Dolphins look ahead to '08 as they try to avoid going 0-for-'07

Miami gave us the NFL's only perfect season and its winningest coach and, until Brett Favre this year, the league's most prolific passer, too.

But all those great moments are only distant memories for a franchise now fighting to avoid the bleakest distinction of all: The possibility it could become the first team in history to suffer through an 0-16 season.

Who would ever have thought it could come to this?

And how do the Dolphins manage to keep their sanity?

"Some days, it's a struggle, but it's what we've chosen to do," said Randy Mueller, the general manager. "I love the job, and it's hard, but I'm looking forward to being able to do something about it when the season ends."

Miami would appear to have its best chance for a victory in Sunday's home game against Baltimore, which has lost seven games in a row. But that's what the Dolphins thought two weeks ago, too, before suffering their most lopsided defeat of the season, 40-13, at home against the New York Jets, who were 2-9 at the time.

"That one caught us off guard," Mueller said. "We had a great week of practice, and it got away from us. ... We've had to kind of re-gather the troops again."

Through it all, first-year coach Cam Cameron somehow has managed to maintain a positive attitude. He says he relies heavily on his faith and on lessons he learned from a one-time neighbor in San Diego, the late Admiral James B. Stockdale, a decorated Vietnam War veteran.

Stockdale "made a statement in one of his books he wrote that I always remember," Cameron said. "He wrote, 'No one can make you a victim of your circumstances but yourself.'

"At times, that quote has carried me, along with my faith. ... I'm not going to let the people around me become victim to where we are. We're going to continue to fight, going to continue to be as positive as we can be. If you can do that, then the way the league is set up, you have the opportunity to build, and you can build your way out of this thing."

Cameron has seen that first-hand. His job before this one was as offensive coordinator with the Chargers, who were 4-12 in 2003 and then 35-13 over the next three seasons.

Now, after losing 13 games in three years, he has lost 13 games in one season -- and it's not over.

"You just have to understand that it's a process," he said. "And you've got to continue to grind and stick with what you believe, and work through the process.

"It's not for everybody. I do believe it will bring out in some cases the best in people, and in some cases the worst in people, and probably no in-between. What I've seen so far is that it's brought out the best in a lot of our guys. I think these circumstances can bring out things in you that you never knew were there.

"We make no excuses for the position we're in, because we've had opportunities to win games."

Six of the Dolphins' 13 defeats, in fact, came by exactly three points:

» At Washington, season opener. Miami lost on a field goal in overtime.
» Game 3, the Dolphins outgained the New York Jets by 168 yards, but gave up a touchdown on a kickoff return.
» Houston beat Miami in game 5 on Kris Brown's 57-yard field goal with one second remaining.
» Against Buffalo in game 9, the Dolphins led by eight points going into the fourth quarter after holding the Bills to 117 yards for three quarters. But the Bills scored 11 points on two fourth-quarter drives to win.
» Two other games were three-point losses in monsoon conditions, against the Steelers at Pittsburgh and against the New York Giants in London.

The Dolphins also have lost players. A dozen are on injured reserve, including five opening-day starters. Among those lost were quarterback Trent Green, running back Ronnie Brown, safeties Renaldo Hill and Yeremiah Bell, and middle linebacker Zach Thomas. Things went from bad to worse with multiple hits at the same positions. Ricky Williams returned to the team, took Brown's old spot, and suffered a season-ending injury after six carries. Two backup safeties joined the two starters on injured reserve.

In its 13 games, Miami has used 13 different defensive lineups. In three recent games, four rookies played regularly on offense. For Sunday's game against Baltimore, Cleo Lemon, who started four games earlier in the season, will supplant rookie John Beck, who started the last three games, at quarterback.

Beck was a second-round draft choice, and his benching hardly means the Dolphins are ready to give up on him. John Elway was benched as a rookie. Joe Montana was benched in his second year.

"Part of the process is taking a step back," Mueller said. "We still think he has a lot of tools, a lot of skills, and now we'll see how tough his skin is, how he bounces back from this."

When the season began, Mueller said, he had no illusions about his team. The Dolphins probably wouldn't have been strong challengers to New England in the AFC East even if everything went right. But when everything started going wrong, well, you see what can happen.

"Everybody asked me when the offseason ended, 'What now?' " Mueller said. "I said, 'Well, we need another offseason (to improve the roster).' I just knew we had a lot of holes to fill and, until we had a core of young players, we weren't going to get there.

"I believe we're making headway. Hopefully, we've bottomed out. These rookie or first-year players are all going to be better next year because of what we've gone through. You've kind of got to look ahead a little bit."

Team officials already are doing exactly that; Miami is flush with salary cap room, appears certain to have the first pick of the draft, and has an extra choice in the second round.

Mueller became general manager before the 2005 season but didn't gain any real power in personnel decisions until coach Nick Saban bolted for the University of Alabama after the 2006 season. Saban, like Jimmy Johnson and Dave Wannstedt before him, frequently traded away draft choices for aging players, which helped to keep the Dolphins competitive after the Dan Marino years, but also left them with an aging, decaying roster and few ready replacements.

Miami does not have a single player on its roster that it drafted between 1998 and 2003, the 5- to 10-year veterans who should be the core and leadership of the team. Even in a free agency era where the only constant is change, the best teams have a group of such players around whom they build: New England has nine, Dallas seven, Indianapolis and Green Bay six apiece.

"This place had been void of draft picks and really younger players, and we had to replenish that," Mueller said. "We knew we were going to be thin. We didn't have much depth. Then we got hit with injuries. No depth and injuries, that's hard."

Very hard.

"There's no easy way," Cameron said. "The toughest part of this is that the players who have put in a ton of time and effort have not seen any reward for their efforts yet.

"We, as coaches, a lot of us have been through these situations, and we'll probably go through them again sometime, but the players only get to play so long, and that's the hardest part. I know the effort that went into our offseason program. I know the effort that went into our training camp. I know what they've been through, and to this point, they have nothing that relates to a win to show for their efforts."

It's also tough, of course, on Wayne Huizenga, the owner, who is one of the NFL's class acts. Huizenga always has been willing to give the team whatever it needed, but what's needed now is patience.

"Dealing with him has been awesome," Mueller said. "I know it eats at him. It bothers all of us. Oh-and-13 wasn't part of the plan, but he's been very supportive. I think he understands the hole we have here, and how it's not going to be filled in a short period of time."

Veteran NFL writer Ira Miller is a regular contributor to NFL.com.

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