Sparano: Henne 'way ahead of where he was a year ago'

DAVIE, Fla. -- It seems everyone in South Florida has an opinion about Chad Henne, even at a memorial service.

The Miami Dolphins' much-maligned quarterback was sitting in the audience last spring for a tribute to the late Jim Mandich, a former tight end and broadcaster with the team, when ex-Dolphin Nick Buoniconti raised the subject of Henne from the podium. Mandich was fearful the Dolphins might give up on Henne and said so in a conversation with Buoniconti shortly before he died of cancer.

"Jim said, `You know, Chad Henne is going to be one hell of a quarterback in this league. These guys have to give him a break,"' Buoniconti recalled.

The Dolphins talked of upgrading at quarterback this summer and considered trading for Denver's Kyle Orton, then decided to stick with Henne -- at least for now. He's back as the starter for Monday night's opener against the New England Patriots, to the surprise of some and consternation of many.

At an August scrimmage in the Dolphins' stadium, restless fans chanted, "We want Orton!" Former teammate Channing Crowder said Henne lacked a winning touch. Pundits coast to coast said the Dolphins had no chance at the playoffs without a change at quarterback.

Mandich was partial to Henne in part because both played at Michigan. But another Michigan alum, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, gave Henne only tepid support.

"He knows there's a lot of pressure on him this year," Ross said. "Hopefully he does well."

Miami's season likely depends on it. The only other quarterback on the roster is Carolina Panthers castoff Matt Moore.

Henne played well during the preseason, raising hopes the fourth-year pro might be on the verge of a breakout season. The addition of newcomer Reggie Bush should help Henne, providing him with a target who can turn a short pass into a long gain.

Coach Tony Sparano's decision to craft less conservative game plans with new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll might also help, allowing Henne more freedom to change plays and make aggressive throws.

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"We are definitely in attack mode," Henne said. "We are looking to go downfield and make big plays."

And then there's Henne's teamwork with two-time Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall, who lost confidence in his quarterback last year and said so. Henne this week described their difficulties as a "mis-relationship," but he and Marshall both said they're on better terms.

"He's spinning it well, and we're communicating great," Marshall said.

Henne also benefits from the support of Bush -- although they have yet to play a game together that counts.

"Chad has a good head on his shoulders, and the sky is the limit for him with this new offensive system," Bush said. "He's going to do great, and he has a lot of weapons around him. We're all here to help."

In 27 starts over the past two seasons, Henne showed flashes of becoming a solid quarterback, if not the franchise passer the team has lacked since Dan Marino retired. Henne's six 300-yard games rank second in team history to Marino.

But his tendency to throw ugly interceptions and play poorly in the fourth quarter earned a brief benching last season and made him a target of boo birds.

Henne hears the jeers and said the Orton chant hurt. But he knows he needs thick skin to succeed.

"Pressure out there from the stands, the fans, the coaches, whatever -- I can't pay attention to that," he said. "I put more pressure on myself to perform at a higher level rather than anybody else."

A higher level ought to be enough to get the Dolphins into the playoff mix. They went 7-9 last year with a top-10 defense that should be even better this season, so any improvement at quarterback could make a big difference.

Sparano believes Henne turned a corner during the lockout by organizing player-only workouts. Henne's not one to give a locker-room speech or lead a chorus of the Dolphins' moldy fight song, but he said he sought to become a more commanding presence for his teammates.

"I hope I turned their heads a little bit and gave them a little bit more leadership qualities," he said. "I want to be that guy."

There were glimpses of a new Henne during the preseason. His release was quicker, his passes more accurate, his decisions better. He looked off covered receivers, handled pocket pressure well and connected with Marshall on a deep throw.

"He's way ahead of where he was a year ago," Sparano said. "I think anybody that's been watching us play can see that. I would expect that he's going to have a really good season."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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