It's been a very rough past two weeks for Dolphin fans. Having to endure the early week five bye has made it even more difficult for us all. But the players are back at the team's facility today and preparations for Green Bay will get underway in earnest. Before the second quarter of the Dolphins' season gets going next week, let's take a look back at the first quarter of the 2010 season and peak ahead at the second quarter - one that will be as tough (and as important) as they come.
When the Dolphins got off to their 2-0 start with road victories in Buffalo and Minnesota, excitement for Dolphins football was as high as it's been in a while. There was also a clear shift in how fans viewed this team, raising expectations above where they were heading into the season.
Eight to ten wins. That was what most Dolphin fans (myself included) felt this team was capable of in 2010. But after back-to-back road wins and a seemingly suffocating defense, we started getting carried away. Visions of 12+ wins started dancing in our heads. But after deflating back-to-back home losses to the Jets and Pats, it's time to get back to our original expectations.
When the schedule for the Dolphins was announced last spring, many Dolphin fans were hoping to come through those very tough first eight games no worse than 4-4. That's still very possible. If I would have told you that you could sign for a 2-2 record at the bye, how many of you would have reached for a pen?
As painful as these last two weeks have been, we have to consider where this team is right now. I know it's easy to think about "what might have been." But the bottom line is that this team is right in the thick of things in the AFC. Only five teams have fewer losses than Miami.
There's still a long way to go and this team is far from done.
Play of the First Quarter
There's no question that the single most important play of these first four games was the 4th and goal stop on Adrian Peterson back in week two. The offense was struggling up in Minnesota. It was the defense that scored the go-ahead touchdown thanks to a Cameron Wake sack and forced fumble, recovered by Koa Misi for the touchdown. But the defense was reeling as Peterson began gashing the unit with run after run late in the fourth quarter.
On fourth and goal from the one with just over two minutes to go, a tired defense made just one more big play - saving the game. Peterson looked to be going outside behind his fullback. He cut back up field where he was met in the hole by Karlos Dansby, with Vontae Davis there to help clean up - keeping Peterson short of the end zone.
Just think where this team might be right now if the defense did not make that huge goal line stand.
First Quarter MVPs
In no particular order:
Jake Long - He's been a rock at left tackle despite playing through a minor knee issue. He really dominated Jared Allen back in week two and is playing at an All-Pro level. If he does this for the remaining 12 games, he'll get named a first-team All-Pro. So far this season, he's been the best LT in the league.
Davone Bess - D-Bess has been outstanding so far this year and is quickly getting the national respect he deserves. He's second on the team in receptions and receiving yards. More importantly, his effectiveness on third down continues. Heading into this past weekend, Bess was second in the NFL in third down receptions for first downs - with 8 (only two behind Anquan Boldin for league lead). Bess has also caught 80.8% of the passes thrown his way - tied for third among all receivers in the NFL. I expect to see Bess continue to excel as defenses continue to focus on that other receiver.
Brandon Marshall - He got off to a slow start in Miami but is still putting together a solid season. He's on pace for 108 receptions, which would be a team record, and 1360 yards - which would be just under the team record. His impact on the offense, though, goes beyond just stats. Defenses are being forced to game plan around containing him, freeing up guys like Bess and Anthony Fasano. He's also been an impact blocker down the field. The best part? We haven't seen the best of Brandon yet.
Vontae Davis - Opposing quarterbacks just aren't throwing in his direction this year. That says basically everything you need to know about the season Vontae is having. He had that acrobatic juggling interception around the goal line against the Vikings. Two weeks later, he shut out Randy Moss. He's shown exceptional closing speed when they do throw his way. He's been physical in run support as well - proving he's a complete corner.
Cameron Wake - Wake has been a beast getting to the quarterback. He's got three sacks and countless quarterback hurries. Teams have been forced to consistently double him. And even then, Wake is getting to the quarterback. Of course, we all knew he could rush the passer. His job against the run has been even more impressive. Occasional breakdowns setting the edge? Sure. But he also has three tackles for loss and simply looks more comfortable out there.
Kendall Langford - Langford has taken that next step and is quickly becoming a dominant 3-4 defensive end. He's been active against the run. And he has also been disruptive with his pass rush. A defense like Miami's doesn't work without guys like Langford. So far, it looks like he's progressed nicely and has taken that next step in his development.
Don't want to be a "hater." Just a short list of guys who have disappointed through these first four games:
Joe Berger - When I look at the troubles running the football, I believe the blame comes down to the interior offensive line. Richie Incognito has been good enough. But center Joe Berger as well as the right guard position (John Jerry was playing well before getting sick) has been a major obstacle for this ground game. Jake Grove, whom the Dolphins cut before the season, was an exceptional run-blocker when he was healthy. Considering he hasn't found a job yet, I'm guessing he's still not fully healthy. Regardless, Berger's struggles have made running the football much more difficult - and it's something that needs to be addressed if the team wants to get back to their power running game.
Yeremiah Bell - Maybe I'm just expecting too much from Yeremiah. But Bell has just had more lapses this year than he has historically had. He's given up big receptions. He's missed a few tackles. He just doesn't look like the same Bell that we have gotten accustomed to.
Randy Starks - The Dolphins are asking a lot from Starks. He spent all offseason preparing to play the nose but has since been asked to shift back to end while Jared Odrick recovers from injury. With that said, Starks hasn't looked as dominant as he did a year ago. I do expect him to improve as the season goes on - especially once he gets back to being the primary nose tackle.
Key Players for Next Quarter
One player from each side of the ball who is going to be important as the Dolphins look to survive these next four games:
Chad Henne - I know, I know. I'm highlighting the quarterback - the guy who is obviously going to be a critical player. Fine - flame me if you want. But here's why I couldn't look any where else on offense for this particular selection. The vultures are circling. Another bad game or two and things are going to get ugly for Henne and this coaching staff. Quarterback controversies are never good for teams - it's that simple. Henne needs to come out with a strong showing against Green Bay next week and then sustain that high level of play consistently over the next few games. And this is especially important since i do not believe Miami's running game is going to get infinitely better very quickly.
Sean Smith - Remember him? He was the rookie corner who beat out Vontae Davis last year for the starting job opposite Will Allen. Very slowly, he has seen his number of defensive snaps increase game by game since losing his starting job in camp to Jason Allen. He's done a good job with his limited role and I believe we're going to see Smith slowly getting more snaps at outside corner. Jason Allen was a good story for two games. But it's quickly approaching midnight for Jason. The Dolphins are going to need Smith to get back to playing good football - especially with some talented receivers coming up on the schedule.