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Team Chemistry - How important is it?

Chemistry and talent.  You hear teams talk about both, and you hear coaches say that you need both to win.  You need talent to be successful in today’s NFL.  No question.

But what does it mean to have chemistry?  Or to not have it?  How important is it really?  And will the Miami Dolphins have it this season?

I have two examples to help Illustrate:

First, the 2000 Washington Redskins - who went out and tried to buy a championship by spending money on high priced free agents.   The major free agent pickups that season were S Mark Carrier, QB Jeff George, RB Adrian Murrell, CB Deion Sanders, and DE Bruce Smith.   All told, Dan Snyder spent 47 million dollars on signing bonuses in 2000, including 8 million to Deion, making the Redskins the first NFL team ever to break 100 million dollars in salaries.   That team arguably had talent, but finished 8-8 and four games out of first place in the NFC East.

The second is the 2008 Miami Dolphins.  This team was coming off of a 1-15 season, and had limited talent and depth.   The biggest, game changing, impact to the team came from the addition of Bill Parcells, who in turn brought in Tony Sparano and a new coaching staff.  The key new 2008 roster additions to join the starting lineup were Jake Long, Jason Ferguson, Justin Smiley, Anthony Fasano, Akin Ayodele, Chad Pennington, and Dan Carpenter.  And there were a few second string additions, as well, that ended up contributing significantly through the season, like Davone Bess and Kendall Langford (No, I am not forgetting Cobbs… he was on the 2007 roster).

Outside of Jake Long and Chad Pennington, none of these new additions were high-priced, high profile guys.  Other than Pennington, Justin Smiley was the biggest free agent acquisition made that offseason.  And this team went on to close out an 11-5 seasonal record, with a division championship, and a trip to the playoffs.

Now, it would be overly simplistic to assume that the only difference between the 2000 Redskins and the 2008 Dolphins was team chemistry.  And people will always point to the Dolphins success that season and talk about "strength of schedule", or the "novelty of the Wildcat", or even plain old "luck".  To some degree, these things are all valid, contributing factors in the way things came together that year.  With a little less luck, we might have lost a few key players at positions lacking an adequate replacement (indeed, how lucky was it to have found Bess as an undrafted FA, and then have him develop into a WR capable of replacing Camarillo when he went down?).  But how many times does a last place team, get a #1 draft pick, and play a last place schedule the upcoming season, and still finish in the bottom quarter of the league that next year?  Pretty often I think.  Look at the Rams or the Lions or the Raiders.  And even teams that hit the skids, and start to pull out the next season, rarely do well.  More often, if they get back close to .500 it is considered a successful "rebuilding" season.

It might be that one of the significant differences between the 2000 Redskins and the 2008 Dolphins was team chemistry.  I think that the Redskins that year believed their own press.  They had star power, and the egos to go along with it.  They were the "Dream Team", and were expected by many to contend for the Super Bowl that season.  In his 2000 team and NFC East previews, Sports Illustrated's Don Banks called the division going to the Redskins by a wide margin and saw a possible Super Bowl.

The 2008 Dolphins had a few stars of their own, however.  They had Joey Porter, Ronnie & Ricky, and Chad Pennington.  But the folks that had played through the 2007 season were humbled.  Even the normally loud mouthed Porter was entering camp that year ready to do *anything* to avoid another season as demoralizing as the prior one.  In other words, the players themselves were willing to put their personal egos and statistics on the back burner, in order to "buy in" to the new coaching staff and their system.  They were willing to work hard to get it right.  To do it the way they were told, instead of freelancing.  They put their eyes on themselves, rather than criticize the other guy.  The irony of this season was that the biggest "star", was traded for dancing with them.  JT was putting his own agenda ahead of that of the team.  And he was sent packing.

But what was it that pushed them over the top that year, when so many team still struggle the season following a last place finish?  Lots of teams start over.  Lots of teams go through a rebuilding offseason and don’t fare half as well in that following regular season.  Lots of teams replace coaching staffs; GMs; bring in new systems.  What the Fins did that year was nothing short of epic!

My thought is that there were two people and one event that brought the team together in a way that inspired confidence and camaraderie.  And in my opinion, it probably couldn’t have happened any other way.

The two people were Tony Sparano and Chad Pennington.  We all know they are good guys, and they inspire loyalty; we know that Sparano sticks up for his players, and that Pennington is a smart quarterback who keeps mistakes to a minimum.  But Tony was a new coach, and we saw some rookie mistakes from him during the season.  And Chad might be smart, but he is not the kind of guy that will win a game solely on his arm.  So when the Dolphins dropped their first two games of the season, including their home opener to the Jets and a 31-10 shellacking by Arizona, things could have fallen apart fast.

But Pennington set an example for hard work and consistency that helped keep the team settled and focused.  He continued this over the course of the season, and the team came to respect his work habits, preparation, and attention to detail.  And after starting out 0-2, Sparano was humble enough to ask for help.  He admitted that he wasn’t sure what to do next, but knew that if he didn’t do something drastic, the men that followed him would be in danger of losing heart.  So was born the Wildcat.  But it was not the Wildcat itself that would save the season.

The event happened on September 21st, at 1pm EST, when the Miami Dolphins went into Gillette Stadium and beat the New England Patriots, using their new "Wildcat" formation.  And they didn’t just win; they decisively dismantled the team widely regarded at the time as the best team in professional football.   They rolled over the Patriots 38-13, behind the Ronnie and Ricky Express Train, and did something no one thought they could do, in a way that no one would have believed they could do it!

It wouldn’t have been the same to squeak by the Pats on a 3 point win.  They would have felt happy to get the win, sure, but they probably would have felt "lucky" that Brady wasn’t playing.  But hanging 38 points on the Pats D, was no fluke.

When I look back on that wonderfully improbable season, I see this as the moment when team confidence was born; when the players who had suffered through that miserable 2007 season realized that this year could be different; when for the first time, the team laughed together.  I think it was here, at this point, that players really began to believe in themselves, in each other, and in their coaches; and to trust that if they just did their part, everyone else would take care of their own.   Chemistry.

So now it is time for your chemistry exam:

  1. In terms of talent, how much better do you think this years Miami Dolphins are than the 2008 squad?
  2. Do you think the Dolphins will have team chemistry this season?
  3. Do you think the Jets will have team chemistry this year, or will they end up being the 2010 version of the 2000 Redskins?