Don't look now, naysayers. After a rough 0-3 start, the Dolphins are not only back at .500 for the first time in 2009, but are also within just one game of the AFC wildcard leaders. Even better news for Dolphin fans? Miami still has to play three of the teams who are ahead of them in the wildcard race - as well as one remaining shot at the division leading Patriots.
It's still going to be a tough climb, however. There are some big challenges that lay ahead for these Dolphins. So to prepare for these six games, let's highlight six critical questions that the Dolphins face.
Can Ricky handle the increased workload over the next month and a half?
After the terrible news last week about Ronnie Brown's injury, many of us were wondering if Ricky Williams would be able to step into the lead role in Miami's backfield and be as effective as he's been the past two seasons as the number two guy. On Thursday, Ricky answered that question by showing proving that he's still as capable a starter as he's ever been, rushing for 119 yards and scoring three touchdowns. But can he sustain this kind of production?
Against the Panthers, Williams received 22 carries. And that came on the heels of a 20 carry performance just 4 days earlier against the Buccaneers. That is a lot of carries for a 32 year old back. No - he's not your typical 32 year old running back and doesn't have the mileage that most 32 year olds have on them. But keep in mind that Ricky's season high in carries last season was only 16 (back in week three against New England). And if you want to know when the last time Ricky had at least 20 carries prior to the game against Tampa Bay? You'd have to go all the way back to New Year's Day on 2006, when he closed out the '05 regular season with a 28 carry, 108 yard performance in New England.
It's a lot to ask Williams to carry the rock 20-25 times per game over these remaining six games. At the same time, the Dolphins don't really have much of a choice.
How much will the Dolphins miss Ferg?
While nothing has been confirmed, it's expected that nose tackle Jason Ferguson will miss the remainder of the season with an injured right knee he sustained against the Panthers last week. Needless to say, this is a huge loss (no pun intended). A 3-4 defense is only as good as it's nose tackle performs. And Ferguson leaves a large void for Miami to fill (again, no pun intended).
This season, Ferguson has only missed one game. That day in New England, the Patriots averaged 4.5 yards per carry on the ground against a defensive line anchored by Paul Soliai in the middle. Soliai, meanwhile, has missed the last two weeks with his own injury issues. Outside of those two, the Dolphins don't have a real nose tackle to step in. Tony Sparano said that he would expect to play Tony McDaniel (6'7, 305) and Randy Starks (6'3, 305) at the nose if needed. Last year against the Ravens in the regular season, Starks did have to man the nose tackle position once Ferguson left the game with an injury (Soliai was suspended by the team for the game). While he wasn't terrible, the Ravens did run for 139 yards.
It will be interesting to see how this coaching staff attempts to make up for the rumored loss of Ferguson as we head down the home stretch.
Can the Dolphins beat a team that's better than they are?
Don't get all angry with me here. But you might need to take off those aqua colored glasses for a moment here. The way I see the season playing out, it will take at least 10 wins in the AFC to make the playoffs. For the Dolphins to get to that mark, they'll obviously have to win five of their remaining six. That means beating either the Patriots or Steelers - two teams who are ("homer-ism" aside) better than the Dolphins are.
The good news here is that both of these games are at home in Miami. The Dolphins have also played the Patriots tough once already this year. But let's be real for a moment - the Dolphins have not beaten a single team in 2009 that is better than they are. They've come close - tough losses at home to both of the undefeated teams (Colts and Saints). But a loss is still a loss. You can even make the case that Miami didn't beat a more talented team in 2008, either, despite winning 11 games. After all, they lost to the Ravens twice and to the eventual NFC Champion Cardinals. They did split with the Patriots, though.
To make the playoffs, the Dolphins will have to not just play these more talented teams tough - they will have to win at least one of those games.
Will the rookie wall be a problem?
Some people think that the idea of the "rookie wall" is nothing more than a term created by the media. But if you NFL head coaches about it, I'd bet most would say that the wall is real - and it can be problematic.
The Dolphins rely on two rookies to start at cornerback - which is always risky. Making things worse is that the Dolphins face three of the top five passing offenses over their remaining five games. Yup - just in time for that "rookie wall" to rear its ugly head. In college, these kids will only play about 12 games in a season - maybe 13. And in the month of December, these kids will play - at most - two games. They'll have a lot of rest in between games in December, as well. In the NFL, there is no rest in December. That's the time to put up or shut up as teams make their playoff pushes.
For the Dolphins, Vontae Davis and Sean Smith cannot afford to go through any kind of rookie wall. Hopefully their offseason training has prepared them well to close out a season strong.
Can we see more Wake?
Ever since the John Beck debacle, I try my best not to "anoint" a player too early in their careers. But like Cameron Wake rushing off the edge, I'm coming around quickly. After picking up three more quarterback hurries on just 10 snaps against the Panthers, Wake leads the Dolphins in hurries with 15 - on just 100 total defensive snaps.
Now I know we can't just steal Joey Porter's reps after his outstanding game against Carolina last week. But maybe we should cut into Charlie Anderson's 20 to 25 snaps per game to give Wake some more opportunities. He always seems to be causing havoc on the field when he's out there. So why not unleash him a little bit more and see what happens?
Can Henne win a game on his own?
It's not secret that the Dolphins want to run the football. So teams will continue to stack the box against Miami's offense and force the young Chad Henne to beat them through the air with an average (at best) receiving group. That means there's likely going to come a point in time this season in which Henne will be asked to win the game himself through the air.
Some might argue that he did just that back in his second career start against the Jets. Sure, he was a critical part of that big Monday night win - throwing for 240 yards and two touchdowns. But let's not forget that Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams also combined for 142 yards on the ground, Ronnie threw for 21 more, and on that final game-winning drive, Henne only completed 3 passes (though two of those were on 3rd down).
Now I'm not saying Henne can't win a game on his own at this stage of his development. But he hasn't had to yet. It's likely, though, that some point during these final six games, he will indeed be asked to do so.