O.K., LET'S try to sort this thing out. There was a time when you could pencil in the Dolphins for a winning record. They had seven straight years of that, 15 straight without a losing record. And since Dan Marino retired and coach Dave Wannstedt took over in 2000, the formula has been simple. Run the ball, pass when you have to. In fact, in Wannstedt's first four years the rushes outnumbered the pass attempts. Imagine that.
Then, on the eve of training camp in 2004, Miami's heavy-duty back, Ricky Williams, said he'd had it. He didn't need to be the NFL's leader in carries for a second consecutive season. He wanted to see the world. Do a little yoga. Smoke a little pot. Find himself.
Nondescripts filled his position. Linemen had to learn a new skill called pass-blocking. What a collection of whiffers they turned out to be. Except for the poor chaps in Chicago, no quarterbacks were sacked more times than the Dolphins' guys. Jay Fiedler was sidelined with a herniated disk. His backup, A.J. Feeley, suffered a concussion against the Patriots, then injured his right hip against the Seahawks. Wannstedt resigned before the Seattle game, and Miami finished 4--12, the franchise's worst record since 1969.
Enter Nick Saban, fresh from LSU and tremendous success at the collegiate level. There was jubilation all around, but let's face it. It hasn't been a good era for college coaches. The University of Miami's Butch Davis tanked with the Browns. Ditto Florida's Steve Spurrier with the Redskins.
One of the first things Saban did, and the importance of this cannot be overstated, was hire Hudson Houck to try to bring some semblance of order to the offensive line. Houck was the architect of the Cowboys' great lines during the team's glory years of the '90s. Last season he worked a miracle in San Diego, turning a bunch of average players into a finely tuned unit. Then Saban announced that Williams would be welcomed back, should he so desire. Yeah, sure. After what his teammates said about him last year?
But this summer Williams did come back, 15 pounds lighter, at 213. He announced that he wanted to help the Dolphins win, and he was immediately forgiven. "Hey, I'm a greedy s.o.b.," says defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina. "If Ricky can take us to the playoffs, I'm willing to forgive and forget."
But Williams will miss the first four games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. And the guy who's expected to be the man, Ronnie Brown, the second pick in the draft out of Auburn, held out at the start of training camp and reported three weeks late. O.K., you say, all a running back does is carry the ball, right? How much is there to learn? Actually, there are a whole bunch of things, such as making the right adjustment on a pass route or a blitz pickup. You don't want to get the quarterback killed.
Journeyman Gus Frerotte is getting the first shot at the starting quarterback job, ahead of Feeley. New offensive coordinator Scott Linehan brought Frerotte with him from Minnesota. A 12-year veteran, Frerotte drifted into obscurity while backing up Daunte Culpepper for two seasons, but don't forget that at one time he was a live-arm passer with a killer instinct.
"Scott Linehan's aggressive," Frerotte says, his eyes lighting up. "Have you seen the highlights of Daunte? Hitch, hitch, hitch, then let it fly. We've got the receivers here who can really get something going deep."
The fleet and underrated Chris Chambers is on one side, former Bear Marty Booker on the other. Then there's David Boston, a 6'2" 240-pounder who returns after missing last season with a ruptured left patellar tendon.
The line is a work in progress, and the way it plays will probably determine how Saban fares in his inaugural year. For a while rumors were rampant that Williams was being showcased for a trade, but general manager Randy Mueller says that wasn't the case. "This is the truth," he said in camp. "Not one team has shown any interest."
Except the Dolphins. --P.Z.
Travis Daniels started 26 straight games at cornerback for Nick Saban at LSU. So when Saban came to the Dolphins, he snared his top cover guy with a fourth-round draft choice. Daniels will play at left corner, Patrick Surtain's old spot, or as the nickelback. It's Daniels's job to lose. "He covered a lot of good receivers for us in college," Saban says. "A lot of them are playing in the NFL. His big thing is consistency. He doesn't get rattled, and it's earned him a chance to play in this league."
AN OPPOSING SCOUT'S VIEW
I'll tell you this about Nick Saban, and it goes back to his days as an NFL assistant, he'll make sure this team is well coached at every level. They're going to do the smart things, they're going to win some games people don't expect them to, because they're going to be better organized and prepared than the other team.... Saban's background is defense, and I think you'll see them playing more zone than they did in the past. They don't have the great corners anymore. Patrick Surtain is gone, and Sam Madison is just average now. But I like their front seven.... Vernon Carey flunked on the right side of their offensive line last year, flunked on the left this summer. Now he's back on the right. What does that tell you? It's a line of heavy-legged guys, so maybe they'll go back to running the ball 500 times a season.... What they need is a quarterback who can work a game. Jay Fiedler was an erratic passer, but he could move the sticks. Gus Frerotte? I'm not sure. And it's tough to get a handle on Scott Linehan's offense. At times in Minnesota, I couldn't see a pattern to it. It looked like Daunte Culpepper was doing a lot on his own, scrambling to set things up.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2004 statistics
2004 RECORD: 4--12
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): OFFENSE 31/21/29 DEFENSE 31/2/8
COACH: Nick Saban; first season with Miami (0--0 in NFL)
REC. 73 ¬†
RONNIE BROWN (R) [NEW ACQUISITION]
GUS FREROTTE* [NEW ACQUISITION]
HEATH EVANS [NEW ACQUISITION]
XPs MADE 18
XPs ATT. 18
FG MADE 12
FG ATT. 16
DONNIE SPRAGAN [NEW ACQUISITION]
SACKS 9 1/2
VONNIE HOLLIDAY [NEW ACQUISITION]
KEITH TRAYLOR [NEW ACQUISITION]
KEVIN CARTER [NEW ACQUISITION]
TEBUCKY JONES [NEW ACQUISITION]
NEW ACQUISITION (R) Rookie (stats for final college year) *2003 stats PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 170)
18 at N.Y. Jets
2 Open date
9 at Buffalo
16 at Tampa Bay
23 KANSAS CITY
30 at New Orleans
13 NEW ENGLAND
20 at Cleveland
27 at Oakland
11 at San Diego
18 N.Y. JETS
24 TENNESSEE (S)
1 at New England
NFL rank: 1 Opponents' 2004 winning percentage: .547 Games against playoff teams: 7