The Dolphin Report

By Ron Poltorack

PATS FINISH OFF DOLPHINS’ SEASON

The Patriots not only beat the Dolphins on Sunday, but in so doing they also ended the Fins season. Now, 3 games behind the Division leading Patriots, the Fins’ chances of repeating as Division Champs have been reduced to bare mathematical possibilities.

With the season now at its halfway point for the Fins, the key question is: Who are these 3-5 Fins and where are they headed?

Before looking at where they are headed, let’s look at where they have been. To keep their current 3-5 record in its proper perspective, Dolfans should not forget that the season before last was their rock-bottom 1-15 season. Dolfans should also remember that the Czarcells’ administration is only a season and a half into its rebuilding process, notwithstanding the very surprising Division Title that fell its way in its first season running the organization. And let’s face it, llast year’s Division Title took a season-ending injury to Tom Brady, an incredibly strong finish where everything fell just right and a tie-breaker to achieve. This season, Brady is back and everything hasn’t fallen so neatly into place (see, for example, the Colts game in week 2).

Last season’s incredible turnaround gave a lot of Dolfans false hope. Too many fans thought it meant the Fins were back; unfortunately it did not quite mean that much. It meant only that if they get a lot of great breaks, they could finish ahead of two rivals with injured quarterbacks (the Pats without Brady and the Jets who had lost their rental quarterback, Brett Favre). And it also took a career year out of Chad Pennington, who had fallen into the Fins’ laps when the Jets grabbed Favre, to achieve that success.

But in year two of the Czarcells’ administration, things have not fallen into place so neatly. It started with a tough schedule to open the season and it was made tougher when Chad Pennington went down. Games that were won when players made plays in crunch time the last half of last season were lost in crunch time the first half of this season, including against the Patriots when the Fins were still within striking distance late in the fourth quarter when Ted Ginn dropped a fourth and 15 pass that was right in his hands.

But it is not fair to measure the 2009 Fins’ record against that of the 2008 Fins. The schedule last year was about as easy as it gets; the schedule this season is about as tough as it gets. And things just fell into place last year while they were winning 9 of their last 10 games; but it took an uncanny streak of players making plays to achieve that Cinderella finish. Although this season has been different with the Fins more often than not finding ways to lose in the fourth quarter, Dolfans need to keep things in perspective. Nobody thought that the Czarcells’ team could remake the Fins into Super Bowl contenders in a year or two.

Nothing about this season’s 3-5 start takes away from the fact that the Czarcells’ team has upgraded the level of talent at almost every position. This team may not be there just yet, but it is getting closer. The plan is still intact. The Fins are on their way back.

That was no blowout you saw in Foxboro this week. It was a 27-17 loss even after the Pats got a gift field goal when the timekeeper mysteriously left one second on the game clock to enable the Patriots to kick a field goal that essentially came during halftime. It was a 27-17 loss which might have been a 24-24 regulation tie had either Brian Hartline or Ted Ginn held onto passes that hit their hands on the final series with the Fins looking for a tying touchdown. There are other possibilities for the game to have turned out differently, too, but the point here is simply that the Fins hung in the game against one of football’s best teams on the road. They may not be there quite yet, but the plan is in place, the progress is measurable and the future is bright.

The team remains a work in progress on  Czarcells’ proven road to success. Obviously, there are positions still needing some retooling, most notably, wide receiver. That need is even more glaring than the defensive secondary which is now full of hope with the play of Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, but still needs more depth with the injury to Will Allen and the problems at the safety position.

Another area where the Fins need improvement is at quarterback. This improvement may just be a matter of sufficient game experience for Chad Henne who has shown Dolfans the strength of his arm while being exposed in certain other areas. For example, he appears slow with his reads and decision-making. Given the success he had in college and the flashes Dolfans have seen to date, there appears reason to be optimistic that Henne will become the bona fide star the Fins need (and the coaching staff seems to believe he can be).

In many ways, getting much needed game experience for Chad Henne is what the balance of this season is all about. There is no reasonable expectation this team can turn things around and win its last 8 games, which is what it would take to have any meaningful chance at a wildcard playoff berth, especially given that they must play the likes of Pittsburgh and New England (again) in the second half of the season. Thus, all eyes should be upon Henne the balance of this season to hopefully see him grow into his position as the Fins’ starting QB and become more comfortable doing things that will make him into the long-term star that this team so desperately needs him to become. He needs to learn how to look off his receivers, to read the eyes of the safeties, to get through his progressions quicker, to make quicker decisions and to cut down on his sacks. If he can make progress in these areas over the next 8 games, then he will have something to build on next season when the Fins figure to have further upgraded the overall quality of their roster.

For now, the reality is that the Fins will not be repeating as AFC Eastern Division Champs. Tom Brady and the Pats will be reclaiming that honor this season. But there is hope that the Fins will end the Pats’ reign in the next couple of years, just as they ended the Fins’ season this Sunday.

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