Frequently, you hear sports commentators talk about a team "finding its identity". Through the years with the Miami Dolphins, we as fans have seen many different identities. We have seen a team that has been defined by a devastating aerial attack powered by the arm of Dan Marino; a decade of defense that boasted the best Cornerback tandem in the league with Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain; and a couple of seasons under Dave Wannstedt in which punting wasn't a sin, but passing was... and we ran the ball so many times that Ricky Williams couldn't stop at the end of the season - and he just kept on running, all the way to Australia.
Then for a while, the Miami Dolphins were a team without an identity. Under the iron boot heel of Slick Nicky Saban, the team struggled to become who Saban said they were, and never made it. Saban expected a team of grown NFL players who he could intimidate into performing like they were college kids. Needless to say, despite a promising initial first season, Saban saw the writing on the wall in year two and ran back to the college coaching ranks.
Following Saban, nice guy Cam Cameron helped the team establish a new all time low; and an identity as the cellar dwellers of the NFL - for one season.
And when things looked more bleak than at any prior time in FinFanLand, in rode Bill Parcells on his white horse to save the day. From Day One, Bill started working on establishing a specific identity for the New Miami Dolphins, and he brought in his hired guns, Tony Sparano and Jeff Ireland, to help him with the effort.
Now everyone knows that Bill Parcells teams have historically been defined by big, tough, and strong - big, tough Offensive and Defensive lines; big, tough Linebackers; and a strong power running game. And the type of character that Parcells prefers in his players is that of hardworking, mature men, who have a "team first", as opposed to a "me first", attitude.
The stereotypical "Parcells Team" is solid, but not flashy. And, in fact, this would be a good description of the identity that the New Miami Dolphins began to display in Year 1 BPE (Bill Parcells Era). The Dolphins went about the process of winning the division title that year, through a lot of hard work, discipline, and mental toughness. And something else..... innovation! The Wildcat was born out of desperation, but credit Tony Sparano with being willing to think outside the box and try something completely new.
So after a fairly mediocre Year 2 BPE, marked by the challenges of building depth, breaking in a rookie QB, and a few untimely injuries, Year 3 BPE starts out with a BIG Free Agent Signing in Karlos Dansby, and a HUGE trade for a legitimate #1 Wide Receiver in Brandon Marshall. And not just ANY WR, but a guy that has had a reputation as a troublemaker, and a malcontent - quite the opposite of a "team first" guy. Either one of these events would have surprised any follower of Bill Parcells team building, but BOTH in one offseason?! I wonder if Jeff Ireland had anything to do with these atypically "non-Parcellian" moves?
I think it is safe to say that, while this team is "Bill Parcellian" at its core, there are differences - and those differences are because Tony Sparano and Jeff Ireland, while being schooled under the guidance of the Big Tuna, have their own way of doing things. They will bring their own beliefs to running the team, and the team will respond by developing into something that will be different than other traditional Bill Parcells teams.
But what will that look like? With one regular season game in the books, we can start ask the questions:
Who are these Miami Dolphins and how can we expect them to develop as the season progresses?
For the past couple of years, the Dolphins have been pretty one dimensional. With Chad Pennington at Quarterback, and the lack of elite Wide Receivers, the Miami Dolphins didn't scare anyone with their passing attack. They have consistently played smart, disciplined, fairly mistake free, football - but nothing too fancy other than running the Wildcat formation which has been essentially another power running formation.
And, if left to their own preference, this year's Dolphins tend to be a run oriented, smash mouth team. They like to man up on the line, put a hat on a hat, and win the one on one battles in the trenches. Grind it out. Control the clock. Keep it close, and win in the fourth quarter.
But today they have other options, and they are learning to win in other ways. We haven’t seen it yet, but they have built a team that should be able to compete in a shootout. Yes, I know what I just said, and I'll say it again - a shootout. The Fins have some growing pains to go through, and that might take all season, but these Miami Dolphins have plenty of potential.
The Buffalo game was the first, good measure of where this team is at right now, and a decent look at what they are trying to be:
1) The Defense was not good enough to close out game last year, and probably accounted directly for at least two of the nine losses on the season. The team easily could have been 9-7 instead of 7-9. So the team went out an made a huge Free Agent acquisition to upgrade this unit. No, I'm not talking about Karlos Dansby - I'm talking about Mike Nolan. Since the beginning, I have been on the Mike Nolan bandwagon, and this past Sunday we saw why. The man can confuse an Offense! Last season we worried about the Miami Defense losing games. Today, with the significant upgrades in talent that was brought in during the offseason, Nolan has the weapons in his arsenal to actually WIN games.
- Where are they now? Progressing. They are very young, and have many new players, so mistakes will be fairly common in the short term. But they are tough and talented, and we should expect to see them improving game by game. The biggest question marks of preseason, were FS, CB, and OLB. Chris Clemons at Free Safety looks fast and is a reliable tackler. Jason Allen looked solid at Corner, and Koa Misi performed well in his first regular season NFL game, registering a sack of QB Trent Edwards.
2) The Wide Receiver corps. This unit has been a major source of concern for years, and have not yet shown to be significantly upgraded. Sure, Brandon Marshall is a beast, but you can't make a "corps" our of one guy. Devone Bess is solid, but lacks the ability to stretch the field. Many people wondered about the Greg Camarillo trade, since Cammy was arguably the most reliable WR on the roster. I think this one is simple - upside. I have been harping on the need for speed at the position for a while now, and Ted Ginn was fast but simply not a very good WR. It has been argued repeatedly that you don't need sub 4.4 speed to be successful at stretching the field, you DO need faster than Bess or Camarillo. The upside of a WR corps with both Bess and Camarillo was fairly well known to the coaching staff, and it didn't fit the requirements. Either one could have fit into the team's plans, but not both. The Dolphins want to be able to strike quick, and deep downfield... even while the control the clock and run the ball. Making the other team fear the long ball helps the open up the run, and the Dolphins are still primarily a smash mouth, running team. Both rookies Marlon Moore and Roberto Wallace have more down field speed than either Bess or Camarillo, and probably Brandon Marshall as well. Keeping these guys, while trading away Camarillo is evidence to me of the direction this team is trying to go.
Where are they now? Not so great. Brian Hartline has yet to contribute as the team's #2 wide out. Marlon Moore got into the game, but didn't make a catch. But Marshall and Bess looked pretty good, and Tight End Anthony Fasano hauled in 3 catches for 46 yards. But this is only Hartline's second season, and both Moore and Wallace will take some time to develop, so I would expect to see more from this unit as the season progresses. I would guess that by mid season, the best two of these three will be active on game days.
3) Quarterback Chad Henne has taken an awful lot of criticism lately for a kid who has not yet started his 15th game. I read a report that stated that Bill Parcells himself was disappointed in Henne, although it didn't say specifically what for. Henne is a work in progress, and it is silly to think of him as anything else. He may be great. He may be average. He may be out of the league in 4 years. But no one can reasonably predict at this point of his development which it will be. We know he has a strong arm, and can be very accurate. We also know that he has had to work on touch, and reducing mistakes. And to make it a little less black and white, the new receiving corps are still working on developing their timing with Henne.
- Where is he now? Decent. His outing against Buffalo was not spectacular, but he also didn't make any huge mistakes. He held the ball a little too long sometimes, and he checked down a little too often, but this is PROGRESS! Remember, this is a kid who is used to being put in a position to win or lose the game and is not afraid to take risks. For him to reign himself in, make it all the way through his reads, and take the check down rather than throw a risky pass that is intercepted is growth! We know he can take shots down the field, so that is not something we need to wonder about. As he develops his timing with the WRs, and confidence in his O-line, the bigger plays will come.
4) The O-line has three new members, and it shows. And one of them is a rookie. This group is nowhere near as effective as they should be, and it is partly because they did not have much consistency in preseason.
- Where are they now? Average. Still making some mistakes. While I can't blame Vernon Carey's wiff on a block (allowing a sack of Henne), in the Buffalo game on a lack of chemistry, I CAN say that the types of things like Henne and Berger getting their feet tangled up is something that happen more often with a new Center. The run blocking was not opening up too many holes in the middle for the running backs, and Henne still looks a little rushed in the pocket. This is a good group of guys though, and we have seen in the past how Tony Sparano can build an effective O-line out of spare parts, so there is no reason to think that this group won't progress rapidly. The development of this group should also help Henne in his development.
Like I said, there are some definite growing pains that will probably last throughout the season. But the shape of things to come is already becoming visible. THESE Dolphins have the makings of a Defense that makes opposing Quarterbacks cry! THESE Dolphins have a power running game, and will still use the Wildcat to impose their will on the opponents and run the ball even when everyone in the stadium knows it's coming! But for the first time in a long time, maybe for the first time EVER, depending on how these guys grow over these course of the season - THESE Dolphins ALSO have a strong armed Quarterback throwing to an ELITE Wide Receiver, and a cadre of young complimentary WRs who have the ability to stretch the field in a way that we haven't seen since the days of the Marks Brothers. For many years, the Miami Dolphins have had these various pieces to the team, but for the first time since the 1970s, THESE Dolphins look like they just might have ALL of the pieces at the same time!