Things couldn't be better for the Dolphins, except for the following:
•They have an unsettled situation at quarterback.
•They've been shopping around for a feature running back.
•Their prize acquisition at wide receiver is out for the season.
•They've got four new starters on the offensive line.
•Almost half of their starters on defense are 30 or older.
Had enough? Oh, we could go on. After Miami finished out of the playoffs for the second straight year in 2003, owner Wayne Huizenga took action. He gave coach Dave Wannstedt a two-year extension, but Huizenga stripped Wannstedt of his final-say authority on personnel matters. The owner installed Dan Marino as ... well, it was hard to know just what his title and responsibilities were, except that he would be the overseer, above Wannstedt and Rick Spielman, who was promoted from vice president to general manager. Marino resigned three weeks later, saying he couldn't devote the time he needed to do the job right.
On the field A.J. Feeley, who came off the bench and showed flashes of brilliance during a 4--1 run for the Eagles two years ago, was acquired in a trade to challenge quarterback Jay Fiedler. He is the fourth player marked for Fiedler's job since 2000. "I try to keep the negative thoughts out and do the best I can," Fiedler says. "I have too much respect for the guys in here to listen to rumors and outsiders who don't know what's going on."
The knock on Fiedler is his inaccuracy. The big plus is that he's a tough competitor who knows how to win and is well-liked by teammates.
Miami had a hole to fill at running back after Ricky Williams retired one week before the start of training camp. The leading candidate is Travis Minor, but at 5'10" and 205 pounds he's hardly built for heavy-duty work; Williams averaged a league-leading 24.2 carries per game during his two years as a Dolphin, but in three years Minor has never carried more than 59 times in a season.
At least the off-season trade that brought wideout David Boston from the Chargers gave Miami fans something to get excited about heading into camp. Boston was seen as a second downfield threat to complement Chris Chambers, but he was lost for the season on Aug. 6 when he injured the patellar tendon in his left knee. Derrius Thompson, who was an erratic possession receiver last year, was penciled in to replace Boston, but on Aug. 21 Miami sent holdout defensive end Adelwale Ogunleye, the AFC sack leader last season, to the Bears for wideout Marty Booker, a Pro Bowl receiver in 2002. (The Dolphins wanted running back Anthony Thomas included in the deal, but Chicago threw in a 2005 third-round draft choice instead.)
"So what do you do? Do you give up on the season or put all this behind you and move on?" says the eternally optimistic Wannstedt. "We've still got a fine defense, and we're going to try not to put it in bad spots."
"Look at it this way," says middle linebacker Zach Thomas, the team's defensive leader. "What if Ricky hadn't quit? What if he'd gotten hurt the first day and been lost for the season? There wouldn't be all this moaning and groaning. We'd just have said, 'O.K., let's move on.' It seems that every year we're picked to win the division, then something bad happens. Well, this is a new experience. We're picked to do absolutely nothing, and I think this is going to get us mad. It's going to be a motivator."
In his office at the Dolphins' complex Spielman and pro personnel director George Paton were watching tape of a practice from early in camp. On one play cornerback Will Poole, a rookie fourth-round draft choice out of Southern Cal, crowded the 230pound Boston on a dig pattern, then reached in and knocked down the pass. "Been making plays like that since camp opened," Spielman said. "The kid's really going to be something."
Two plays later cornerback Reggie Howard, who started for Carolina in the Super Bowl last February and was just coming into his own when he landed in Miami as a free agent, matched Chambers stride for stride on a deep route and knocked the ball away. "Add these two guys to Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison," Paton said, "and I defy you to name a team with four better corners."
"There are young guys all over the lineup who excite us," Spielman said. Maybe they can light a fire--or at least provide a spark. --P.Z.
> SETH McKINNEY started two games at center for the injured Tim Ruddy last year, and now he has the job full time. He's an aggressive blocker and will make the calls for a line that has four new starters. "In a sense I'm new," says McKinney, whose brother Steve starts at center for the Texans, "but this is my third year in the system, so I think I know what I'm doing."
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
This is a staff with some really good assistant coaches, but can they work miracles? I know I wouldn't want to be Tony Wise, the offensive line coach. They drafted [tackle] Vernon Carey in the first round, and he can't even crack this mediocre lineup. A lot of people love Jeno James, the guard they got from Carolina; they call him a mauler, but he looks like just another guy to me. John St. Clair failed in St. Louis. Everyone raves about the athletic ability of Wade Smith, but I saw him struggling a lot last year.... They're kidding themselves if they go into the season with Travis Minor as their feature back. They're going to have to pick up somebody, but I don't know how much they're willing to trade for a back.... As for their quarterback situation, I like Jay Fiedler probably more than anyone else does. I think the guy will be O.K. if they just stop messing with him.... I like all three of their defensive tackles, Tim Bowens, Larry Chester and Jeff Zgonina. They have a good rotation going there, and I think that's the strength of their defense. No back ran for 100 yards against the Dolphins last year.
They're kidding themselves if they go into the season with Travis Minor as their feature back.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 10--6
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Dave Wannstedt; fifth season with Miami (81--79 in NFL)
19 at Cincinnati
3 N.Y. JETS
10 at New England
17 at Buffalo
24 ST. LOUIS
1 at N.Y. Jets (M)
14 Open date
21 at Seattle
28 at San Francisco
12 at Denver
20 NEW ENGLAND(M)
2 at Baltimore
NFL rank:¬†4 Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .531 Games against playoff teams: 6
Chambers gives Miami a deep threat, but he may be asked to do even more to help a decimated offense.