|Marc Serota/Getty Images|
|Newly acquired QB Chad Pennington (left) might have the inside track on the No. 1 job in Miami.|
DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins are now under the watchful eye of the master of reclamation projects, Bill Parcells, who continues to make big changes to a team that finished 1-15 last season.
Is it an official overhaul? Yes. By my count there should be anywhere from 8-10 starters on this team that did not play for the Dolphins in 2007.
This is nothing new for Parcells. When he took over the New England Patriots in 1993, he changed the culture of the franchise in very little time, leading it to Super Bowl XXXI. Then he went to the 1-15 Jets and turned the team into a 9-7 squad right away with very few changes to the roster. When he got to Dallas it took two years to have enough talent to convert the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 but, like he did with the Patriots and Jets, Parcells built another playoff team.
The project in Miami has elements of all three previous ones led by Parcells. Yet after spending time watching the Dolphins practice as well as discussing it with Parcells, Miami GM Jeff Ireland, and coach Tony Sparano, as well as many of the players, the project is well underway. Still, there's lots of work left to be done.
So far the Dolphins have had a very physical camp with a roster influx that is trying to make the transition to a 3-4 defense. On offense, they'll look to run the ball a lot early in the season.
Every key position in the organization is held by a man who totally understands what Parcells wants done both on and off the field. Ireland describes himself as the person responsible to procure talent. There is no doubt he will continue to use the trade vehicle as well as the waiver wire to add and subtract players. Sparano was very impressive in discussing that, "now is the time to pressure the young players" and make sure that this team is mentally tough from top to bottom.
As for the players, there has been such a significant injection of former Cowboys on the roster that everyone gets the message about how things are now done in Miami. I sat down with NT Jason Ferguson, LB Akin Ayodele, DB Keith Davis and TE Anthony Fasano -- all former Cowboys -- and they were all confident the guys in the locker room are on board with the team's new direction.
As Parcells and Sparano say, "it's a big man's game" and there are big issues ahead for a team trying to rebound.
With that in mind, look for the Dolphins to make at least one more trade this summer and claim 4-6 players on waivers at the last cut (they do own the top claim spot on the waiver wire list) in an effort to turn things around.
This franchise won eight division titles in the 70's, five titles in the 80's, three titles in the 90's and has just one in the 21st century. Things are going to change, but it will take time in a division that has Tom Brady, Brett Favre and a much-improved Bills team.
Let's take a look at the immediate hurdles facing the 2008 Dolphins.
1. Can this team go to the playoffs in 2008?
Now that a healthy Chad Pennington added to the mix at quarterback, along with a solid competitor in Josh McCown and a rising star in rookie Chad Henne, the most important position has been solidified. There are playmakers in receiver Ted Ginn and running back Ronnie Brown and Miami will shorten the game with a power-running attack. The Dolphins lost six games by three points last year. Miami struggled offensively last season, scoring 20 points or less in 11 of its losses. Of all the problems to fix, the offense will take the longest to come together. Sparano, being a former offensive line coach, knows it begins up front and he got a good start by drafting Jake Long with the first overall pick to anchor the left tackle spot. Long is learning a lesson every day in practice. He'll be ready to run block, but there will be some growing pains in pass protection. Let's hold off on the playoff dreams for right now.
2. Can Ricky Williams regain his form from years gone by?
It's hard to imagine a 31-year-old running back that hasn't really done much since 2005 could still be a factor in the NFL. However, Ricky Williams appears ready to do just that in 2008. He sure looked good in shorts this spring, according to teammates, but now the pads are on and it gets a lot tougher. If his touches are restricted to 10-15 per game, he could be an effective player. If Brown goes down again with an injury, it may be too much to ask of Williams to take over the full load of carries. The third-down back situation is unsettled, with Williams in the mix for that spot. Williams may be a better answer on first and second downs and let Brown handle the third downs. I have been fooled before by former great players trying to mount a comeback, so I always proceed with caution, but this time it looks like Williams has a real chance for a strong rebound.
3. Which QB will lead this team?
Offensive coordinator Dan Henning has worked with Pennington before and it appears the former New York Jet will win the starting job. Pennington is bright and an excellent decision-maker on the field, but he needs a good supporting cast around him. The short-passing game designed to move the chains, instead of a wide-open spread attack, is the stuff Pennington does well. Therefore, it would make sense to play him now with an eye on Henne next year. It's hard to predict who will inhabit the third spot on the depth chart but John Beck could be moved. The Parcells regime, after all, did not draft him.
4. Will the top draft picks really contribute right away?
Both Long and Henne are cut from the same mold. It was obvious why this organization took both of them. They are bright, tough guys who have thick skin, a burning desire to be great and don't have to be told twice by the coaches about how to do things. Long will have an impact right away. Henne will need time but not as much as most rookie quarterbacks. On defense, ends Phillip Merling and Kendall Langford will push right away for playing time. Sixth-round pick Donald Thomas (guard) will challenge for playing time on offense. Keep a close eye on an undrafted kid out of Georgia Southern, Jayson Foster, who is a 5-foot-7 playmaker that Parcells is high on. Parcells recalled the time he had Wes Welker on his roster and lost him on a waiver claim. Funny how he brought that up right after telling me about Foster.
5. Are there enough pieces in place to convert to the 3-4 defense?
The key to the 3-4 conversion is finding outside linebackers who can rush the passer and play some coverage. Parcells and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni converted Greg Ellis in Dallas and are now hoping to do the same with either Matt Roth or Vonnie Holliday. If neither project works out, then Charlie Anderson will line up opposite Joey Porter. Right now this project is purely experimental. There will be enough talent on the defensive line and inside linebacker spots, but the secondary and outside backers remain a challenge. Sparano was quick to point out how good free-agent defensive end Randy Starks was fitting in as a two-gap end after coming from a 4-3 defensive tackle spot in Tennessee.
6. Can Sparano bring so many new faces from different places together in time?
Sparano has a challenge in getting all of his players on the same page in time for the start of the season. He keeps his message and plan simple and there was a real feeling at camp that everyone checked their egos at the door. This shouldn't be a problem for the Dolphins.
7. Where will the most immediate improvement come on this team?
The Dolphins will demonstrate immediate improvement in special teams, they will commit fewer penalties, and turn the ball over less. They should be better stopping the run and running the ball in 2008.
8. Are they going to be ready for Brett Favre and the Jets in Week 1?
It was funny when I brought up the subject of Favre in the opener to Sparano and the players I interviewed. The focus is not on Favre and it's not on the Jets -- it is clearly on themselves. The Dolphins seem totally focused on what they do each and every practice and not on any opponent. The players know there are going to be constant roster changes and everyone is on their toes at all times. Favre is the least of their problems. Survival is the issue of the day.
How close are the Dolphins?
While I look for the Dolphins to go 7-9 this year, they will be right in the thick of the division race come 2009.