THE BELIEF Theoff-season trade for Daunte Culpepper gives the Dolphins their best quarterbacksince Dan Marino. It will be the springboard to undreamed-of success.
THE REALITY Whocan argue? The only thing is, Miami is thin. It's a team of stars, and if oneor more of them go down--that could be disastrous.
Let's start withCulpepper, who came from the Vikings for a second-round draft choice, almost agift. A Dolphins official says their study of the quarterback before the dealwas "extensive, extensive, extensive." The first concern was how hisright knee would hold up. Last year he tore three ligaments, and it's almostunprecedented for a player to come back from that kind of injury in under ayear. "I never felt pain like that in my life," Culpepper says. "Itfelt like my leg was broken in half." Thanks to renowned orthopedist Dr.James Andrews, Culpepper started the first preseason game, on Aug. 12.
And what of hisgame? After 2004, one of the finest seasons a QB ever had, the bottom fell outfor Culpepper even before the injury. He was hesitant, unsure of himself. Hethrew into coverage. He repeated mistakes. "I looked at film, and I couldsee one thing after another," Culpepper says. "Things never felt right.We lost our coordinator, our center and Randy Moss, our leading receiver.Everything started going bad [in '05], and it just got out of control."
Behind Culpepper,former Lions starter Joey Harrington hasn't had a particularly noteworthy camp.Ronnie Brown must carry the running game while Ricky Williams is off serving aone-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. After ChrisChambers, there's no deep threat among the receivers.
And then there'sthe offensive line. Oversized, sluggish--that's been the rap. But in 2005,under the tutelage of Hudson Houck, one of the best coaches in the business, itshowed some life. "The other day I tackled Ronnie a little too hard, and alittle bit of a fight broke out," middle linebacker Zach Thomas says."Three linemen jumped me. They've got an attitude now." That's thanksto Houck, who always favored those big, area-blocking linemen he had clearingthe way for Emmitt Smith in Dallas. "He tells us we're in a heavyweightfight," says center Rex Hadnot. "He says the big guy will wear thesmaller guy down. That's what we want to do--wear 'em down, break theirwill."
You can find allsorts of hints that this could be a really big year in Miami. The Dolphins havethe momentum of six straight wins at the end of last season. Half theirschedule is against teams that drafted in the top 10. Thomas and Jason Taylorare still the focal figures of a defense that's carried the team since Marinoleft. And offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who did exotic things inPittsburgh with his combination wideout-quarterback, Antwaan Randle El, hasfound another one in Marcus Vick, the free-agent quarterback who was bouncedout of Virginia Tech for on- and off-the-field misbehavior. Vick has had aremarkable camp as a receiver. He looks as if he'd played the position all hislife. Just another plus for a team that could have a ton of them.
7 at Pittsburgh(T)
1 at Houston
8 at NewEngland
15 at N.Y.Jets
22 GREEN BAY
5 at Chicago
23 at Detroit(T)
17 at Buffalo
25 N.Y. JETS(M)
(M) Monday (T)Thursday
NFL rank 27
Opponents' 2005winning percentage .469
Games againstplayoff teams 6
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE DOLPHINS
> The thingto guard against, the thing the Dolphins can least afford to happen, is gettingtoo ambitious with Daunte Culpepper, pushing him too hard too soon. Then theirseason could go poof.
> Theoffensive line will be better than people think. Left guard Jeno James is anunderrated player.
> The bestoff-season move after signing Culpepper was hiring Mike Mularkey as offensivecoordinator. His down-the-field approach fits Culpepper's style perfectly.
> I can'tunderstand why they picked up Bennie Anderson at right guard. He flunked out oftwo systems [Buffalo and Baltimore] and showed up out of shape at camp.
> The bigchallenge will be finding a strongside backer to work with Zach Thomas andChanning Crowder.
They've got a serious deep threat in Chris Chambers. He'll be the guy they'llall be talking about this season.
He's big. The6'2" Crowder's program weight is 245, but he says he can carry 260 withoutany problem. He only has one NFL season under his belt, but he made it count,flying all over the field, hitting like a sledge hammer. Zach Thomas, who playsnext to Crowder, says, "The sky's the limit." So does everybody else.Crowder left Florida after two years; with the Gators he got into what areeuphemistically called off-the-field issues. "Fights," Crowder says,"but no guns. At 260 pounds I could grab 'em and wrestle."
COACH NICK SABAN(9-7 in NFL), second season with Miami
DAUNTE CULPEPPER-- NEW ACQUISITION
FRED BEASLEY --NEW ACQUISITION
BENNIE ANDERSON-- NEW ACQUISITION
L.J. SHELTON --NEW ACQUISITION
JASON ALLEN (R)-- NEW ACQUISITION
RENALDO HILL --NEW ACQUISITION
WILL D. ALLEN --NEW ACQUISITION
(R) Rookie (college statistics)
2005 RECORD 9-7NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL) OFFENSE 12/16/14 DEFENSE 17/20/18
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DAVID WALBERG (CULPEPPER)
Culpepper takes control behind an offensive line that's gotten bigger, meanerand more driven.
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ