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Mix of rookies, new vets help Miami erase memory of one-win season

On the eve of the Miami Dolphins season opener against the Jets, new Dolphins coach Tony Sparano was standing at the foot of a staircase in the team lobby, explaining how the past is not always prologue.

"Bill Parcells taught me that you are what your record says you are, so right now we are a 1-15 team," Sparano said at the time of the 2007 Dolphins. "But I think our players know exactly what is in that locker room. Twenty-seven or 28 players who have come from different places where they have won a bunch of games. We've been able to put the past behind us."

Through the midpoint of the 2008 season, no team has shed its skin like the Dolphins, sitting squarely in the playoff hunt at 4-4, facing back-to-back home games against the injury-prone Seahawks and inept Raiders before welcoming New England on Nov. 23.

While teams go from irrelevant to contender every year in the NFL, the Dolphins could barely claim irrelevance last season. They were one Week 15 overtime win against Baltimore from going 0-16.

Parcells, in his first year as vice president of football operations, and Sparano happily gutted the roster during the offseason, rebuilding Miami starting with the offensive and defensive lines and moving outward. Rookie left tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in last April's draft, anchors a line that has given up just 14 sacks (one to running back Ronnie Brown).

Rookie defensive linemen Philip Merling (the 32nd pick overall) and Kendall Langford (the 66th pick) have combined for 30 total tackles and three sacks.

And while the team is high on the future of rookie quarterback Chad Henne (the 57th pick), it has been the steady leadership of free-agent pickup Chad Pennington that stands out most of all. Dumped by the Jets after they acquired Brett Favre, Pennington has completed 67.4 percent of his passes and posted a 95.2 quarterback rating. Sparano said Pennington gained the trust of the locker room from the moment he walked through the door.

"Tony Romo was a lot like that, a Pied Piper," said Sparano, a Cowboys assistant from 2003 to 2007. "They all kind of want to follow him. If Chad goes left, they all go left. If Chad decides, 'I want to stay after practice and throw the ball around,' then there are 15 guys staying after practice throwing the ball around."

There have been other important developments for the Dolphins, including Brown's return to health and ability to thrive in the Wildcat formation after a torn ACL last year. Another plus has been the complementary play of running back Ricky Williams, who scored his first NFL touchdown since 2005 in Week 6 and is now a 31-year-old veteran and not a distracted twentysomething.

Asked if his teammates accepted him despite his past suspensions and brief retirement, Williams said: "It's a whole new regime. There are only two or three guys who were on the team when I retired. People look up to me as a leader more. A lot of these kids on the team were in high school and junior high when I won the Heisman. The bad blood is gone."

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