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59 posts from September 2009

September 30, 2009

Pennington: 'Not closing the book,' on career

Former starting quarterback Chad Pennington, now out for the season on injured reserve, is not closing the door on returning to the NFL, or the Dolphins for that matter, following what will be his third throwing shoulder surgery in the coming days.

Pennington, who does not discount that the injury could jeapardize his career, nonetheless plans to go through a rehabilitative process following the procedure. And if the process progresses successfully, Pennington is open to trying to resume his career.

"What I have to focus on is focus on preparing myself for surgery a third time," Pennington said. "And that's a battle in of itself. And then after the surgery, talk to with Dr. [James] Andrews and talk with our staff here to develop a plan to get back to get back to normal -- to be able to do everyday things, to be able to brush your teeth, brush your hair.

"And then after that, move into the athletic part of what I'm required to do as a professional athlete and professional quarterback. I'm going to take those steps ... and once I cross each bridge, I'll move on to the next one."

Pennington, unsigned beyond this season, is aware he might have played his final game for Miami. The Dolphins are moving on to youngster Chad Henne as their starter. But Pennington, who previously talked about staying with a team that gave him an opportunity to compete for a starting job, isn't closing the door on a return to Miami.

"I'm certainly not going to close the book," he said. "The book has been tried to be closed on me before and I kept it open. So I'm not going to close the book on myself. That would be doing a disservice to myself ... At the same time, as an athlete, you always feel like there's some unfinished business and you want to give yourself an opportunity to see what's going to happen.

"You guys have been around this league long enough to not put anyone out of a team's plans because you never know how things unfold," Pennington said. " We'll wait and see. I've enjoyed being here. I've enjoyed being around everyone in the organization."

Pennington said he will fly to Alabama Thursday and have surgery on his right shoulder. The surgery will be performed by Dr. James Andrews. He confirmed he suffered a dislocated his right shoulder. That caused damage to the anterior capsule.

It will be Pennington's third shoulder surgery on his throwing shoulder.

As for new new starter Chad Henne, he is not lacking for confidence. He is convinced that making his first start against Buffalo on Sunday is an easier assignment than coming off the bench last week against San Diego.

"Oh, definitely," Henne said. "Anytime you get all the reps during practice, you prepare more, you're prepared as the starter. No doubt about it, you're going to be a lot better off during the week and more comfortable on Sunday."

The hope, some would say the expectation, is that because Henne has a stronger arm than Pennington, the Dolphins will be able to maximize Ted Ginn Jr. now on deep passes.

"We're just going to go after it like any other week," Henne responded to that idea. "If it presents itself out there, deep ball threat or they give us the coverage to attack it, we'll hook up a couple of times. But if it's not there, I have to be smart with the ball and realize it's covered and check the ball down.

"It's definitely out there and I think a lot of our receivers can go one on one with guys and get the ball out there."

A breakdown of Miami's passing game troubles

The Dolphins passing game is in trouble and not just because inexperienced quarterback Chad Henne is taking over this week.

The Dolphins passing game the first three weeks of the season is ranked 30th in the NFL, averaging a paltry 155.7 yards per game. The Dolphins have only four pass plays of 20 yards or more and only St. Louis has fewer. The Dolphins have zero pass plays of 40-yards or more and that ties them with eight teams for the fewest.

It is no small wonder the Dolphins are struggling now because in today's high-flying NFL, where most teams throw more than they run, the Dolphins aren't throwing the football very well.

Many people believe that will change with Henne at quarterback because he has a strong arm that Chad Pennington did not even before he went on the injured reserve list Tuesday.

I've been telling you and will continue repeating it -- yelling from the mountain tops if I must -- that Miami's receiver corps is more the issue than the QB.

I gave the rundown of Miami's receivers yesterday and intend to do so again today to make more clear to you why this group is not good enough to give the Dolphins an excellent pass offense.

Look at it from a scout's perspective. As Nick Saban used to say, every position has "critical factors" that a scout should weigh to decide if a player can play the position successfully. Since there are no perfect players, no one achieves all the critical factors. But the blue chip players come close.

The critical factors for receivers?

They need great hands: A receiver is nothing if he cannot grasp and hold on to the football.

They need great speed: A receiver must be able to threaten the defense and not only close distance between himself and a backpedaling DB, but then create separation from that DB.

They need great quickness: A receiver must be able to turn and change direction quickly.

They need great ball skills: A receiver must be able to come down with the football when it is in the air and he is being challenged for it by another player, or often, two other players.

They need football intelligence: A receiver must be smart enough to learn the offense, learn the philosophy behind the passing game, learn defenses and recognize coverages. Then he must put all those together instantly on the field -- sometimes before the snap -- so he can adjust and overcome situations accordingly.

They need toughness: Football is a blood sport and everyone has to gut things out at one point or another. A receiver needs to stay on the field when he's hurt. He needs to be willing to block, because a great blocking receiver can turn 12-yard running plays into 62-yard running plays. He needs to be willing to expose his body against bigger players across the middle of the field when necessary.

So let's go to the elite, the best of the best, and see how that kind of player sizes up. Let's break down Andre Johnson, who I believe is among the best if not the best WR in the NFL today. He's also a fellow alumnus of Miami High and the U so I have to show him respect for that.

Hands? Johnson has good hands. Yes, he's had a couple of fumbles in his career, but never more than one per season. He typically catches with his hands and not his body and when the ball touches his hands, it typically sticks. 

Speed? Johnson runs in the low 4.4s He has no issue getting behind defenders. He never gets caught from behind.

Quickness: Despite his size, he can change direction and it does not take him forever to get started, something a certain Miami receiver has issues with.

Ball skills: Seldom is there a ball in the air that he must fight for, that he doesn't claim. Ask Yeremiah Bell about that one on that fateful fourth-down play last year.

Football intelligence: The Hurricanes ran a pro-style passing game and he had no problems picking it up. The Texans run a fairly complex pass game and Johnson is nails at recognizing adjustments and blitzes. He gets it.

Toughness: Johnson has had some injury issues, but not lately. The guy is 225 pounds of chiseled flesh that imitates granite. His downfield blocking is one reason rookie Steve Slaton gained 1,282 yards last season. And yes, Johnson goes across the middle and often initiates the contact with defenders.

So that's the breakdown of an elite guy. Now let me give the breakdown of Miami's top three receivers so you can understand why the Dolphins are struggling with their passing game and desperately need upgrading here.

Ted Ginn Jr.

Hands: Good until this year, but lately inconsistent. He dropped two touchdowns vs. Indianapolis, including the game-winner and let two balls get into his body, rather than catching them with his hands vs. San Diego. Those resulted in drops. So this season he's average here at best.

Speed: Ginn has elite speed and easily breezes through the 4.3 range. But it takes him a while to get going. He's a long-strider.

Quickness: Very little here. Ginn doesn't change direction like, say, Davone Bess. Study them together. The gulf in quickness between them is startling.

Ball skills: Offensive coordinator Dan Henning said something telling last week when he claimed Ginn would come down with the game-winner vs. Indy "five out of 10 times." You want a receiver who is better than 50 percent. You want 70-80 percent.

Football intelligence: We are in Year 3 and Ginn is said to still be perfecting the art of running routes. Enough said.

Toughness: If you've seen him play, I don't need to say anything here, you know the deal.

Davone Bess

Hands: The guy caught 293 passes in three seasons at Hawaii. He had 54 catches as a rookie and there was never a complaint about how he caught the ball. Great!

Speed: Bess is a 4.6 to 4.7 guy in the 40-yard dash. And that is the reason he's not an elite receiver. He will catch every ball and make somebody miss. But he can't run away from defenders.

Quickness: I just told you he'll make somebody miss. That's because he can change directions on a dime. Very good.

Ball skills: Above average in that Bess comes down with his fair share of contested passes.

Football Intelligence: Ace again. He's human and he misses some reads, but the guy knows to find an open area in the defense.

Toughness: Bess was a street kid, so he obviously doesn't back down from people. But his size limits his blocking. He's got the want-to, though.

Greg Camarillo

Hands: Ace here. Camarillo will catch the balls he's expected to catch and catch some balls that are improbable catches.

Speed: The big flaw again. He ran a 4.6 on a really, really good day before his knee surgery. He won't often get caught from behind, but he's not often behind the defense to test that.

Quickness: OK but not great. Camarillo can change direction but he is taller and lankier so it takes a millisecond longer to get that body moving in a different direction.

Ball skills: While there is no defining catch over a defender that I can remember, neither can I remember a moment Camarillo failed to come down with a catch he had a chance to make. So good enough.

Toughness: He never stops. He's always chugging. He fought back from a serious knee injury and is starting again in less than one year. And he has the desire to block and isn't afraid to run routes across the middle.

There you have it. Miami's top three receivers have traits that keep them on the roster and make them effective in some situations. They are all complementary players. But none is elite. And none is likely to become elite because they all lack important critical factors for that to happen.

Miami needs to add one elite receiver to this group of complementary players to turn this receiver corps from average or below average to very, very good.

September 29, 2009

Dolphins trade for KC quarterback Tyler Thigpen

The Dolphins made an incredibly smart move just moments ago in acquiring a new No. 2 QB and that move could make Pat White obsolete.

The team has traded an undisclosed draft pick to Kansas City for backup quarterback Tyler Thigpen, the Chiefs announced today.

The Dolphins, meanwhile, will announce in a couple of weeks that the regular-season has begun. (Actually, the Dolphins have since also announced the move.) They chuckled when I told them what I wrote.

The trade makes sense for several reasons:

1. The Dolphins have now placed injured Chad Pennington (shoulder) on the injured reserve list. So they need a backup to Chad Henne. Remember, Henne is the starter.

2. Rookie second-round pick Pat White is not ready to be a backup QB in the NFL.

3. Thigpen has experience, having started 11 games last season and thrown 18 TDs and 12 Ints for the Chiefs.

4. The Chiefs have Matt Cassel as their starter and Brodie Croyle is their backup so Thigpen was available.

4. The Miami-KC connection is at work again. Bill Parcells and son-in-law Scott Pioli have already made two other trades since the offseason began.

Thigpen is making $460,000 this season so the Dolphins pick up the prorated portion of his salary for the remainder of this season. Thigpen is also signed for 2010 at a scheduled $550,000 in base salary.

The irony of this trade is that it might make White obsolete. You see, the reason the Dolphins want to run the spread formation this year and, in part, picked White to do that, is because Thigpen carved them up running the spread formation last season.

Guess what?

Thigpen is better at running the spread than White has shown to be. Thigpen can run. He can even catch passes. Just check out the video below.

What I'm telling you is once he learns the offense, expect him to compete with White to be the spread package QB. And given his experience and, frankly, better arm, expect Thigpen not White to be the guy running the spread if it continues.

Henne to become as good as Ryan, Flacco?

You might not remember what happened last Oct. 16 because it was a blip on the radar screen during a time the Dolphins were bombarding us with good news and a playoff run and a great turnaround season.

On that October day last year, Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning was asked about the rookie QBs -- Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Joe Flacco in Baltimore -- making a sudden and surprising impact on the NFL.

And Henning said this: "We think Chad Henne can play just as well as [Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco] can. I'll tell you that right now. I think when he gets his opportunity he will play well. Every time we've given him an opportunity, he has played well. We also like Chad Pennington. So I think the quarterback situation here as it stands right now is better than it was Feb. 1st. I'll tell you that right now."

Well, Chad Pennington is out of the lineup for the Dolphins and so Henne's opportunity has come. So, by Henning's reckoning, we should expect the quarterback with all of 17 NFL completions to play well.

But who are we kidding?

Asking Henne to play as well as Ryan and Flacco did last year is plainly unfair and illogical because, well, a gun cannot fire unless it's loaded with bullets. And the Dolphins offense, particularly the passing game, is a popgun firing blanks.

Think about this for a second. Flacco last season could throw the ball to Derrick Mason, who has seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons in his career. He could throw the ball to Todd Heap, who is a perennial Pro Bowl-caliber tight end. And he could rely on a defense that not only erased a lot of his mistakes, but scored points to help him out.

Ryan? He could throw the ball to Roddy White, who is better than any receiver on Miami's roster. He could throw the ball to Michael Jenkins, who is better than any receiver on Miami's roster. He could throw the ball to Jerious Norwood, who caught 36 passes a season ago. And now he's got future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez to throw to, also!

And I didn't even mention the fact the Atlanta running game that supported Ryan during his rookie season was No. 2 in the NFL.

So while Flacco and Ryan were good and did improve as rookies, they had tons and tons and tons of help doing it.

What help is Henne likely to get?

Well, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are playing very well, as both are running downhill with confidence and desire and aggression. But that is where it stops for Miami's offense now.

Tight end Athony Fasano, a revelation in 2008, is MIA in 2009. He has three catches this season and that is good only because his catches outnumber his two lost fumbles after two of those catches.

Alleged No. 1 receiver Ted Ginn Jr. has been inconsistent, often ineffective, rarely dominant and never elite since being drafted No. 9 overall in 2007. He is coming off two games in which he dropped two touchdown potential touchdown passes versus Indianapolis, including the possible game-winner. And then he responded to that adversity by catching zero passes despite being targetted six times versus San Diego.

In that San Diego game, Henne misfired on several passes to Ginn. That was on Henne. But Ginn dropped two of those nonetheless catchable attempts. One hit him in the chest, the other on the hands. On another throw, Ginn ran the ugliest, most rounded off out-route I've seen in a long time by an NFL wide receiver. He just kind of looped off the route and, not surprisingly, he wasn't open when the ball came his way.

I know many fans believe Henne will bring out the best in Ginn because the new quarterback's arm can finally make use of Ginn's appreciable trait -- straight line speed.

But I would tell you that rare is the effective WR-QB combination where only one or the other player is playing to par. If you guys are hoping Ginn will suddenly start to light it up simply because Henne is in there, you are mistaken. Ginn has to get much, much, much better to begin being a viable consistent threat for Henne.

Ginn will not instantly get better because he's hitching a ride on Henne's coattails. He's got to do the work to get his job done.

Henne will, of course, have other options in the passing game. But those players are also limited to one degree or another.

Davone Bess is a solid complementary player who might catch a ton of passes but also might never break one because he lacks break-away speed.

Greg Camarillo is a solid complementary player who might catch a ton of passes also, but let's be frank, he wouldn't start on three-quarters of the NFL's teams.

Brian Hartline is a rookie and he's still learning. Patrick Turner is a rookie and he can't get active on Sundays.

So how, exactly, can we expect Henne to be as good as Flacco and Ryan if the players around him aren't in the same conversation with the players around Flacco and Ryan?

Tell me. I want to know. And yes, I will be asking this of Henning on Thursday.

September 28, 2009

On Chad's bad shoulder, Dolphins bad record

Chad Pennington said it best late Sunday when in talking about his personal adversity with a serious shoulder injury he might also have been talking for his team: "I'm going to hope for the best and expect the worst," Pennington said.

Although Pennington declined to be specific about his right shoulder's status, the team is fearing the injury is a dislocation of his throwing shoulder. Team doctors popped the shoulder back into place on the sideline but the damage was done, according to a source.

A dislocated shoulder is different than a separated shoulder in that a dislocation means the top of the arm pops out of the socket. In a separation, there could be damage to the ligament that connects the collarbone to the shoulder blade.

Both are serious, particularly for a quarterback.

Pennington will miss an unspecified amount of time. Depending on what the MRI this morning reveals, Pennington could be out as little as three weeks or up to 12 weeks, which would effectively end his season. If the injury -- regardless of whether it's a separation or dislocation -- is acute, it might require surgery.

And that also would be a season-ending situation.

Pennington has already undergone two right shoulder surgeries in the past. Pennington was talking like someone who expects bad news following today's MRI.

"I've worked extremely hard and have overcome a lot of adversity and been able to play when people said I couldn't play anymore," Pennington said. "I've been through two surgeries and I've been able to play and play at a high level. That's quite an accomplishment.

"Right now, I'm in a state of shock, truly disappointed because I know what type of work I've put in and what type of work that our team has put in. For me not to be able to be out there and help us fight through this adversity is tough to swallow."

The Pennington injury makes Chad Henne Miami's new starting quarterback. The Dolphins might also be in the market for a backup because Pat White simply is not ready to be the backup now.

Henne struggled against the Chargers, who riddled him with new coverages as soon as he entered the game.

"I think we gave him a few different looks that he probably hasn't seen yet," cornerback Antonio Cromartie said.

When he came in the game, Henne was confident he was ready to succeed. But he missed some open receivers either by not getting the ball to them or throwing elsewhere.

"I was prepared for this moment," he said of the time he was told to come in the game. "It's only a 7-point game and that's the moment you have to shine and come up and become a player ... Obviously tonight it didn't really show. I made some mistakes, but I'll be in that film room day and night busting my butt and getting better and lead this team."

The Dolphins need the leadership because right now they are winless and with few viable options for getting better.

Do you know any good playmakers for the offense? Do you know any available secondary players that can help stop the bleeding?

The Dolphins need both. Henne got no help, least of all from Ted Ginn Jr., who had six passes thrown his way, resulting in zero receptions.

The team gained 94 yards on its 17-play first quarter opening drive. And then gained only 195 total yards the rest of the game.

The secondary, meanwhile, continued to give up big plays. (This while Renaldo Hill notched an interception Sunday.)

"We can't be giving up explosive plays down the field like that," nose tackle Jason Ferguson said.

This game was depressing on par with last year's loss to Arizona for different reasons. That game was a blowout in which the Dolphins didn't compete.

This game was closer but it was depressing in that the Chargers were clearly the much better team despite missing several key players.Starting running back LaDainian Tomlinson didn't play. Starting center Nick Hardwick didn't play. Starting guard Louis Vasquez didn't play. Linebacker Shawne Merriman left the game after the first half.

And still the Chargers had more talent on the field.

Finally, this column I wrote for Monday's Miami Herald outlines how the things the Dolphins did so well in winning the AFC East a year ago are exactly the kind of things they stink at doing so far this season.

Thoughts?

September 27, 2009

Dolphins lose to Chargers, go to 0-3

The Dolphins find themselves in quite a hole right now.

They are 0-3 after playing their worst game of the young season today, a 23-13 loss to San Diego.

And the news gets worse:

Miami's prospects of salvaging this young season have taken a hit in that starting quarterback Chad Pennington left the game in the third quarter with a right shoulder injury. The extent of the injury is not known right now, but it didn't look good. Pennington could be out a while.

On defense, Joey Porter, who led the team in sacks a year ago, also could not finish the game. He left the game in the fourth quarter with the hamstring injury he was nursing all week.

Chad Henne took over for Penninton and didn't exactly play Lou Gehrig to Pennington's Wally Pipp. Henne was chased, hit and picked off.

That interception was by Eric Weddle and returned 32 yards for a touchdown.

Henne finished with 10 completions on 19 attempts for 92 yards. His long completion was for 27 yards to Ronnie Brown. His QB rating was 44.2.

Henne did lead an inconsequential fourth-quarter TD drive.

The defense? Fine up front. Terrible in the secondary.

The Dolphins gave up two looong pass plays -- of 55 yards and 47 yards. And, the troubling thing is there was double coverage on both passes and the receiver still came up with the ball against two Miami defenders.

As outlooks go things look seriously bleak for the Dolphins now.

Pennington out, Henne in, Dolphins trail 10-6

The Dolphins season has taken a drastic detour in the third quarter of this game.

Chad Pennington injured his right shoulder and is out for the remainder of the game and possibly longer.

Chad Henne in for the remainder of the game and possibly longer.

And the defense gave up a TD that has the Dolphins trailing 10-3 to start the final stanza.

The live blog continues in the comments section below.

Dolphins-Chargers tied to start 3rd Q

The Chargers are doing a great job of keeping the Dolphins in this one.

The team had five red zone trips last week and that resulted in four field goal and one giving up the ball on downs.

They have two red zone trips this week and have made a field goal and missed a field goal. They also fumbled inside the 20 yard to set up the Dolphins for Miami's lone score on a Dan Carpenter field goal.

So we're tied at 3-3 and it was encouraging for Miami to see the San Diego fans boo the home team off the field at halftime.

Join me in the comments section for the continuation of the live blog.

Chargers lead Fins 3-0 early in 2nd Q

Well, the Dolphins offense picked up where it left off Monday night, keeping the ball, driving the ball, and not scoring TDs.

The Dolphins drove from their own 2 yard line to the San Diego 1 yard line in the first quarter and didn't score.

A fumble went out of the end zone, resulting in a touchback for the Chargers.

So we were locked up at 0-0. But the Chargers then went on a 73 yard drive and got a FG from Nate Kaeding to take a 3-0 lead.

Join me in the comments section as the live blog continues.

Live blogging Dolphins vs. Chargers about to kick off

The inactives for today's games are Erik Walden, Shawn Murphy, Andrew Gardner, Lionel Dotson, Patrick Turner, John Nalbone, and Chris Clemons with Chad Henne designated as the third QB.

Cameron Wake is active for the first time this season, hopefully to be used as both a pass rusher and special teams player.

Today's game between the Dolphins and the Chargers is a referendum on what really is important in the NFL.

The Dolphins are a team built from the inside out. They are strong along the offensive line where they're spent $156 million to put together their starting unit. They are built along the defensive line where they have drafted three players, signed a free-agent, and traded for nose tackle Jason Ferguson and defensive end Tony McDaniel.

The line of scrimmage is where the Dolphins expect to dominate.

The skill players? Not so much. Not so great.

The Chargers, on the other hand, are a team replete with playmakers on offense and defense.

Antonio Gates is one of the best TEs in the NFL. Their running back corps is deep enough that losing LaDanian Tomlinson hurts, but doesn't kill their chances. Vincent Jackson, Chris Chambers and Legadu Naanee are the cornerstones of a pretty good receivers corps.

And defensively, CB Antonio Cromartie can be a premier playmaker.

The problem for the Chargers is they're not very strong up the gut right now.

Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams is out for the season. Center Hardwick is out for eight weeks. The players along their two lines are not their best players.

So what's more important? Being great in the interior, in the trenches? Or being great outside where the playmakers can make a difference?

We'll find out today. And we'll be doing it during the live blog that begins soon in the comments section. I'll be back when the inactives come out to relay those to you. 

September 26, 2009

The book on Jake Long after two games

Normally, one does not pay much attention to the offensive line, and much less to an offensive lineman, until there is reason for doing so.

Reason for doing so No. 1: Jake Long was Miami's first pick and the first overall pick of the 2008 draft.

Reason for doing so No. 2: Long is the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman.

Reason for doing so No. 3: Long was in the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

Reason for doing so No. 4: Long struggled this preseason, hinting at having regressed from his rookie year.

Reason for doing so No. 5: Long was terrible in the regular-season opener, causing some concern and a change in Miami's blocking scheme.

So colleague David J. Neal has become something of a Longaphile in that he's tracking the big man's every snap so far this regular season. And here are the results of that focused microscope:

Long has faced John Abraham and Dwight Freeney the first two games. He was matched up one-on-one with these star defensive ends 43 times.

On those, 28 snaps were mano-a-mano meetings against Abraham and he allowed two sacks and one pressure.

Against Freeney, Long was one-on-one only 15 times, although seven of those came on the Dolphins final drive. Long has had 13 snaps in which he got help from another offensive lineman, with that player almost always being Justin Smiley. Smiley and Long battled Freeney on 11 of those double-team snaps.

That signals a departure from Miami's confidence to leave Long on an island against a defensive end as it did much of the preseason and in the first game against Abraham.

Long also got help from a tight end or a chip block from a back four more times against Freeney.

And how did he do in the game versus Freeney? Freeney had one sack and one hurry.

The DVR also showed that Abraham and Freeney were blocked by a tight end, a running back, or a combo of the two five total times. That blocking scheme, considered less than desirable, was quite efficient. Neither Freeney nor Abraham had a sack or pressure on those five snaps.

Keep in mind that Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said Long looked bad the first couple of snaps of Monday night's game but recovered and then played well after that.

On Sunday Long is expected to be matched against either Shawne Merriman or rookie Larry English. Merriman is questionable with a groin injury but he practiced full on Friday after not working at all on Wednesday and Thursday.

Long's blocking buddy, Smiley, was limited in practice on Thursday and Friday with a shoulder injury. Smiley is listed as questionable.

We'll continue to chart Long on his progress -- or at least David J. will now that I put public pressure on him by saying he would.

September 25, 2009

Win at all cost or just another game on Sunday?

You know the facts. Since 1990, only three teams have started their seasons 0-3 and still made the playoffs.

The 1992 Chargers started 0-4 and made it to the playoffs. The 1995 Lions started out 0-3 and made the playoffs. The 1998 Buffalo Bills started out 0-3 and made the playoffs. Everybody else that started out 0-3 since 1990 was playing golf by late January.

The Dolphins are 0-2, so history tells you they must beat San Diego Sunday to salvage a good opportunity to make the playoffs. The issue is so important, compelling even, that the great minds on the ESPN Sunday NFL Countdown set this weekend will look at several 0-2 teams -- the Panthers, Titans, and yes, Dolphins -- and tell their respective fans whether they should be patient or start to panic.

The issue will divide the cast among those that believe Sunday's game for Miami is a must-win and those who might think it's not any more important than other games. And in that respect, the divide cuts across the very Miami locker room.

I asked nose tackle Jason Ferguson this week if this game against San Diego is a must-win.

"Yes," he said quickly. "For me it's a must-win. We got to win this game. 0-3 is really hard. I've been there before. You give yourself a reason to go 0-4 and it's all over. And now it's 0-3 and it could be over because when you're 11-5 you may not make the playoffs around [this division.] It's definitely difficult but we put ourselves in this hole. And the good thing is you can look at last year and say we did it before. So let's get W, that's the main thing. 

"Every guy in this room got to be thinking we got to get that W."

Perhaps so, but every guy in the locker room is not thinking this game is make-or-break, must-win, pull-out-all-the-stops time.

"It doesn't make the game any more important," linebacker Jason Taylor said. "Every game is so important. You try your darndest to win them all so we're not going to put extra pressure or focus on this game. It's going to get the same amount it deserves and it always would."

Suggest to Taylor that this game truly is make-or-break and thus requires added effort and he does not buy it.

"I totally disagree," he said. "There's no more sense of urgency than there ever was. It's not like we were chilling the first game and then we lost and now we need to pick it up a little more after the Indy game. It's always been pedal to the metal. So the sense of urgency has not picked up at all. It's the same team. Our defense is going to stay the same. Our offense is going to stay the same. We just need to execute better and not make mistakes and finish games."

So why is Taylor refusing to put an added sense of urgency on this game that Ferguson clearly sees? 

"I don't want to start 'now-we're-pressing' and 'we're up against the wall' because we're 0-2. We're going to do what we do only do it better."

So where do you fall? And why?

September 24, 2009

Coordinators' Thursday at Dolphins camp

Both Paul Pasqualoni and Dan Henning are speaking to the media this year on every Thursday. That, by the way, is because the NFL compels them to do that.

So this is what they're saying today:

Pasqualoni's scouting report (the complimentary version) on San Diego quarterback Phillip Rivers: "Like the first two [quarterbacks Miami faced], he can make all the throws. He puts a lot into every throw. He pushes up in the pocket very well. Can move, isn't bad on the move as well ... He's just got great competitiveness, great pocket awareness ... Great toughness ... Truly, what you want to see in your quarterback."

The Dolphins defense has had mixed results in the first two games. It played well enough to win in the opener. It was the primary reason for the defeat against Indianapolis.

The Chargers have the No. 5 overall offense in the NFL, ranked higher than either Indy or Atlanta.

"It doesn't get any easier," Pasqualoni said. "If there were easy solutions to these problems, everybody would have them. There are no easy solutions. When you have the combinations, and it just so happens, they all run the ball, they all have receivers you have to pay attention to, in addition to the tight end, in addition now this week, maybe their most productive receiver is [Darren Sproles] and he's coming out of the backfield. We're not getting less, we're getting more."

Henning, Miami's offensive coordinator followed Pasqualoni's 10-minute session with a 10-minute session of his own.

He talked about the game plan for Indianapolis and how that worked out:

"We went in the game and the objective from the boss was run the ball effectively, keep that opponent off the field, convert third downs, score as many points as we could. So we had 45 minutes, we converted 15 first downs, I don't know when I've done that before and we scored five out of the eight possession we had the ball. Now we didn't win the game so you can be disappointed. But I'm not discouraged with the way they played."

He talked about the Dolphins final possession when they needed to overcome a 27-23 lead but did not:

"We needed a touchdown and we didn't get one," Henning said. "We lost a timeout because I sent the wrong group of people in with a play. And Chad [Pennington] will usually straighten that out, but he had to call a time out because we didn't have the right people in the game. At that point we had one time out. We started to move down the field and we got a sack. And coach decided to take a time out there. Even with that time out and the sack we got 14 plays in. In 14 plays you got to get the ball in the end zone. We didn't make the plays to get it in the end zone. I think a lot more has been made of what went on out there than what went on out there.

Henning talked about the fateful throw from Pennington to Ginn that glanced off Ginn's hands:

"Chad made a great read on the ball he threw to Teddy in the end zone. And I would expect Teddy feels that 5 out of 10 times he's going to come down with that ball. We wouldn't have said anything about the two minutes then."

Henning said the Chargers, ranked 24th in the NFL versus the run, think a bit like Atlanta does in defending the run.

"They like to bring an extra guy down into the box and challenge you with their two good corners," he said.

Finally, in the Indianapolis game, Henning said Chad Pennington had 19 either-or plays in which he decides, depending on the look of the defense, whether to run or throw the ball. A couple of those included third-and-7 play from the Indy 22 yard line with 56 seconds left.

Pennington went with a Ricky Williams run and the Dolphins kicked the field goal.

Finally, the Dolphins offensive line is nursing some bumps and bruises. Left guard Justin Smiley (shoulder) was limited during practice today. RT Vernon Carey, limited Wednesday, returned to full work. Linebacker Joey Porter also was limited with a right hamstring issue.

Dolphins must get up in Phillip Rivers' grill

You want a defense that quarterbacks fear? You want a defense that gets off the field on third down? You want a defense that can make up for some deficiencies in the secondary?

Then you want a defense that rushes, hurries, sacks, hits, or torments the quarterback.

The Dolphins need that type of defense Sunday at San Diego. The Dolphins need to put Phillip Rivers on his behind otherwise, as the commercial says, he might go all Phillip Rivers on Miami.

What I'm saying is the Dolphins need to improve their pass rush. And they must do it by any means necessary which might include doing that which the team doesn't like to do much -- blitz.

The Dolphins are not a good blitzing team. Let's face it, Neither Akin Ayodele nor Channing Crowder are great blitzers. Crowder has 1.5 career sacks. Ayodele has 9.5 career sacks in eight years but none since 2006.

Miami's most efficient blitz last year was the cornerback blitz by Nathan Jones, believe it or not.

And yet it is clear that Miami needs to find some way to get some pressure, certainly more pressure than it did against Indianapolis.

“I think that against Atlanta, I think we hit the quarterback about ten times in that game, maybe a few more -- 8, 10, 12 times we hit the quarterback, and I think [Phillip] Merling had a sack, Jason [Taylor] had a sack," coach Tony Sparano said Wednesday. "This game this week, I’d say we hit the quarterback half of those times, probably about five times if I’m correct, maybe even four times we had quarterback hits in this game.

"So, not enough pressure this past week which is not – well, you guys asked me last week about sacking that quarterback, and that’s not, that’s not an easy thing to do. Those guys don’t give them up many times, and he [Peyton Manning] gets the ball out pretty quick. So I would say from a pressure standpoint we’re always looking for more on the quarterback at least, and we’d like to get it in a way that we don’t have to generate it.”

By "generate" pressure, Sparano means blitzing. But when the pressure isn't coming with the four rushers, you have to try something else.

Look for the Dolphins to do that Sunday, or at least be ready to do that if they can't generate the pressure they want on Rivers with their four-man rush. The team, as I have suggested, is also working toward bringing pass-rush specialist Cameron Wake to the game.

But he's been hindered, and inactive, by the fact he isn't good enough to contribute on special teams yet.

"It’s not anything other than that," Sparano said. "It’s, to be honest with you, we were hoping to get him to a point special teams-wise where he could be a little more familiar with some of the techniques and things that we were asking him to do that way.

"We will get him there, and I think he’s close to that point, been getting better and better and we’ve been repping him – we’ve been preparing Cameron every week, the first two weeks, like he’s playing in the game. So, he’s putting in reps, doing those jobs so that he can be more familiar that way. The other thing I would say is playing his position against the run. It isn’t pass rush with him, it’s playing his position against the run. The things that Jason [Taylor] did, he will do faster than Cameron, in other words, learning the fundamentals of that position.

"And again, were preparing him during the week like he’s playing, so he’s getting more and more of those reps too.”

The Dolphins are blessed this week in that San Diego's offensive line is in shambles. Center Nick Hardwick is out because of an ankle injury. Guard Kris Dielman (illness), offensive tackle Marcus McNeil (illness), and guard Louis Vasquez (knee) did not practice at all Wednesday.

But the Dolphins cannot rely merely on injuries to save their pass rush bacon. The Dolphins need both Jason Taylor and Joey Porter to bring their A-games Sunday. They need Phillip Merling to play like he did against Atlanta. They need Jason Ferguson to continue playing as he has, which is quite good. And they need Kendall Langford and Randy Starks to show up for the first time this regular season.

Helloooo ... The season has begun, guys.

Failing that, this team faces a quarterback that threw for 436 yards last week against Baltimore's special defense. Imagine what he might do to Miami if he's not somehow rushed, hurried, and otherwise made to feel uncomfortable?

It's a must.

September 23, 2009

Gibril Wilson stays, other stuff [Updated]

You might have read I called for Gibril Wilson's benching in the previous post. It's not going to happen, according to a team source who thinks I'm a dork for suggesting it.

Alrightie then.

I guess the Dolphins will continue to watch hidden yardage pile up if Wilson continues to miss tackles. I assume Wilson has been told to try to tackle guys low rather than have bigger, better players plow him en route to the end zone.

One coach doing his best so that Wilson doesn't continue to struggle is his Pop Warner coach.

"My Pop Warner coach called me after the game," Wilson said. "When your Pop Warner coach calls you, you know you didn't tackle well."

The Dolphins worked this afternoon on their outdoor practice fields. the team did work on tackling, according to coach Tony Sparano.

I've been watching for indications of a hangover from the Monday night game throughout this week.

I'll be watching for frustration, for depression, for the team looking physically or emotionally spent. I'll report those to you as the week progresses. On the other hand, I'll also report if such things are not apparent.

One thing that stuck out during the portion of practice open to the media: During individual passing drills Chad Pennington threw a pass to Greg Camarillo that was too low and somewhat out of the receiver's reach.

Camarillo merely punched the ball to the ground and proceded to kick it in disgust. No big deal, but it seemed odd to me at such an early stage in practice.

Speaking of receivers, rookie Brian Hartline was walking around the locker room with a pronounced limp. Seemed something was wrong with one of his feet. We'll see if he's on the injury report later.

Receiver Ted Ginn continues to answer questions about his missed touchdown catches and he is making no excuses. I asked him if he was interfered with on the fourth-quarter pass from Chad Pennington.

"No, he didn't," Ginn told me. "I should have come down with the catch. Point blank. Point blank. He made a great play. I'm not going to say this or say that. I just got to come down with the catch."

Ginn said he's never had a similar moment when he had a game-winning pass in his hands and dropped it. 

"Never had one -- that's my first one," Ginn said. "It's just something I got to put to the side. I'm still going to remember it and try to work to be better."

In working to get better, Ginn is listening to advice from his family much the same way Wilson is hearing from his Pop Warner coach.

"I got a father," Ginn said. "He talks to me as well as coaches here. He said if you get that opportunity again, you just got to make the best for you and your team. Next time that comes up, I can't say I'm going to take a different approach, but I've learned."

By the way, Ginn did have two potential TD catches glance off his hands, the first in the first half. He said he misjudged the ball on the first potential TD pass he might have had.

"Misjudged," Ginn said. "Misjudged. I thought I was closer to the out of bounds. [I was] farther than what I was. A receiver wants to come out with every catch. That's two I missed."

San Diego quarterback Phillip Rivers was just on a conference call with the Miami media. He talked about the two years he spent on the pine while Drew Brees played ahead of him.

"It was tough," Rivers said. "I wanted to get out there and play from a competitive standpoint, but looking back on it now, I benefitted. But after two years, there was so much improvement I could make any more. I needed to play. I needed to get in games.

"After 25 games, I needed to play football again."

Obviously Chad Henne has sat for 18 games with the Dolphins so far.

Finally, offensive tackle Vernon Carey was limited in practice today, according to the injury report, with a knee injury.

September 22, 2009

All not lost, but changes need to be made

One year ago the Dolphins had an 0-2 record following a depressing loss to Arizona and prospects were dim. Today, the Dolphins have an 0-2 record following a depressing (for different reasons) loss to Indianapolis and prospects are dim.

All was not lost to that 2008 team.

All is not lost to this 2009 team.

The Dolphins made some significant changes following the Arizona game a year ago. They benched safety Chris Crocker because he couldn't communicate well in the deep secondary and it was costing the Dolphins.

I'm sorry, but the Dolphins need to bench Gibril Wilson. His enormous contract lined with $8 million in guaranteed money notwithstanding, Wilson is a liability in the deep secondary. He does not tackle well. He always seems a step slow. And he never makes an important play.

The Dolphins could turn to veteran Renaldo Hill last year. Perhaps it's time to turn to youngster Tyrone Culver this year. Culver covers well and hasn't missed a lot of tackles that I can remember in the last year. He knows the calls. He knows the defense.

[By the way, I said in the last post that Wilson missed the tackle on Dallas Clark to start the game. He did, getting run over at the 50-yard line, costing the Dolphins 50 yards in hidden yardage. But he also got plowed by Donald Brown on that rookie's fourth-quarter TD. Brown just lowered his shoulder and ran right through Wilson at the 5 yard line.]

Make the change.

As for everything else, the parallels to 2008 don't exactly fall into place, but the Dolphins are not without possibilities.

It was on that ride home that coach Tony Sparano ordered his assistants to hatch Wildcat. It was good enough that it surprised the Patriots in the next game and the confidence built from that win carried over to a victory against San Diego.

Well, the Dolphins need another victory over San Diego this week but Wildcat is not available as a surprise.

Here's an idea. Come up with something on defense to tilt the game in Miami's favor. I keep hearing how the Dolphins can get after the passer as well as any team. I haven't seen that yet. I've seen Peyton Manning run into a Joey Porter sack and Jason Taylor have one good game, one invisible game.

Can you say Cameron Wake? Don't tell me the Dolphins can't put Charlie Anderson on the inactive list and substitute Wake. Yes, special teams may suffer a tad. But the Dolphins need to get after Phillip Rivers somehow. Why not unleash a guy that shows pass-rush promise?

Also, the use of Akin Ayodele when he was clearly slowed by that back issue last week cost the Dolphins. Play Reggie Torbor! The guy didn't come cheap. Let him earn his money rather than putting a hobbled player on the field.

The defense needs to do something different because whatever they did Monday night didn't work. Understand that the offense gave Miami the lead four times against the Colts. And the defense gave up that lead all four times.

The Colts had the ball only eight times in the game. But they scored on five of those possessions, including two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

Last season the Dolphins pulled even with a 2-2 record after consecutive upsets of New England and San Diego. I see no reason this team cannot win the next three games. The Chargers are good but not great. Then Miami gets Buffalo and the Jets at home on back-to-back weeks.

With all due respect to the Bills and Jets, they're both beatable. They're not that much more talented than the Dolphins. And they're not coached any better.

I'm not saying the Dolphins will beat those three teams coming up. But neither am I saying it's impossible.

And these next three games before the bye will go a long way in defining this season. The Dolphins must win at least two of those games to hold out any playoff hopes. Lose two and the playoffs hopes disappear. Lose all three and the season is toast.

We'll see what happens.

But this is sure: If the Dolphins don't make changes, it's illogical for them to believe the results will change.

A couple of day-after observations

The sun came up this morning and we're all still here. The Dolphins haven't bagged the remainder of their season. And as I write in my column today, Miami did show a good amount of fight Monday night.

The running game came to life. Jake Long answered the call against Dwight Freeney. Wildcat is back.

So it wasn't a complete disaster, as so many of you are portraying on my flooded e-mail box.

But in answering issues positively, the Dolphins also provided answers to issues going the other direction. Simply, Ted Ginn is not a premier wide receiver and probably will never be. Secondly, Gibril Wilson is playing terrible right now, just terrible.

Here's the thing on Ginn: If he makes one play, just one more play at the game's most important moment, the Dolphins are winners today. He had a desperation pass into the end zone in his hands. He had the game-winning catch in his grasp. He had a signature career moment on his finger tips.

And he dropped it.

“I got both hands on it…," Ginn said. "Guy came through and made a good play. That’s what this league is about. Everybody’s going to make plays, you know, it’s who comes down with it.”

Look, I'm not asking for miracles here. I'm asking for Miami's alleged best receiver to make a play very good NFL receivers routinely make. I would estimate 80 percent of the NFL's premier receivers make that catch.

And so I'm forced to conclude Ginn simply is not premier. He's just getting by at average.

“I should have came down with it, I should have made that play," Ginn said. "That’s why I got the sad face, you know, that’s why I’m over here thinking about it nonstop and the only thing you can do is go back and see what you did wrong, and try to work at it.”

I'm not throwing in the towel on Ginn. But let's face it, he is a good complementary player. He is not now a star and isn't likely to be a star. This isn't based on one failure last night. This is based on watching him since 2007.

He's improved a good deal since being drafted No. 9 overall that year. But he will never be elite. Randy Mueller used to say he could turn out to be like a Joey Galloway. That's not going to happen. It's not that Ginn doesn't have the hands or the speed or the desire. He has those tools.

But he lacks something. He lacks "it," to be a difference-maker in the NFL.

And the Dolphins, short on playmakers, are kidding themselves if they think otherwise. This team has done a wonderful job telling us how it's good not to have a No. 1 receiver, how having tons of good-not-great options is a positive.

Bunk.

What we saw last night on that play is Miami's inability to add a premier receiver to the roster the past few years costing a victory. Mueller tried but didn't do it and failed. The current regime has tried some, but has failed to recognize that in not bringing in a receiver ready to make that play in either of the last two seasons, they exposed themselves to losses ... like last night.

Yes, Patrick Turner or Brian Hartline may some day be ready to make that play. But not now. And the Dolphins happen to need it now, as in last night.

The Dolphins did go out and sign a new free safety in Gibril Wilson this offseason. They paid him $27.5 million over five years with $8 million in guaranteed money. They should try to get a refund.

Wilson, you see, is Miami's free safety and so he's the last line of defense. That means he has to be quick to the ball. That means he has to be a sure-tackler. That means he has to have good hands to pluck interceptions from the air.

I'm not asking for Ed Reed, here. But at least give me a step up from Renaldo Hill for that price.

Wilson is playing like he's a step back from Hil, although coach Tony Sparano today defended his player.

“One of the things I think that’s very good right now back there is the mental part of it," Sparano said. "I think mentally, Gibril’s been super back there, and you know, has made a bunch of tackles in the first couple games, just obviously missed a couple tackles out there yesterday. I think sometimes when those things happen, when they happen is the thing that gets magnified.”

Magnified because they cost games.

Last night Wilson had a chance to tackle Dallas Clark at the Dolphins 40 yard line on the first play of the game. Clark shook him off like dust and just kept chugging toward the end zone. Understand that Wilson was not responsible for covering Clark. But after Akin Ayodele peeked into the backfield on the play-action and was soundly beaten in coverage, it was Wilson's responsibility to mitigate the mistake with a tackle.

He failed.

Wilson has been a step slow a lot since he's been with the Dolphins. Throughout the preseason, we saw a lot of mediocre receivers and quarterbacks attack the deep middle of the Miami defense with little problem. That's an issue Wilson needs to address.

By the way, on Pierre Garcon's breakaway 48 yard TD with 3:18 to play, Wilson was the last man chasing the receiver into the end zone. How does the free safety allow a receiver screen to get behind him and into the end zone?

Well, Wilson couldn't get off a block. That's how.

Finally, Wilson looked to have made one timely play just before halftime when he snatched a tipped ball out of the air for an interception. Except that a review of the play showed Wilson didn't hold on to the interception even though no one touched him until after he caught it.

The interception-turned-incompletion hurt. Given new life, the Colts were able to move into range and salvage a 48-yard FG as time elapsed in the half. If Wilson holds on to the ball, the Colts go into halftime trailing 13-10.

Such is the value of a solid free safety. 

Dolphins lose to Colts, 27-23 (bummer)

The Dolphins plowed the Indianapolis defense, solved their turnover issues, and generally fought hard.

It still wasn't good enough.

The Colts beat Miami, 27-23.

The interesting thing is the Dolphins got the game they wanted. They pounded the football. They had a possession advantage, holding the ball 45:07 to Indy's 14:53. They kept Peyton Manning and his offense on the sidelines.

And they still lost!

Fact is the Colts had the ball less than any winning team since the time of possession stats began to be recorded in the 1970s.

Bummer.

Ronnie Brown was dominant in gaining 136 yards on 24 carries. Can I tell you something? Do it again next week. Give him the ball 24 more times.

Ricky Williams added 69 yards on 19 carries. Excellent complementary work.

The Dolphins, meanwhile, have very little in the way of passing offense. Ted Ginn Jr. did have 11 catches for 108 yards. But he allowed a potential game-winning TD pass to slip through his grasp. Ginn wasn't alone.

Tight end Anthony Fasano also had a potential TD grab squirt through his hands in the first half. It would have been a spectacular catch, I grant you. But it's nothing I haven't seen in the NFL. Unfortunately didn't see it from the Dolphins tonight.

The Miami defense looked eerily like the Dave Wannstedt-Jimmy Johnson era D. They seemed to play well ... until the game or season was on the line. And then they'd fold.

Well, leading 23-20 with 6:16 to play, the Miami defense didn't exactly present itself a concrete wall. Manning completed a 15-yard pass to Reggie Wayne. Then a 17-yard pass to Dallas Clark. Then a 48-yard pass to Pierre Garcon.

It was more of a red carpet treatement than J-Lo got before the game.

Even after the Colts took a 27-23 lead, the Dolphins had the ball at their 18 yard line with 3:18 to play. And although they moved the ball, it was not exactly organized. Actually it was a clock management collapse.

The Dolphins used a time out one play into the drive at 2:26. Terrible. "We had to use a time out that I didn't really want to use," quarterback Chad Pennington said. "but we had to do it."

The problem originated on the sidelines. And although head coach Tony Sparano is not necessarily responsible for getting the right personnel on the field, he fell on the grenade because the buck stops at him.

"What happened there, I have to take responsibility for that," Sparano said. "We had the wrong personnel grouping in. So we needed to take the time out at that point."

Finally, I leave you with this statistic as the Dolphins prepare to travel to San Diego Friday for Sunday's game against the Chargers: Since 1990, only three teams that have started the season 0-3 made the playoffs.

The 1992 Chargers, 1995 Lions and 1998 Buffalo Bills all qualified for the playoffs as wild-card entrants.

September 21, 2009

Dolphins driving for score as 4th Q opens

The Dolphins and Colts played a scoreless third quarter.

But the Dolphins dominated anyway.

The Fins are in the redzone and looking to take a lead. The score is currently tied 13-13, but that might not last very long.

Join me in the comments section to see how it ends.

Dolphins-Colts tied 13-13 to start 3rd Q

It's a slugfest!

The Colts score a TD. The Dolphins answered.

The Dolphins got a go-ahead field goal to take a 13-10 lead. The Colts tied it as time ran out in the half.

Ronnie Brown already has 83 yards on 11 carries. He carried it all of 10 times vs. Atlanta.

the Dolphins have been outgained 198-186 at halftime. But the home team has 132 of its yards on the ground. Spectacular!