The Dolphin Report

By Ron Poltorack

A MEANINGFUL MEANINGLESS WIN

There’s nothing like a five-game winning streak to give meaning to a fifth straight season without making the playoffs when an exciting new coach is leading the team in a new direction. And that is precisely what is making Dolfans everywhere smile, even when their team is out of the playoffs.

Before a preseason-like crowd of under half of the announced attendance of 72,001, the Dolphins beat the Tennessee Titans 24-10 thanks to a fine defensive effort and the strong running of Ricky Williams. Ricky ran for 172 yards rounding out the day with a game-clinching 19-yard touchdown in the last two minutes. Earlier in that final drive Ricky had a 35-yard run as well.

Gus Frerotte was once again Gus Frerotte. He was inaccurate, completing only 46.7% (14 of 30) of his passes, but he played well enough to ride Ricky and the defense to the win, throwing only one interception on a third-down deep ball which itself was more like a good Donnie Jones’ punt. Chris Chambers caught 5 passes for 51 yards, putting him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. This was the first time he reached that plateau and it came just days after he was selected to his first Pro Bowl.

The defense was outstanding, giving up a fourth-quarter touchdown on a long pass (after safety Lance Schulters slipped) and a first-quarter field goal (after a Frerotte fumble gave the Titans the ball in the red zone). The defense had four sacks and recovered three turnovers. The four sacks gave the Dolphins 48 for the season, one shy of the team’s season record.

This team has certainly turned things around since its embarrassing 22-0 defeat by the lowly Browns. In winning five-straight, the Dolphins have assured themselves at least a .500 season. They can finish at 9-7 with an upset next weekend in Foxboro. Either way there will be lot’s of optimism around town as next season rolls around. Nick Saban has taken the Dolphins from 4-12 last season to 8-8 or 9-7 in his first season. Newcomers Ronnie Brown, Channing Crowder and Travis Daniels have combined with veterans such as Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas to turn around the sinking ship and provide optimism for the future in both the locker room and in the stands.

The impressive performance of Ricky Williams, who shouldered the running back duties in the absence of Ronnie Brown, has given local sports talk shows a great deal of off-season material. Keep Ricky next year (thereby insuring against an injury to Ronnie) or trade him (thereby giving the team more ammunition in the 2006 NFL draft). It will be tempting to keep Ricky next year considering his ability and his low salary cap number; it will be tempting to trade Ricky considering his rising trade value and the team’s overall needs. Watching how this plays out will be interesting. One thing is for sure; Coach Nick will not tip his hand before he pulls the trigger.

With one week to go in this turnaround season, it is clear that Saban has accomplished much to date. Nick’s first season has been a success on the field. He has started to change the mentality of this team as can be seen from the five-game winning streak that arose out of the 22-0 disaster in Cleveland (which lost again this week, this time 41-0 to Pittsburgh). He has had an opportunity to evaluate the talent level of each player on the roster as well as to evaluate whether each is the kind of player he wants on his team next season. He has been able to evaluate the team’s needs for the future. Now, he has to go out and have another successful off-season.

Most would agree that Nick’s first off-season was pretty good. His draft picks have done quite well. However, one could argue that with the second pick in the entire draft he cannot receive too much credit for selecting well (Ronnie Brown) in the first round. One could also argue that his selection of Crowder, who has shown real football talent and certainly appears to be Zach Thomas’ down-the-road replacement, was not borne of any football genius, but merely luck. Crowder fell to the third round not because of any lack of talent, but because of off-field concerns. Nick’s only genius was in taking the chance on Crowder (and that genius can turn quickly if Crowder were to have off-field problems in the future). Nick also brought in Gus Frerotte, who has certainly had a role in the Dolphins’ wins, but he has likewise had a role in the Dolphins’ losses and he has had problems completing 50% of his passes. Given the fact that the Dolphins will be drafting in the middle of the pack this time, Saban can show some true genius if he can select some more quality players upon which the team can continue to re-build.

With this season ending on an upbeat note, Nick’s stock is on the rise. It will rise even more dramatically if he has another good off-season that produces a playoff bound team next year. We will all be impressed if he does that, just as we are impressed with this year’s .500-or-better season that none of us saw coming in training camp. Coming into this season no one thought he could produce a playoff team in his first two seasons. Sitting here today, who is to say he won’t produce a playoff team in his second season. And that is why the meaningless game against the Titans was a meaningful one.

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