Dolphins' enviable QB situation also among NFL's most intriguing

DAVIE, Fla. -- When the Miami Dolphins held organized team activity workouts a year ago, there wasn't a hint of a quarterback controversy because there wasn't a hint of a starting quarterback.

Josh McCown, John Beck, and rookie Chad Henne pretty much offered little else beyond bodies that went through the act of throwing and handing off a football. That they didn't do the throwing part particularly well made one thing clear to coach Tony Sparano and the rest of the Dolphins' brass: They needed to find a real starter.

And when the New York Jets made one available to be signed as a free agent, virtually out of the blue, they had no choice but to grab him.

A year later and months after Chad Pennington -- who proved to be the real prize to emerge from last August's trade that sent Brett Favre from Green Bay to the Jets -- worked wonders to help the Dolphins go from a laughingstock to a playoff team, the Dolphins find themselves with a far more intriguing quarterback situation during their OTA sessions.

Pennington is still the starter, but he's in the final year of a two-year contract. Henne is waiting in the wings to take over, possibly as soon as this season if the Dolphins get off to a slow start. There's also second-round draft pick Pat White, whose considerable running skills should allow him to see the field when the Dolphins use their "Wildcat" -- or "WildPat" -- offense, when the quarterback, who is sometimes a running back, becomes more than a passer or someone who hands off.

"You have a veteran who knows pretty much all about how to play the position, how to be a quarterback," Henne said. "And you've got me who's learned from him, so I'm trying to mirror off of him and try to just produce the same thing on the field when I get in there. And Pat can bring a different dynamic and help us out as a team and also step in there as a quarterback and throw the ball down the field."

Sparano can hardly believe how dramatically the position has changed for his team in the past 12 months.

"Last year at this time, we're in, quite honestly, an audition out here for the quarterback position," he said. "And really, the guy that was separating himself the most out of that group at the time was Chad Henne. But as we're sitting here today, being able to practice and see the progress and the communication that goes on between the receivers and a veteran quarterback like Chad Pennington has been tremendous. It makes practice a lot easier and it gives you a lot more confidence to be able to walk off the field at the end of the day being able to legitimately compete."

It also helps that the Dolphins have an ideal mix of personalities at quarterback. Pennington is as selfless and egoless as they come, Henne shows considerable patience, and White, well, is willing to go along with whatever the coaches tell him to do (including saying almost nothing to reporters about any special offensive packages that could involve him this season). All three are genuinely supportive of each other.

The key to it all working smoothly is that Pennington is not fretting over the fact that, despite his impressive 2008 season, he has something less than a vice-tight grip on the No. 1 quarterback spot. When the Dolphins signed him as a free agent at the end of the '08 preseason, he fully understood that Henne had been drafted on the second round from Michigan to eventually assume the starting job.

"It would be a different situation if coach Sparano and (executive vice president of football operations) Bill Parcells and (general manager) Jeff Ireland weren't up front," Pennington said. "But they've been up front from Day 1. They wanted me to come in here and win the job and be a leader, both on and off the field, and win as many games as I can, knowing that they drafted (Henne) to play ... and I'm comfortable with that."

As far as Pennington is concerned, his contract can wait to be addressed when it expires, which is after the season and when the Dolphins are expected to do something about it -- if they choose. He's not showing the least bit of irritability, as many players do when they enter the final year of an agreement and negotiations for an extension either haven't begun or are going nowhere.

All Pennington, who is 32 and entering his 10th NFL season, wants is to focus on his on-field responsibilities. He has given the greatest attention to his ability to throw deep passes, something that is a bit easier for him to do now that he is four years removed from the second of two major surgeries on his right (throwing) shoulder.

Pennington also prefers not to be the source of any distraction for the rest of the team.

"I signed a two-year deal, so it's my obligation to fulfill that two-year deal," Pennington said. "I'm kind of old school that way."

Although he is only 23, Henne has some old-school tendencies as well. He realizes that he doesn't have everything figured out -- that he has plenty to learn and that it is wise to watch what Pennington does and listen to his advice.

"The details that he has are just extremely beneficial," Henne said. "Just little tweaks in film that he'll look at, and say, 'Oh, this guy's doing that, I know this is the coverage.' The way he's taught me -- and I've kind of helped him out with a couple of little things -- it's been a great relationship for both of us. It's a great learning experience for me, and when I get my chance, I'll be ready."

Sparano and the rest of the Dolphins' coaches have been impressed with the progress that Henne has shown during offseason workouts. They like the fact, through intensive offseason conditioning, he has added muscle to his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame, which has helped him to develop greater stamina and to throw the ball with better velocity.

They are especially pleased to see that he has become better at identifying coverages and fronts, and making sure his protection and receivers are lined up accordingly.

"That's the biggest difference (from his rookie season), from a mental standpoint," Sparano said.

For the rest of the team, the biggest difference from a year ago is a sense that it has a chance to be something far more interesting than a bottom-feeder. The turnaround from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 in 2008 has provided a good deal of confidence where once there was none.

Most of that stemmed from the impact of acquiring Pennington, who is continuing to fulfill that leadership role to which he agreed last August.

"We're proud of what we did last year, but we're not satisfied and we know we're not where we need to be," he said. "Our number one goal this offseason is to understand and realize that what we did last year has no effect on 2009. You see it every year in the NFL where a team has a great year and then the next year they fall apart. They get struck with injuries or they don't have a season like they wish they would have had.

"We're starting over."

So is Pennington.

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