Just a 22-mile drive north from downtown Miami in the higher ed. hub of Davie, Fla., Nova Southeastern University has doubled as the site of the Miami Dolphins' headquarters and training camp staging grounds since 1993. The team's training facility, which spans more than nine acres of the northwest quadrant of the school's bucolic campus, is set against a tableau that is typical South Florida: palm trees ring the facility's twin outdoor practice fields, finger-sized lizards skitter across the pavement for cover as you walk and temperatures hover between the high-80s and the low-90s. (A steady breeze helps take the edge off of 70 percent humidity.) When sunshine and blue skies gave way to lightning and rain on Thursday, the Dolphins retreated to an abutting practice bubble just across the way. Fans, who get in free, aren't allowed in there, but the outdoor fields' bleacher seats can accommodate about 2,000. During the Dolphins' first week of camp, about that many showed up each day slathered in sunscreen and swaddled in aqua and orange. One of the more fan-friendly features is the six-foot gate separating the bleacher seats from the field; it folds in half to foster more personal interactions between fans and players during post-practice autograph sessions.
1. If you thought Chad Pennington was good last year, wait until he figures out what he's doing. Signed about a month before the Dolphins home-opener after being unceremoniously cut by the Favre-hungry Jets, Pennington analogized his mad scramble to get ready for the start of the season to "being in the eye of a hurricane. You're just trying to stay calm in the midst of a bunch of chaos," he said. And he did so with aplomb in '08, posting the NFL's second-best passer rating (97.4), leading the league in completion percentage (67.4) while boasting the third-best touchdown-to-interception ratio (2.71). This year, the 10th-year pro is taking advantage of having spent a full offseason in Miami. When he isn't further immersing himself in the Dolphins playbook, he's seizing every occasion to collaborate with his teammates. "He meets with our line once a week and our receivers twice a week on his own," second-year coach Tony Sparano said. "I've never been around anything like it. And I mean, they're there, they're on time and they ain't gonna miss a meeting. And he's running the meeting."
2. If opposing teams aren't keeping an eye out to see which receivers the Dolphins end up cutting, they should be. Whereas last year Miami's skilled offensive talent was stockpiled in the backfield, this year a new surplus has developed outside the hashmarks. Ted Ginn Jr. currently occupies the top spot on the Dolphins depth chart, but the talent behind him is so close that general manager Jeff Ireland often finds himself tinkering with his receiver rankings. "Nos. 2 through 5 changes every day," Ireland said. "There's a lot of competition, but no stars at this point. We've got to find out who the players are that can give us chunks." Second-year pro Davone Bess has made considerable gains in strength and improved as a route runner. Rookies Brian Hartline (Ohio State) has flashed impressive hands, while Patrick Turner (USC) has shown impressive leaping ability and use of his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame. Fourth-year pro Greg Camarillo is back to familiar form and apparently fully recovered from the season-ending ACL injury he suffered in Week 11, while Ginn is doing a better job of getting into his routes quicker and flashing his sprinter's speed.
Those guys are among nine receivers Miami is currently carrying; Sparano said the team probably won't keep more than five. "We're gonna have some hard decisions to make," he said.
3. If there was any doubt the Dolphins are eager to improve their pass defense, just look at how many defensive backs they're carrying. As of Thursday they had 14, which was the most of any position. But then again, given how vulnerable Miami was against the pass -- their 227.8 yards allowed per game ranked 25th in the league -- maybe bringing in so many reinforcements isn't such a bad idea. One who will be pressed into duty right away is rookie Vontae Davis (Illinois). At 5-11, he has the size to match up against some of the division's corn-fed receivers and, having run a 4.49 40 at the combine, the speed to keep up with them. Look for him to lock up the starting cornerback spot opposite ninth-year pro Will Allen.
If sixth-year safety Gibril Wilson were any happier to be out of Oakland he'd burst. Ask him about the year he spent in '08 in football purgatory, and he'll tell you it "was just a blur. I'm glad that Al Davis let me go. That was probably the best thing that happened to me in a long time." Wilson, who was signed to a five-year, $27.5 million pact in February, leaves a team he describes as having a "loser mentality" and a porous defense that often tasked him with making "touchdown-saving tackles" for one that will give him the freedom to "roam a little bit and make plays on the ball," he said. What's more, he has high hopes for his new partnership with re-signed Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell. "We will be the best combo in the league," he said.
The outsized intrigue in West Virginia passer Pat White is equaled only by the outsized indifference the rookie has in discussing himself. Generously listed at six feet and 190 pounds, he could be easily mistaken for an intern in the team's media relations department when clad in a t-shirt and shorts. Moreover, he has an intern's meek disposition, speaking in the kind of soft, measured tone of a junior employee who is careful not to say anything to jeopardize his employment.
But he's hardly in any imminent danger of losing his job. Selected 44th overall, White was considered a reach. But the Dolphins were beguiled by his abilities as a runner and a passer and believed that a player of his caliber could enhance its successful Wildcat offense with a downfield passing component it did not have last year. Sparano said the team has put together a "Pat Package" of plays that capitalize on his unique skill set.
The site of Dolphins veep Bill Parcells kibitzing with his players on the field is hardly curious to anyone who has watched him coach over the last 20 years or tuned into an NFL Films production in the last 10. But the sight of him kibitzing with Jason Taylor certainly was. After all, it was a little more than a year ago that the six-time Pro Bowl pass rusher complained of receiving the silent treatment from Parcells, who was upset that Taylor had basically blown off offseason workouts to appear on the hit TV show Dancing with the Stars. The rift led to Taylor being shipped to the Redskins for two future picks -- one of which became White. After an injury-plagued year in Washington, a humbled Taylor re-signed with the Dolphins in May (for considerably less money than he was making) and has been a standout performer so far in camp, showing much of the intensity and perfectionism that has become his trademark.
1. Despite stats that rank among the NFL's best tight ends, fourth-year pro Anthony Fasano isn't ready to put himself among the league's elite just yet. "I was able to make some plays when called upon, but there's still some consistency problems that I'm trying to work on this year, both in the running game and the passing game," he said.
2. Rookie free agent wideout Brennan Marion has some of the world's worst luck. After tearing his left ACL on the last play of his senior season at Tulsa, he tore it again in practice Tuesday while running patterns, summarily ending his tenure with the Dolphins.
3. Two players -- third-year safety Ethan Kilmer and rookie tackle SirVincent Rogers -- quit the team in as many days, both without explanation. The Dolphins didn't have much of one either. Seems odd given that it's only the first week.
4. Since purchasing a 95 percent interest in the Dolphins in January, real estate magnate Stephen Ross has been on a mission to revamp the team's fusty image -- starting with its more than 30-year-old fight song. At a party on Friday he unveiled a remixed version by Florida hip hop impresarios T-Pain and Pitbull that's expected to get plenty of airplay at Land Shark Stadium during the season.