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MMQB Mailbag: One play call hurt Dolphins' near-perfect strategy

Except for one play, I absolutely loved Miami's approach to the Monday night game against the Colts. Reminded me of the way the man who put all the Dolphins' pieces in place, VP of football operations Bill Parcells, positioned the Giants to play the Super Bowl against Buffalo 19 seasons ago.

The Giants had just shocked the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco and were boarding buses for the flight back east. Parcells, playing with a backup quarterback and no scary offensive weapons, knew they'd have to face the best offense in football, Buffalo's, in the Super Bowl. He looked across the aisle of the bus at offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt and said to him, "Shorten the game.''

To Parcells, Dan Henning is now his Ron Erhardt. Chad Pennington is the smart, efficient and accurate quarterback who knows how to bleed the play clock down. And Miami bled the clock just the way it wanted Monday night; the Colts had the ball for just 3:07 in the first quarter, 6:25 in the second and 1:30 in the third. That's right -- three plays and 90 seconds in one quarter, sandwiched around 11- and 13-play Miami drives.

But even a plan this intelligently neo-conservative needs some guts, and Henning's ultra-safe call with 4:33 left in a 20-20 game was just plain wrong. Miami had the ball at Indy's 30. Third-and-six. Be Henning for a second. Think.

• If the Dolphins convert here, they get to cut more time off the clock, and maybe the Colts have to start using their three timeouts, and maybe Peyton Manning gets the ball back with less than two minutes left, needing a field goal or touchdown to tie or win. Or, if the Dolphins can get two more first downs before kicking a field goal or scoring a touchdown, the clock could bleed down to zero and Miami will have won without letting Manning have another possession.

• Think of the previous third-and-five-yards-or-longer snaps for the Dolphins. In inverse order, here are the five in the second half that preceded this playcall: Third-and-seven, 21-yard pass to Ted Ginn; first down. Third-and-five, 15-yard pass to Ginn; first down. Third-and-six, seven-yard pass to Ginn; first down. Third-and-seven, incomplete pass to Ronnie Brown. Third-and-five, 10-yard pass to Ginn; first down. All five were passes. Pennington completed four of them, all first-down conversions.

• If Pennington throws an incompletion, kicker Dan Carpenter has a 48-yard field-goal attempt. Carpenter's a second-year kicker; his career-long is 50, and so far on the evening, he's hit 45- and 44-yard kicks and missed wide-right on a 49-yarder. Running but not converting the third down could make it a slightly shorter kick.

Henning called for a run by Brown behind the left side of the line, behind guard Justin Smiley and franchise tackle Jake Long. But the play gained only three yards. Miami settled for a Carpenter field goal from 45 yards out to take a 23-20 lead with 3:55 to play.

An eternity for Manning.

It took Manning 32 seconds to go 80 yards, thanks to the 48-yard catch-and-run by Pierre Garcon, the replacement for Anthony Gonzalez. That made it 27-23, and the Dolphins couldn't score in the last 3:18, so that was the final.

Just as I have to believe Erhardt would have let Jeff Hostetler try to hit Ottis Anderson in the flat or Mark Ingram on a short curl in a similar situation 19 years ago, I have to think Henning is kicking himself today. He has to be. You have one of the play-it-safest quarterbacks in recent times behind center, and you don't choose to put the ball in his hands. Instead, you choose to put the ball in Manning's hands, with enough time for him to score three times. A big, big mistake.

A year ago, Miami started 0-2 but rebounded to win 11 of its last 14 and win the AFC East. The difference between then and now: The Dolphins had the Wildcat to unveil, and used it to help whip the Patriots and Chargers in the next two games. What element of surprise does this team have now? A year ago, Miami had the soft midsection of a schedule (Buffalo, Denver, Seattle, Oakland) to run off a winning streak. Now, in the next six games, it has: at San Diego, Buffalo, Jets, Saints, at Jets, at New England. Can the Dolphins go 4-2 against that slate to right the ship and get in playoff contention? I'm thinking no.

No onto your e-mail:

THE DEL RIO WATCH. From Tom Hyland of Chicago: "When does the Jack Del Rio watch start in Jacksonville? If I were a Jaguars fan (which I'm not), I'd be getting pretty tired of this constant losing. I realize he had to deal with a ton of injuries last year, but there's a lot of talent on this team. What does this guy have -- one playoff win as coach of this team? That doesn't cut it in my opinion.''

Del Rio is under contract through the 2012 season, so that would be a hard pill to swallow for owner Wayne Weaver, who clearly is more worried about filling the seats than firing a coach. I would say this: Many teams in the NFL wouldn't fire the head coach during the season with no obvious candidate on his staff to be an interim coach. That's not the case in Jacksonville. Mike Tice, the assistant head coach, was an NFL head man for five years. And two guys on the offensive staff -- Dirk Koetter (nine years) and Mike Shula (four years) -- have been coaches at a high college level for long enough so that an interim job wouldn't be foreign turf to them.

THERE'S ONE FREE-AGENT THEY MISSED OUT ON ... AND NOT A LOT CAN HAPPEN BEFORE THE DEADLINE. From Steve Johnson of Charlotte: "As an ardent supporter of the Panthers, it ticked me off to see them give Julius Peppers the franchise tag and really hamstring themselves in going out to get free agents. With Peppers' mediocre play in the first couple of games (hardly worth the $1.065 million he makes per game) will they be able to trade him before the deadline for any picks, or players, of substance? Enjoy the column very much and can't wait to see the book when it arrives.''

Thanks, Steve. Tagging Peppers eliminated a player who wouldn't be as dynamic but would have cost 60 percent less -- Chris Canty, who would play the kind of physical defensive end/defensive tackle John Fox would have loved. You're right. The Peppers money did hamstring the Panthers, but I'm not sure free agency is much of a magic elixir anymore. As for the trading deadline, nothing can happen there that will fortify your team noticeably. What would help is for Peppers to start playing like the highest-paid defensive player in football.

THE PATS HAVE ZITS. From Aaron of Pittsburgh: "It seems like what was lost in the Jets-Patriots game is the culmination of two trends for the Patriots. First, as painfully exposed in the Super Bowl two years ago, their offensive line and protection schemes wither against unpredictable, blitzing defenses. Second, the inability of their own defense to pressure an opposing QB allows them to be picked apart in the way Mark Sanchez did in the second half on Sunday. That trend started with the Colts comeback in the 2006 AFC title game. Bill Belichick has not addressed these growing weaknesses and now it seems to have caught up to the Pats. Why doesn't Belichick receive more criticism on this front, much like he deserved for not surrounding Tom Brady with quality receivers prior to 2007?''

Good observation and question. I think he will get criticism if this season blows up in their face. But let me play devil's advocate for a minute. In 2007, the Patriots were a fluky catch from going 19-0 and being heralded as one of the best teams of all time. In 2008, they lost their MVP, Tom Brady, and still went 11-5. In 2009, with Brady and nine other starters returning from an offense that scored the most points in history two years ago, I'm not sure it was time to dismantle anything. On defense, he tried to make over the team with youth and depth, centered around linebacker/playcaller Jerod Mayo. So Mayo, the defensive leader, goes down in the first half of game one, the same way his offensive leader did a year ago. That's a huge blow. What will hurt is if no pass-rusher steps forward. If none does, then open season on Belichick will be merited.

HE DOESN'T LIKE ZORN'S PLAY-CALLING. From Daniel of Richmond, Va.: "I'm a big Redskins fan, and I believe the blame for the poor offensive output should be placed on Jim Zorn, not as much on Jason Campbell. In my opinion, I thought the play calling was terrible, especially in the red zone. The Redskins ran the ball on 10 of 16 snaps inside the 20,and one of the passes came from Portis. It's hard for me to expect Campbell to make plays when he doesn't have the opportunity to do so! The Redskins engineered some good drives yesterday, but as soon as they get close, it seems like the play calling gets more conservative, like Zorn is afraid Campbell will make a mistake. Your thoughts?''

That sounds like the mark of a coach who doesn't trust his quarterback to make big plays down near the goal line. That trust has to be earned. Maybe that says everything you need to know about why the Redskins pursued Mark Sanchez and Jay Cutler so fervently in the off-season.

LET THE FANS KEEP THE BALLS. From Mark of Tampa: "Billion-dollar stadiums, $100-million player contracts, $500 game tickets. Haven't we moved beyond the point where we need to raise a net during field goals and extra points to keep those hundred-dollar footballs from being lost to the teeming masses? Watching the Cowboys-Giants game, this struck me as funny and outdated. I'll bet the cost of the poles and nets alone is greater than 5 years worth of lost footballs!''

That's why you people are such good readers. I have never thought of that, but you're absolutely right. Fans should get to keep balls kicked into the stands. Are you listening, Mr. Goodell?

TODD HALEY'S A MADMEN, HE SAYS. From Ross of Austin, Texas: "As a Chiefs fan I have to ask you about Todd Haley. He seems like a complete tyrant on the sidelines and doesn't have a problem screaming at players on a regular basis. Now, I'm not saying the Chiefs players deserved to be coddled when they make mistakes, but should an NFL head coach really act like that? Shouldn't your head coach be calm and poised during a game? I can't think of a successful head coach that makes such a scene on the sidelines, shouldn't those outbursts be saved for practice and team meetings? Thanks and keep up the good work.''

Well, Mike Ditka, Bill Parcells and Dan Reeves did it regularly. I'm sure I'm leaving a few coaches out. I think what Haley's trying to do is establish to his team that mediocrity won't be tolerated, and I have to admit I haven't watched the Chiefs as closely the first two weeks of the season. I will in the coming weeks, and will see if he's going batty as much as you say.

WILL SHORTZ, HEAR MY PLEA. From Andrew McGann of Chicago: "Saw your stated desire to be the answer to a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle someday. Me, too, but you've got a better shot! I'll send [puzzle master] Will Shortz a suggestion ASAP. I'll suggest this for a clue: 'Ubiquitous commentator with overt East Coast bias.' No, that's too easy!''

Nice. You're not the only one to suggest that sort of clue -- or to suggest that perhaps I write a little too much about teams in Eastern Time.

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