Dolphins look toward next season after completing magical 2008

DAVIE, Fla. -- The sign, printed in bold letters on a letter-sized sheet of white paper, was still attached to the back wall of Yeremiah Bell's dressing cubicle at the Dolphins' training facility. It said: "WHY NOT US!" It wasn't meant as a rhetorical question; it was a slogan that defined as improbable a story as any in sports, let alone the NFL.

And it provided an appropriate backdrop for the topic that the Dolphins' safety and many of his teammates discussed as they packed away the 2008 season.

The Dolphins saw no reason to doubt their ability to skyrocket from a 1-15 disaster in 2007 to the heights they reached in '08: An 11-5 finish and the AFC East championship.

Now, they're preparing for an offseason in which the question of whether what they did was legitimate or merely a fluke will be asked often. They're also ready to answer it the same way they answered the many skeptics who never expected anything approaching this season's 10-game improvement: "Why not us!"

It won't be all that easy of a sell, considering the most lasting image of what had been a magical season was an ugly, 27-9 wild-card playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. But no one in the Dolphins' locker room seemed to be wavering about the team's remarkable progress and its ability to build upon it.

"We didn't revert back to that 1-15," said Bell, who led the Dolphins with 120 tackles. "We're totally different. We know we're not that team at all. We just picked the wrong day to play our worst game of the year. That's pretty much all you can say about that.

"For next year, you've just got to have guys keep believing. You don't ever want to take a step backward, and anything less than 11-5 is kind of a step backward. It's going to be on guys to hit this offseason program and get some good things done and try to do the same thing next season or make it even better."

The question is, which guys will be around to help the Dolphins meet the challenge of a schedule that includes teams that had a combined 152-104 record in 2008? Bell is among five starters who are due to become unrestricted free agents. The others are fellow safety Renaldo Hill, cornerback Andre' Goodman, inside linebacker Channing Crowder, and offensive tackle Vernon Carey.

The Dolphins also need to shore up their offensive line. They need another dominant pass-rusher besides outside linebacker Joey Porter. In short, first-year coach Tony Sparano said, they need to get "bigger, stronger, and faster" to make the "hard jump" to an elite team.

"Every year, there's so much turnover in this league," veteran defensive end Vonnie Holliday said. "It'll be interesting to see who comes back, what new pieces of the puzzle are added. And even coaching staff; with success, there's going to be opportunity for some coaches to go on and do other things. But I think we have a good core -- a good nucleus of players, a mix of young and older guys. I think the foundation has been set."

The chief architect is Bill Parcells, finishing his first season as the Dolphins' executive vice president of football operations. The sale of the Dolphins, which is expected to happen soon, gives Parcells the option to walk away from the team and collect the reported $12 million owed to him over the next three years. But current club owner Wayne Huizenga and others within the Dolphin hierarchy expect Parcells to stick around at least for one more season.

"It's important, because Bill started all this, bringing Coach Sparano and the staff in," Bell said. "He's kind of like that foundation, so, of course, it would be good if he came back."

The same can be said for Bell and others who were part of an amazing turnaround.

Random Thoughts

» It makes sense that Randy Lerner is taking a different approach with the second coach he will hire as owner of the Browns (his father, the late Al Lerner, hired the previous coaches). His first, Romeo Crennel, had no head-coaching experience in the NFL, and made some crucial mistakes with his coordinators he hired and later replaced. Eric Mangini, the coach Lerner is targeting, is going to bring what he learned in three years at the Jets' helm, including those that came from making mistakes. It also makes perfect sense for Lerner to target Ravens director of pro personnel George Kokinis as the Browns' new general manager. Mangini and Kokinis were extremely close when they previously worked together at Cleveland and will have the shared vision and cooperative spirit that didn't exist between Crennel and former Browns GM Phil Savage.

» There's something about the Ravens that leads me to believe they have what it takes to win it all. Maybe it's seeing Ed Reed make those "are-you-kidding-me" plays. Maybe it's seeing Ray Lewis dominate the way he did at a younger age. Maybe it's seeing the impressive work of a rookie coach, John Harbaugh, and a rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco. Or maybe it's their swagger, which is mostly seen among the defensive players but clearly is present on both sides of the ball. These guys believe they're the best team in the tournament, and it's hard to argue. Despite being the No. 6 seed in the AFC, they are hardly satisfied with "just being in the playoffs," as might have been the case with other clubs that got bounced last weekend.

» I had no trouble with Atlanta rookie coach Mike Smith being named the NFL's Coach of the Year, but I still think the honor should have gone to Sparano. The Dolphins' 10-game improvement was pretty much all anyone needed to know when filling out that ballot. I've heard that one of the major reasons Sparano didn't get the honor was that voters believed the turnaround had more to do with Parcells than great coaching. Parcells was vital to the process, but Sparano and his assistant coaches merit a tremendous amount of credit. By the way, new GM Thomas Dimitroff made a huge contribution to the Falcons' one-year surge. And I don't know how Harbaugh didn't get a single vote. This might sound like a copout, but I honestly believe the fair solution would have been for Smith, Sparano, and Harbaugh to share the award.

» Matt Millen's career as a GM was a train wreck, but his studio appearance with NBC last weekend reminded me just how good an analyst he really is. He was a natural when he did the job for Fox and on radio, offering tremendous insights along with a dry sense of humor. It was his calling and he should have stuck with it (although it wasn't going to pay anywhere near as much as the crazy money he received from the Lions). Making Millen part of NBC's Super Bowl coverage is a wise move and keeps him moving swiftly on the trail back to the broadcast booth.

Have a question for Vic? Send it to AskVic@nfl.com, and the best ones will be answered on NFL.com.

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