Here it is, December 31st, with one game remaining on the Miami Dolphins' schedule, and no hope of the playoffs. Another year has come-and-gone for the Dolphins, and, once again, the talk is all about next year. But, before we reach next year, it's time to take a look back at 2011, and bring to you the top ten stories from the year.
10. The Lockout. Was there any more newsworthy story across the NFL than the lockout? While it didn't come to have nearly the impact that the NBA lockout had, the NFL lockout really did mess some things up. And, here in Miami, it's impact seemed to be harder than in some others. Once the lockout was over, several of the players, to include linebacker Karlos Dansby, reported to the team overweight. Then, the south Florida heat seemed to take its toll, as many of the players couldn't get used to the temperatures and humidity, having the weather impact them even more than it did the visiting New England Patriots in week one. Then, there were the injuries. Players left right and center seemed to be straining hamstrings, guys like Jake Long, who couldn't use team rehab facilities over the offseason, weren't ready to come back and start hitting.
After his release, the Dolphins signed Kevin Burnett to upgrade the defense. It took a while for Burnett and fellow inside linebacker Karlos Dansby to figure out how to work with each other, and, subsequently, the defense to start performing up to their potential. Meanwhile, Crowder announced his retirement, and took to the radio waves bashing everyone in the Dolphins front office and coaching staff, and even going after quarterback Chad Henne. Crowder continues to be a vocal "media" member, but does expect to get back on an NFL field next season, either in Miami with the new coaching staff, or elsewhere - after spending this year with his family, to include his new baby.
8. Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown Depart Miami. It's not every day that a team loses two former Pro Bowl running backs in the same offseason. It's even more rare that their leaving came, not because they didn't want to be there, but because the team didn't want them back. But, that's exactly what happened in Miami this year. Ricky Williams, the 2002 rushing champ and record holder for longest span between 1,000 yard season (6 years), and Ronnie Brown, trigger-man of the Wildcat offense, both were ushered out of the Dolphins franchise this year. At the time, it was rough for fans to grasp, losing two big players from the team, but looking back now, where Williams has found limited success with the Baltimore Ravens and Brown has disappeared into the Philadelphia Eagles depth chart, it was the exact right move at the exact right time.
7. Kyle Orton and Matt Moore. The Dolphins had stated they would be bringing in a quarterback to challenge Chad Henne this season. When they didn't pick one up in the draft, many fans were upset with the team. Then rumors started flying that the Dolphins were close to trading with the Denver Broncos for Kyle Orton. Excitement flew through the fan base, and dreams of what this team with Orton would be like were everywhere. Then, the trade talks started to stall, before crumbling completely - with the reasons for the failure being everything from the Broncos wanting too much, Orton demanding franchise quarterback money and a guaranteed starter's role, Dolphins' owner Stephen Ross wanting to "Suck for Luck," and general manager Jeff Ireland being inept and unable to complete the deal. Fans were once again angry, leading to "We Want Orton" chants at a Dolphins practice, and media and former players (i.e., Crowder) becoming even more vocal of the failure that is Chad Henne.
Meanwhile, Orton was installed as the Broncos starter, where he went on to post a 1-4 record as the starter. He tallied a 58.7% completion percentage, with 8 touchdowns and 7 interceptions before being benched in favor of theTim Tebow experiment. Eventually, Orton would be claimed off waivers by the Kansas City Chiefs, where he is currently 1-1 as the starter, with a 64.7% completion rate, with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions.
With the Dolphins not trading for Orton, the starting quarterback position was clearly Chad Henne'sto start the year. The Dolphins, meanwhile, signed former Carolina Panthers quarterback Matt Moore, much to the chagrin of the Miami fans. Moore was a journeyman quarterback, who couldn't stay healthy, and lost his starting role to Jimmy Clausen.
But, Moore quickly became a bright spot for the Dolphins this year. After Henne led the team to an 0-4 start, and was lost for the year with a separated shoulder, Moore stepped in and has performed very well. He is 5-6 as the starter this year, with 2375 yards passing, 15 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, and a 59.8% completion rate. He has made the most appearance and starts of his career this year, and currently has an 89.8 passer rating. He is the 11th best quarterback in the league, as ranked by ESPN's Total QBR.
He's performance has been strong enough to have some fans starting to come off the demand to get a first round quarterback this year, instead wanting to give Moore a full year - and a full training camp - to prove what he can do.
6. a. Jake Long, Marc Colombo and the Offensive Line. All-Pro left tackle Jake Long was forced to sit out the preseason as he tried to recover from offseason shoulder surgery. Once he returned to the field, it was obvious, he wasn't fully healthy. He was being beat by players he should dominate, and he was trying to do everythign with only one arm. About midway through the season, his play changed, and he appeared to be healthy. But, that didn't last. Long suffered a back injury late in the season, causing him to miss two games, the first time in his career he hasn't played, before coming back last week, only to tear a bicep and be placed on injured reserve.
But, Long wasn't the only issue with the offensive line. The Dolphins signed former Dallas Cowboys tackle Marc Colombo in the offseason, installing him as the new starting right tackle, and moving Vernon Carey from tackle to guard. Colombo's play was so bad, the Dolphins were forced to either leave tight end Anthony Fasano in to block, or to have Nate Garner declare as an eligible receiver, simply to add another blocking capability to the right side of the offensive line. Somehow, Colombo has made it through the year as the starter - despite everyone realizing he is one of the worst offensive tackles in the league.
With Long's injury problems, and Colombo letting more people past him than a Disney World turnstile , the offensive line was the biggest liability on the team this year. The line has allowed 51 sacks this season, and with two more allowed against the Jets on Sunday, they would tie the franchise record of 53 allowed sacks from the 1968 and 2004 seasons. Colombo has allowed 9 of the sack, fifth most for tackles in the league, while Long has given up 5 this season.
"It's never just one person involved," Bowles said earlier this week. "There were a couple of them [last week] where Matt [Moore] held the ball a little bit. Couple of them they got good pressure. Couple of them nobody was open. It kind of mixes in."
But, when it comes down to it, the Dolphins offensive line has been awful in pass protection this year.
6. b. Mike Pouncey. With the difficulties the Dolphins had on the offensive line this year, the selection of Mike Pouncey in the draft has proven to be a great pick. The Dolphins watched a run of four quarterbacks in the first 12 picks, but when they came up on the clock with the 15th selection, the debate was between Heisman Trophy winning running back Mark Ingram or offensive lineman Mike Pouncey. Rather than reach for a quarterback, or take a running back in the first round, the Dolphins took Pouncey - who many felt was still a reach at the 15th choice.
Since being selected, Pouncey, who is the elder twin of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Pro Bowl center Maurkice, has steadily improved his performance. According to Pro Football Focus, Mike grades out as the second best offensive lineman on the team (behind Jake Long). He has been graded ahead of his brother, who was named the starter for the AFC in this year's Pro Bowl. Mike, meanwhile, has been named the alternate at center for this year's All-Star game.
5. Dolphins Defense. The Miami defense came into the season with high expectations. In his second year as the defensive coodinator, Mike Nolan was expected to turn the Miami defense into an elite unit, easily in the top five defenses in the league. But, things did not start that way. With the lockout, personnel changes, and injuries, the defense could not seem to get out of its own way early on this year. Somewhere around Week 7, however, something changed.
The outside linebackers, led by Cameron Wake, and defensive line, with Randy Starks and Jared Odrick, suddenly started getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett suddenly started being able to cover tight ends and, along with nose tackle Paul Soliai, started shutting down the run. And, the secondary began covering wide receivers, with cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith claiming interceptions.
After being near the bottom of the league for most of the season, the Dolphins defense has climbed out of the cellar. Currently, they have the 16th overall defense, with the 26th pass defense, and the 3rd rush defense.
4. Brandon Fields. Early on this year, the Dolphins' MVP was clearly punter Brandon Fields. His leg was the best weapons on the team, and he could easily change field position by himself. Fields has a 70 yard kick this season (6th longest in the NFL), and is averaging 48.9 yards per kick (4th). His net average of 41.1 ranks him 5th in the league this season. Field leads the league with 31 kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line, and only has 7 touchbacks this season.
Fields was beat out for the Pro Bowl by Oakland Raiders punter Shane Lechler.
3. Reggie Bush. There was probably no one more controversial on the Dolphins roster than Reggie Bush. Bush came to the Dolphins via trade from the New Orleans Saints. With his arrival, there was some joy among the fans at the explosiveness he could bring, while others questioned the departure of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown and replacing them with a third-down back. And, why the Dolphins would go after Bush, rather than try to sign free agentDarren Sproles.
Immediately upon arriving in Miami, Bush demonstrated his desire to succeed. He would stay 30 minutes, 45 minutes, even an hour after practice, working on sprints and blocking drills when everyone else was already in the showers. He would then stay out and sign autographs for everyone who wanted one, before heading back in. Bush struggled early on, averaging a league worst for a starting running back 4.0 yards per carry through the first five weeks. The offense was determined to run Bush between the tackles and things weren't working.
Against the Jets in Week 6, Bush suddenly exploded. On just 10 carries, Bush gained 71 yards giving him an unheard of 7.1 yards per carry average. Since then, he has continued to prove that he really can be an every down back. Through Week 16, Bush leads the league in yards per carry (5.0) among 1,000 yard rushers and running backs with 200 or more carries. He has his first 1,000 yard season of his career (1,086 yards).
Unfortunately, Bush is done for the season, having been ruled out of this week's season finale against the Jets with a knee injury he suffered near the end of the game last week against the New England Patriots.
2. Tony Sparano and Jim Harbaugh. Former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano is probably the real top story for the team this year, but he takes second place in this countdown. Things started poorly for Sparano during the offseason. Stories began to leak last January that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, along with general manager Jeff Ireland and former Kansas City Chiefs executive Carl Peterson, had flown out to California to try to hire then Stanford Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh as the next Dolphins head coach. The only problem was, the Dolphins still had Sparano as their head coach.
After failing to land Harbaugh, the Dolphins signed Sparano to an extension, but Ross made it clear, the Dolphins had to win this year. That, obviously, did not happen.
The team started the year 0-7, turning the hot seat under Sparano into a red-hot poker. The clock had started on Sparano and it was only a matter of time until the job wasn't his anymore. But, Sparano never gave up, he never quit, and he never let the pressure, or the questions about his job security, get to him.
Sparano realized his coaching philosophy wasn't working. So, rather than continue to try what didn't work, he threw out all of the Bill Parcells-style in his coaching, and completely changed everything he did. The practice schedule changed. The play calling changed. He turned to veteran players and had them pressure the younger member of the roster. And it worked. The team responded.
Miami went 4-2 over the next six weeks, but it was too little too late. With their ninth loss, the Dolphins clinched their third straight losing season, and, despite the team playing hard for Sparano, and many players openly pleading for Sparano to remain, he was shown the door, with assistant head coach and secondary coach Todd Bowles being given the interim head coach title for the team's final three games.
1. Jason Taylor's Retirement. As the year wound down, suddenly a report from the Miami Herald's Armando Salguero suggested this was All-Pro Jason Taylor's final season. On Wednesday, the defensive end, turned linebacker confirmed that report with a press conference announcement that tomorrow's game against the New York Jets would be his final game in the NFL.
Taylor was a third round pick in 1997 out of Akron. He was only coveted by one person in the league, then Dolphins head coach Jimmy Johnson. Even front office personnel with Miami didn't think Taylor was someone they should target. But Johnson saw something different. He didn't see the guy most saw as too small to be a defensive end, and too awkward to be a linebacker. He saw a player that was dominating at the Senior Bowl. He saw the player Taylor would become.
Taylor is the final player that Johnson drafted into the NFL. He's played 15 years in the league, 13 in Miami and one each with the Washington Redskins and the New York Jets. He sits in sixth all time in sacks with 139.5, and could reach Michael Strahan in fifth if he tallies two sacks against the Jets on Sunday.
Taylor formed the cornerstone, along with his brother in law Zach Thomas, of a dominating defense in Miami in the late 1990's and early 2000s. Taylor made six Pro Bowls, five All Pro Teams, was the 2000 NFL Alumni Pass Rusher of the Year, the 2002 and 2006 AFC Defensive Player of the Year, the 2005 and 2006 NFC Alumni Defensive Lineman of the Year, and a member of the NFL's All Decade Team for the 2000s. He was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year by the AP and the Pro Football Writers Association in 2006, and the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2007.
Taylor also made an impression off the field. He was the runner up on the sixth season of Dancing with the Stars, a competition that ultimately led to his falling out with Bill Parcells, who traded him to the Redskins. More importantly, Taylor, along with his wife Katina, formed the Jason Taylor Foundation in 2004. The Foundation focuses on bettering the lives of children in and around Miami and the South Florida area.
As he leaves the field after the game, a true Miami Dolphins legend will be walking out of Sun Life Stadium as a player for the last time. But, the moment that final gun sounds, the countdown clock for Taylor's enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton will begin.
Honorable Mention: Jim Mandich - Mad Dog lost his battle with cancer this past April, and the Dolphins lost a great radio personality, an outstanding alumnus from the team, and an all-around wonderful human being. Mandich will be missed for a long, long time in Miami.
Other stories: Brandon Marshall and Reggie Bush Top 1,000 Yards Receiving and Rushing Respectively, Chad Henne's Injury, Miami Rookies Playing Well, Lousaka Polite Released
What are your Dolphins stories of the year?