Dolphins still have room to improve after remarkable turnaround

DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins' great leap forward ended with a thud.

In one season they went from worst in the NFL to first in the AFC East, but a drubbing by Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs sent a message: There's still room for improvement.

Taking the next step from playoff qualifier to title contender won't be easy.

"What we just did is pretty difficult to do," coach Tony Sparano said Monday. "But that next jump is a really hard jump. It's a heck of a thing we just accomplished. But to do it over and over again is what makes you elite."

For Miami, the offseason begins with the core in place, a big change from the constant turnover of recent years. Sparano and quarterback Chad Pennington will return after winning rave reviews in their first season with the Dolphins, and football boss Bill Parcells is also expected back.

The sale of the franchise to real estate billionaire Stephen Ross is likely to be completed soon, triggering a clause in Parcells' contract that allows him to leave and still receive at least $9 million due him in the next three years. There's speculation the Dolphins may hire Carl Peterson, who resigned last month as president and general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs and is close to Ross.

But the 67-year-old Parcells is saying he plans to return for the 2009 season.

"He told me he wasn't going anywhere," linebacker Joey Porter said. "He told me this was going to be his last stop."

Following Sunday's 27-9 loss to the Ravens, current owner Wayne Huizenga said Parcells told him last week he plans to remain as executive vice president of football operations.

"It's good to hear that Parcells is going to be back," defensive end Vonnie Holliday said. "This organization's ability to go out and bring in talent was clearly the difference in our season this year and last year -- guys who can play ball."

The Dolphins became the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs a year after winning only once. Miami went 11-5 to reach the postseason for the first time in seven years.

"We're heading in the right direction," Porter said. "We'll just beef up our team a little bit and get those little pieces we need."

The loss to Baltimore exposed the Dolphins' weaknesses. They struggled to run the ball and protect Pennington, a reflection of an offensive line that's a work in progress. They had trouble putting pressure on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, and the defensive line also needs an upgrade. The thinnest area is receiver, with Miami's wideouts totaling only five touchdowns all year.

Pennington threw four interceptions against Baltimore, but had only seven during the regular season. He was chosen NFL Comeback Player of the Year for the second time and gave Miami stability at a position that has been a chronic problem since Dan Marino retired.

Pennington struggles

Dolphins QB Chad Pennington, the NFL Comeback Player of the Year, threw four interceptions against the Ravens but will return as the starter in 2009. Watch ...

While rookie Chad Henne remains the Dolphins' quarterback of the future, Pennington will be their QB in 2009.

"That guy has played very well for us the entire year," Sparano said. "I think the guy is just an outstanding player."

A shakeup in the secondary is possible, although pass coverage improved as the season progressed. Cornerback Andre Goodman and safeties Yeremiah Bell and Renaldo Hill will be unrestricted free agents this offseason, as will linebacker Channing Crowder and offensive tackle Vernon Carey.

The Parcells regime brought in 29 new players in 2008. The turnover likely won't be as dramatic this offseason, but there will be no standing pat.

"We've tasted success. We want more success," said receiver Greg Camarillo, who hopes to recover from a knee injury in time for training camp. "Making the playoffs isn't our goal anymore. We want to win championships."

Addressing his players Monday, Sparano thanked them for changing the culture of the organization. They're grateful to him for doing the same -- and for leading them to the playoffs.

"Sparano and his coaching staff are a great group of coaches that know football," Holliday said. "Even me, being an 11-year veteran, learned a lot about football this year. No one expected us to be here. I don't even think the guys in this locker room expected to be here until things got going and everybody bought in."

Continuing the climb will be the objective, but matching this season's success will be tough enough. The Dolphins benefited from an easy schedule, a reward for their miserable 2007 record. Next season they'll be punished for winning and will face opponents who went a combined 152-104 this season.

"The bar is raised," Sparano said. "There are expectations that come with that. That's something we can look forward to."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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