into the Bill Parcells-Jeff  Ireland-Tony Sparano era in Miami. Considering where we were when the "trifecta" took over, nobody should be disappointed about where this team is in terms of the long haul. With that said, of course, it's difficult to not be disappointed with Miami's current 3-5 record.

In this league, you are what your record says you are. That's generally true. But in the grand scheme of things, the Dolphins are much more than just an average run-of-the-mill 3-5 football team.

A shift in expectations

Entering the season, I was among the many who declared we wouldn't just be satisfied with an 8-8 or 9-7 season because of the "tougher schedule" the Dolphins faced in '09 as compared to '08. I wanted to be a playoff team once again and I honestly thought this team could pull it off. But lo and behold, wouldn't you know that it was indeed these "tough games" that have dug the Dolphins into a deep hole in  the AFC playoff picture.

Now I'm not saying that I'm giving up on the playoffs in 2009. In fact, if the Dolphins take care of their next three games (against Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Buffalo) and they get a little help from New England's tougher opponents (@ Indianapolis and @ New Orleans), the Patriots could potentially be heading down to Miami on December 6 with a 7-4 record to face the 6-5 Dolphins. While those are a ton of "ifs" that must break in favor of Miami, it's not totally out of question.

With that said, my own personal expectations have shifted. I'm no longer as concerned with making the playoffs in 2009. If the Dolphins somehow pull it off and reach the postseason, that's terrific. But if they don't, that's fine too. Why? Because injuries and a lack of talent at critical positions have made me more concerned with developing this team for the long haul - not just for the immediate future.

The injuries to Chad Pennington and Will Allen, in particular, have changed what this season means to the Dolphins. I'd say that most fans would agree. But it's been these losses to teams like the Colts, Saints, and Patriots that have made me realize that this Dolphins team just isn't ready to really compete with their talent level. However, the strides that this franchise has made since the 2007 disaster are remarkable.

Integration of young players

Want to know why I'm not as distraught as some other Dolphin fans seem to be about this 3-5 season? It's because of how the Dolphins are setting themselves up for the future. The coaches are doing something that you don't see too often - they are trusting a number of rookies and young players. And the result is that we're seeing tangible reasons of why we should be excited for the future of this franchise.

First and foremost, there's Chad Henne. As you all know, I was squarely on the "start Chad Pennington" bandwagon all offseason long. While I hate to see what happened to CP - he deserves better but his body continually lets him down - letting Henne play and gain experience has been huge, and will continue to be huge, for this franchise. Ffor the first time in a long time, fans, coaches, and the front office can all be excited about the quarterback position. Folks, I really think we've found "our guy."

Has he been great? No. Has he been terrible? No. Has he shown flashes of greatness? Yes. Think back to just his second career start when Henne put together one of the best fourth quarters a young quarterback has put together in recent memory.

Does he have a lot to work on? Of course. His accuracy is shaky at times. He holds the ball too long sometimes. At times, he runs backwards when pressure is closing in - especially when he's pressured on those designed roll-outs.

At the same time, I've seen just as many positives. I've seen that strong rocket arm. I've seen some perfectly thrown balls. I've seen a toughness to hang in the pocket and deliver a pass with pressure bearing down on him. I've seen him get back up after taking a nasty shot in  the pocker - like Sunday's "roughing the passer" hit by Patrick Chung. Most of all, I've seen the poise and mental toughness necessary to lead a team in hostile situations. Sure, against both the Saints and Patriots, Henne was unable to lead a game-winning or game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter. But both times, it wasn't because Henne failed. His teammates failed him.

There's a lot to like about Henne, that's for sure. But there are also other young players with a lot to like.

You got two rookie corners who are being trusted to start. And neither of them have played poorly. Both Sean Smith and Vontae Davis have had their ups and downs. But there have been more positives than negatives and they will only continue to get better. Over the long haul, the Dolphins are set with their starting cornerbacks.

The offensive line is also set for the foreseeable future. Only one starter, Jake Grove, is over 28 years old. And two, Jake Long and Donald Thomas, are only 24 and in just their second season. The way an offensive line gets better is by playing together for a long time, and that's what we're going to see in Miami over the next few seasons.

The defensive line also suddenly has a nice young core to build around. Kendall Langford, Phillip Merling, and Randy Starks all look like long-term contributors at defensive end for the Dolphins. And none of them are older than 25 years old (Starks). Tony McDaniel also looks like he could become a solid backup and he's only 24 himself.

The Dolphins also have other young contributors who could become major long-term factors. Chris Clemons and Tyrone Culver are two young safeties who will probably see more and more opportunities as the season goes on. Davone Bess and Brian Hartline are two young receivers who, ideally, would be very good complimentary receivers. Greg Camarillo is also relatively young and is looking more and more recovered from his knee surgery every week. I will continue to stand by my belief that Camarillo, once he's healthy, can be a starting #2 receiver in this league.

And let's not forget our favorite former CFL stand-out, pass rusher Cameron Wake. He's only 27 and has the potential to be a pass-rushing force for years to come. But he is still raw, which is probably why he hasn't seen the amount of snaps many would like him to see.

Clearly defined needs

One of the positives - if you can call it that - to come from Miami's 3-5 start has been how well defined this football team's needs have become. We all know what this team needs - some needs more pressing than others, of course.

Perhaps the most pressing need is at the wide receiver position. This offense will never be what it needs to be to get to that next level until they get a true "go-to" number one receiver. Opposing defenses have no reason to respect Miami's passing attack, allowing them to go all-out to stop the only real threat this offense has - their ground attack. But Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams will become less and less effective on the ground as teams continue to put eight, and sometimes even nine, in the box to shut them down. In all honesty, can you blame them? I'd do the same thing. None of these receivers would even scare me a little bit.

This need has been magnified even more the past few weeks, too. In their last two losses, the Dolphins have been within a touchdown and had possession of the ball with over three minutes left. But each time, the Dolphins failed to move the ball, thanks in large part to receivers who just can't make the plays necessary to win football games.

But there are other needs as well. The Dolphins need upgrades at both inside and outside linebacker. A play-making free safety is another obvious issue. And we saw on Sunday that Paul Soliai might not be anything better than a back-up nose tackle. He underwhelmed as a starter, replacing the injured and aging Jason Ferguson. So nose tackle is also a need.

See this team for what it is

As a fan, we all want to see our team win championships. Year in and year out, we all look through "aqua and orange colored glasses" and view our team as either championship caliber or playoff caliber. But let's be real - this team just isn't as talented as the league's elite teams. That's why it's so impressive that the Dolphins were able to play teams like the Colts, Saints, and Patriots and nearly knock them off. Is it frustrating to lose those games? Of course. But we need to see what these losses show.

The Dolphins played teams with superior talent and gave them all they can handle - with a number of rookies and second-year players being key contributors. That says a lot about where this team is.

It says a lot about this coaching staff. Say what you want about some of their questionable play-calling and their gameday decisions. But this staff knows how to prepare to play more talented football teams.

It also says a lot about the mental toughness of these players. Some young players will go into a shell and back down to the elite NFL teams. But not this group of guys. They battle. And they're only going to get better.

The future is bright, people. We just need to give this front office time to address those remaining needs and the young players on this team more time to mature. But we're clearly on the right path.