The Dolphins completed the most dramatic one-year turnaround in NFL history last season, but the next rung up the ladder will be tougher to climb.
The 2008 Dolphins may have won 11 games, but the team wasn’t that much better than average. Like the rest of the AFC East, they feasted on an incredibly easy out-of-division schedule. But we have to give Chad Pennington, coach Tony Sparano, Joey Porter and the boys tons of credit for maximizing their talent and playing tough football on a weekly basis.
They beat the teams that the should beat, only one year after being the team everyone should (and, with only one exception, did) beat.
But G.M. Jeff Ireland and Dolphins grand poobah Bill Parcells knew after the season that they only finished one year of their Extreme Makeover: Roster Edition.
To that end, the Dolphins rebuilt the back end of their defense, using three draft picks on the secondary, plus signing safety Gibril Wilson in free agency. The team also brought back Jason Taylor, who will have a bigger role at linebacker than expected with Matt Roth missing in action.
The team also drafted three pass-catchers in an effort to improve their offensive explosiveness, although only wideout Brian Hartline is expected to play a major role as a rookie.
If the Dolphins are going to improve in 2009, they will primarily do it from within. The young core of their team includes wideouts Ted Ginn and Davone Bess, running back Ronnie Brown, tackles Jake Long and Vernon Carey, and unsung defensive ends Kendall Langford and Phillip Merling.
There is plenty of talent in Miami just approaching their prime, and an unselfish, no-frills attitude that is best exemplified by quarterback Chad Pennington.
Pennington was expected to feel heat this offseason from second-year quarterback Chad Henne, but this is the older Chad’s team . . . as long as he stays healthy. Pennington hasn’t been able to start 10 games or more in consecutive seasons for his whole career.
In other words, Pennington’s play and availability is likely to regress to the mean. And after a season where everything went right, so are the Dolphins as a whole. They could play better football and still end up with an inferior record because of the schedule.
Ireland and Parcells still have more building to do before they can reach a Super Bowl.
Key Player: Ronnie Brown. This is a team constructed to mash. If Brown can be the special player who started the 2007 season, the Dolphins could have an elite rushing attack.
Rookie to watch: Sean Smith. The second-round cornerback beat out Vontae Davis for a starting job and looks like a very exciting young defender.
Best veteran acquisition: Taylor. For the money, he’ll be a lot more valuable than safety Gibril Wilson, who could struggle in pass coverage.
Key game: Week Nine, at New England. Another AFC East title run would be a lot more attainable if the Dolphins repeat the Foxborough beatdown they administered last year.