I especially enjoyed watching the Dolphins play this past Sunday!
Of course, there were the obvious reasons; great game, Miami win, etc... But also because I got to share this Miami win with some friends of mine in Denver. When you live outside of Miami, it is sometimes challenging to find other Miami fans to sit down with, have a beer, watch the game, and root for our Fins. So I left Southern California on Friday evening and rolled into Denver just in time to catch the game with some real, live Fin Fans!
And how sweet a victory it was!
But something else that is interesting is that when you are actually watching the game with friends, you talk about stuff more than if you just happen to be sitting next to some guy in a sports bar. You know, "stuff". Dolphins "stuff". Like the offseason moves and Greg Camarillo's two famous catches (c'mon, you know - the OT TD in the 1-15 season, and the incredible "ass-catch"); or the confusion we shared when we drafted a whole family with one draft pick, and how much we could use "Crash" Jensen on Special Teams today.
It was awesome!
But it also got me watching the Dolphins game play a bit differently. Kind of looking at the progress we have made over the past few seasons, but also seeing the evolution of the team as well.
You: What in the heck do you mean by that?
Me: Well, I'm glad you asked. Let me tell you....
When Bill Parcells stepped in a few years ago, the Miami Dolphins were thin on wins, and thin on talent. Not that there was ZERO talent, but not enough to survive as a team in the NFL. So the team had to change in order to survive - and it had to change A LOT! So the Tuna started with the coaches, and added some Free Agents, and then grabbed the best lineman.
And BINGO! That very first season, the Dolphins went from 1-15 to 11-5 and made the playoffs! And everyone talked about the progress the team had made.
But in order to survive in the NFL, a team has to continue to change, because it's environment continues to change - opponents change, offensive and defensive schemes change, rules change, players change, etc. But whether that change that a team makes, or has imposed upon it, will result in improved "survivability" is often tough to measure, because it doesn't ALWAYS appear to be "progress" at the time.
That first season under Parcells, the record was 11-5, but the team was still not very deep or talented in many areas. So in order to achieve that record, the team had to play with a razor thin margin for error. They also had to come up with a very innovative scheme (Wildcat) to allow them to play to their strengths at the time, which were a power run game and a conservative, mistake free quarterback in the person of Chad Pennington.
They also played a number of other teams that either were not very good that season, or they were struggling at the particular time we played them.
The following season the Miami Dolphins added more solid draft picks, added depth at several key positions, and promptly went 7-9, dropping their last three games and missing out on the post season.
Progress? Doesn't seem like it. Evolution? Absolutely.
In evolution, changes are made, and the ones that enhance long term survivability are kept - the rest are discarded. One of the changes the Dolphins made during that 7-9 season was a QB switch. Granted, it was initiated due to an injury, but it was planned at some point regardless. Why was it planned to happen anyhow? Because in order to survive, the Miami Dolphins would need to have the ability to play in a league that was rapidly becoming oriented in favor of the passing game. And as good as Chad Pennington was in terms of limiting mistakes, and accuracy, he was never going to be the guy that could take the Dolphins down the field in a deep passing attack.
Likewise, the Dolphins that season were gearing up to counter the passing game on the Defensive side of the ball, and started two rookie Cornerbacks - Sean Smith and Vontae Davis.
While there were many other changes made that season, the point is that the 7-9 record didn't indicate progress, but the team was making changes to improve itself. And discarding the changes that fail is an important part of that process.
Now fast forward to this season so far. Some of the changes from last season improved the team's ability to compete and thereby survive in the long term. Some didn't. Chad Henne is still starting at QB. Vontae Davis is still starting at CB. Sean Smith is not.
However the more interesting aspect of watching last Sunday's game was the evolution of the Miami Dolphins style of play, when compared to two seasons ago. Two season ago, the Fins played close games. The often won in the 4th quarter or overtime. But the way they did it was completely different! Two seasons ago, the Dolphins power running game, coupled with the Wildcat formation, ground out tough yards - often between the Tackles and against 8 men in the box. And when they passed, it was because teams were loading up on the run.
But on Sunday - in spite of all the talk about the success of Dolphins run game - I saw the Miami Dolphins use the pass to open up the run. I did not see that power run game from two years ago against an 8 man front. I saw a balanced Offense that was willing to take whatever the opposing Defense gave them. And they did it without the Wildcat. In fact, this Dolphins team today appears to be much more of a threat through the air than on the ground. Which only means that as the season progresses, the running game should become more effective as teams try harder to stop Chad Henne and Brandon Marshall. This would likely never have happened with CP at the helm. He just didn't scare opposing Defenses.
So even with the record of 7-9 last season, the Dolphins made progress over the season before, by making changes that improve the ability of the team to compete.
Which makes me wonder - what changes do you think are in store next? What needs to be changed in order for the team to improve to a championship caliber team? Based on where the team is today, what key positions would you think are going to be targeted for change next off season? What is the next evolutionary step?
My hunch is that Dan Henning is about done. I am not complaining about him as a coordinator - there has been plenty of that already, some with which I actually agree - some I don't. But, like Chad Pennington, I think it is more about his overall ability. He makes some good calls, and then he makes some head scratchers. But either way, he is a known quantity and overall he is consistently underwhelming. He is a good play caller for a power run team, but the Fins have already evolved beyond that.
Obviously, we will have new Running Backs in the stable, and I would strongly expect to see an effort made to upgrade Center and Nose Tackle. However, in my opinion, the biggest evolutionary step next season will be in the offensive game plan.