|Jim Rogash/Getty Images|
|First-year head coach Tony Sparano demands that his players be tough, smart and disciplined. So far, it is paying off.|
DAVIE, Fla. -- Vonnie Holliday knows very well that in the NFL, October is no time for celebration. As an 11-year pro, he certainly understands that the second victory of a 16-game season is nothing to savor.
But as he watched the Dolphins' offense kill off the remaining 5:55 of last Sunday's 17-10 win over the Chargers, watched four third-down conversions in a drive that began at the Miami 15 and ended with the second of two Chad Pennington kneel-downs at the San Diego 24, he simply couldn't help himself.
With just under two minutes left, when the Dolphins picked up the final first down that sealed the outcome, the 6-foot-5 defensive end held his helmet high in the air. He looked around at what was left of the crowd of 65,000 at Dolphin Stadium. He drank in every drop of what, for him, was an exceptionally satisfying moment.
"That was the happiest I've been in two years," said Holliday, in his fourth season with the Dolphins. "It's not a Super Bowl, but it was a huge win and something we haven't done in a long time. I was very excited about that.
"There are a lot of games left, but you have to feel good about this, no doubt about it."
For Holliday and a couple dozen of his teammates who were with the Dolphins before this season, there is no reason to apologize for feeling a little better than a 2-2 record should make one feel in the NFL. For them, the ugly wounds of 2007 linger. When they have a chance to apply a little salve to them, the kind that comes from back-to-back victories over the Patriots and Chargers, they're going to take it. In January, when those teams were deciding who would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, the Dolphins were pondering what to do with the top overall pick of the draft. That was their "reward" for finishing with a 1-15 record.
One-and-15. The mere mention of it still brings looks of disgust and nausea to the faces of those who lived it.
"It was the worst six months I've ever gone through at any time professionally or actually in my athletic career, (including) college, high school, Pop Warner," Holliday said.
How bad did it get? When the 0-5 Dolphins traveled to Cleveland, Holliday stayed home with a fractured fibula. The night before the game, he made a convenience-store run for some milk. He had his cap pulled down, trying his best not to be noticed. All of a sudden, the man behind the counter and a male customer began talking, loud enough for Holliday to hear.
"What about those Dolphins?" one of them said.
"Ah, it doesn't matter," the other replied. "They suck. They're going to lose anyway. It doesn't even matter."
Holliday wasn't sure if the men recognized him and intended their conversation to serve as a fairly transparent insult. He didn't bother to ask. As much as Holliday's competitiveness made him want to defend the honor of his team, he knew the right thing to do was bite his tongue, buy his milk and leave. And he did. On the way home, he couldn't help but feel depressed about yet another reminder of the sorry state of a once-proud franchise.
"That was a low point," Holliday said.
It's far too soon to describe these as "good times" for the Dolphins, but they sure do feel that way. As the team prepared for Sunday's game against the 0-4 Texans, there was a palpable buzz in the Dolphins training facility. Players laughed and joked with each other, as well as with reporters, who seemed equally enthralled with their new storyline. As one South Florida columnist pointed out, "When these guys lose, people down here just find other stuff to do." The trouble with apathetic fans is that they tend to be apathetic readers of the sports page.
"It's like new life around here now," safety Yeremiah Bell said. "You come in the locker room this year, and you just see guys talking to each other. Last year when you walked in here, it was just like a dead feeling. I was on injured reserve (after suffering a ruptured Achilles), but I remember coming through here on my crutches."
|Stephan Savoia / Associated Press|
|With his team's early success this season, Dolphins defensive end Vonnie Holliday is no longer embarrassed to be seen at his local food mart.|
Raising his voice so he could be heard above the chatter -- much of which was from several players involved in a spirited game of dominoes in the middle of the room -- Bell added, "You didn't see anything like you see now. There was no conversation. Guys were just kind of off on their own. There just wasn't any energy in the locker room."
Still, through all of the mess of last season, Holliday did see some fight in the team. He saw enough effort to keep several games close and somewhat competitive. Although the roster was short on talent, Holliday was certain that with better leadership at the top and the addition of some key pieces -- especially a quarterback -- the Dolphins could show improvement in 2008.
The leadership arrived when the Dolphins hired master rebuilder Bill Parcells as their executive vice president of football operations. Parcells brought aboard two men he felt could carry out his vision of an overhaul that would bring immediate results -- general manager Jeff Ireland and coach Tony Sparano, both of whom were with him when he coached the Cowboys.
"The biggest difference is they're accustomed to winning, starting with Coach Parcells," said running back Ronnie Brown, who has rebounded from major knee surgery last year to become the Dolphins' offensive catalyst. "I use that term Coach Parcells, because that's the way everybody knows him -- and Coach Sparano. They've been a part of winning organizations and they brought that mindset in here. When they first got here, their thing was, 'We want to win now. All this rebuilding talk, we're not buying into that.'
"And I think everybody has bought into the fact that we do have the personnel that we can win (with), and if we go out and do everything we need to do and we're supposed to do, we'll give ourselves a good opportunity."
The Parcells-Ireland-Sparano organizational mantra: Play tough, smart, disciplined football â¦ or play somewhere else. After studying videotape of the squad they inherited, it wasn't too difficult for them to figure out who should stay and who should go.
Plenty went. Of the current 53-man roster, 27 are rookies or were with other clubs last season.
Some moves were bolder than others. Among the players exiting were two all-time Dolphin greats and extremely popular figures in South Florida -- defensive end Jason Taylor and linebacker Zach Thomas. Taylor wanted out because he didn't want to spend what could very well be his final NFL season on a team that was presumably a long way off from contention. He was traded to the Redskins, who look very much like an immediate contender. Thomas -- whose concussion history was a concern and whose compact body wasn't a fit with Parcells' big-linebacker defense -- was sent packing. But he, too, found a good home, with the Cowboys.
Now, the locker room is filled with several young players -- including rookie offensive tackle Jake Long, the top overall pick of the draft -- and veteran newcomers who arrived via free agency, trade or waiver claim from 10 teams. Offensive guard Ikechuku Ndukwe is a virtual newcomer, signing as a free agent from Baltimore the week of the '07 season finale. So far, there seems to be a perfect mix between the newcomers and the incumbents, forming a potent chemistry that has dissolved the hopelessness of the past.
"It's a new mentality," receiver Greg Camarillo said. "We feel like a better team. We're playing as a better team."
In classic Parcells fashion, there is no real star power anywhere, just a lot of efficiency and grit. That is especially true at quarterback, which the Dolphins surprisingly were able to upgrade during training camp after the Jets made room for Brett Favre by releasing Pennington.
Pennington is perfect for Sparano. Although he might not make a whole lot of big plays, he keeps his mistakes to an absolute minimum. In the past two games, Pennington has given the type of performances that the coach would take every week, completing nearly 80 percent of his passes without throwing an interception. Of course, he only had one touchdown throw in that stretch, but that matters less to the coach than the fact Pennington has kept the ball out of enemy hands.
"As a quarterback, what I pride myself on is making good, solid decisions and not putting our defense in bad situations by making sure that our offense doesn't have too many negative plays," Pennington said. "Whatever it takes for us to win, that's what I'm about. If it means I have to throw the ball away five times and my completion percentage goes from 75 percent to 60 percent, that's okay with me because to me, that's good football. You're not taking sacks, not putting your offense in negative situations. You're making sure your defense is able to play a good field-position game."
"All of our players are starting to learn how you lose in this league and how you win in this league," Sparano said. "They know that minus plays -- penalties, sacks, turnovers -- can kill you. And they know that if they create them on the other side of the ball, it gives you a chance to win."
Injuries also fall in the "minus" category with the new regime. Despite the nature of the sport, Dolphin players are challenged to avoid them. The first time Parcells addressed the team, right after the 2007 season, he held up a six-inch thick binder containing all of the Dolphins' injury reports.
"This is not going to happen around here," Parcells said. "This is the first thing that's going to change."
Sparano delivered a similar message during his first team meeting a couple of months later. It has clearly gotten through.
Remarkably, the Dolphins have had only two players on their injury list all season -- cornerback Michael Lehan, who was listed as questionable with a sore ankle before the season opener against the Jets, and linebacker Reggie Torbor, who did not practice this Thursday or Friday due to a hip injury and is listed as questionable against the Texans. During the Jets' game, offensive guard Donald Thomas suffered what would prove to be a season-ending foot injury. He actually hurt his foot in the second quarter, but refused to tell anyone, including the Dolphins' trainers, and played the rest of the game.
"First and foremost, one of the things that's gotten through to them is you need to be healthy to win in our league," Sparano said. "When the training room becomes a hangout and the popular place to be, that's not a good situation. That's not a good sign for your team, so they take care of themselves. They're not afraid to get in the weight room; they do it religiously. They know there are no shortcuts."
"I remember, in training camp, seeing a guy get hurt one day and the next day he's out of here," Holliday said. "You don't mess around. If you're in that training room, unless it's something serious, get in and get out. Because (otherwise) you won't be around that long."
The Dolphins have been two different teams this season. The one that opened the season at home against the Jets made too many errors on the way to a 20-14 loss. That same team also traveled to Arizona, where it had no answers for the Cardinals' highly explosive passing game, and lost, 31-10.
And just when cynics were gaining steam with their "same old Dolphins" assessment, a funny thing happened in Foxborough, Mass. The Dolphins throttled New England, 38-13, largely on the strength of a new formation it sprang on a Patriots defense that had no clue how to stop it. Called the "Wildcat," it put Brown behind center for a direct snap and moved Pennington to wide receiver. The Dolphins used it six times against New England. On three of them, Brown ran for touchdowns. On a fourth, he threw for a score. He also had a touchdown run from his conventional spot, finishing the day with 113 rushing yards and a 6.6-yards-per-carry average.
|Jim Rogash / Getty Images|
|Ronnie Brown has thrived running -- and throwing -- the ball in the Dolphins' "Wildcat" offense.|
As stunning as the outcome was, there were still critics wanting to place an asterisk on it indicating that the Pats were without Tom Brady. Fair enough. But that was still Bill Belichick coaching New England. That also was a rookie coach who got the better of him.
After a bye, the Dolphins won in even more convincing fashion -- even if the score was much closer -- against San Diego. They again used the "Wildcat" formation, this time on 11 occasions. Brown wound up rushing for 125 yards and a touchdown.
Before the game, the Chargers let it be known that they weren't all that impressed with the Dolphins' "gimmick" offense. Not only did the Dolphins have the last laugh, they proved their offensive success had more to do with sound, fundamental football than an elaborate scheme.
"To me a gimmick play is something you run once to try to trick somebody," Camarillo said. "We may have tricked New England with that, but San Diego knew what was coming. We just had a better setup. It's a difficult thing for a defense to match up against because it's just strictly man-for-man. You move the quarterback out, and there's one man on defense for every man on offense.
"It's a good strategy, but our offensive line is doing a great job of executing it, as well as the running backs."
Winning two games with it doesn't hurt its credibility, either. Winning two games also does wonders for Sparano's ability to convince his players that "tough, smart, disciplined" works.
"It's really important," he said. "I think that it lends credibility to everything that we're trying to do. It lends credibility when we say to the guys on a Wednesday, after going two hours and 25 minutes in the heat, 'Hey, fellas, we want you to line up down there and I want you to condition today.' And they just go to the line and they condition. I don't hear (players complaining). There's no Monday morning quarterback. (They say) 'I got it, coach.'"
Believe it or not, Sparano's new challenge is making sure his players don't get too full of themselves. He wants them to enjoy their little winning streak â¦ but be fully prepared to forget about it when they board the plane for Houston this weekend.
"They don't hand anybody a trophy in this league for two wins," Sparano said. "In fact, two wins usually means that you got to pick somewhere at the top of the draft."
Holliday couldn't bear the thought of another season that yielded that sort of prize. He is convinced the Dolphins are much better than that.
And he is willing to allow himself to think that they are much improved over last year's train wreck. He's thinking playoffs. He's thinking Super Bowl.
"We have a completely different team this year," Holliday said. "Whatever happened last year was bad, but every year you go into a season and you know the preparation that it takes -- the sweat, the work. I'm not going into the season with any less expectation than the New England Patriots or the Giants because I'm working just as hard if not harder.
"To go into a season and say that it's not our expectation to get to the playoffs and try to win the Super Bowl is counterproductive. Why do you play the game? Why do you go through all the things we go through as players -- the offseason programs, training camp, preseason, just the day to day?"
For moments such as the one Holliday enjoyed while standing on the sidelines last Sunday, that's why.
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