The Dolphin Report

By Ron Poltorack

PATSIES NO MORE

The season may have ended Sunday for the Fins as they beat the Patriots in Foxboro, but an encouraging first season for Coach Nick Saban has Dolfans looking to the future with a new sense of optimism. Of course, it was mostly second-string Pats that the Fins beat, but who wants to read a negative-spin piece when the Dolphins ended the season on a six-game winning streak!

While there are lots of asterisks to that winning streak, the most recent that Tom Brady and a host of other first-string Patriots spent most of the afternoon on the sideline, it still shows that this team has come a long way under Nick Saban (who was hired after the Dolphins’ ended last season at 4-12). In just one season Nick Saban has taken the Fins back to respectability.

The Dolphins win was a lot more lopsided statistically than it was on the scoreboard. In fact, the narrow victory was not sealed until the Patriots failed to convert a two-point conversion following a Pats’ touchdown on the last play of regulation that would have sent the game into overtime. It was somewhat amazing that the score was so close since the Dolphins held a 16:10 time of possession edge and out-rushed the Patriots 148-55. Ricky Williams had his second consecutive 100-yard game, rushing 28 times for 108 yards.

Gus Frerotte, who typically has trouble keeping his completion percentage above 50%, had a good game. He completed 62.4% of his passes including one for a touchdown to Marty Booker. Although he still managed to badly miss a few wide open receivers, he was not intercepted a single time. In fact, it was the Dolphins’ first turnover-free game in a season and a half.

Marty Booker led the receivers with 7 catches for 86 yards and a touchdown. Chris Chambers finished off his best season with 5 catches for 75 yards. Chambers’ totals for the year were 82 catches for 1118 yards, both personal highs for this first-time Pro Bowl receiver.

Another Dolphin who needs to be recognized is first-year punter, Donnie Jones. Jones replaced Mat Turk who was injured during training camp and went on to an outstanding 39.3 yard net average. Net average (which is the yardage from the line of scrimmage to the point where the opposing team takes over) is a lot more important than gross yardage (the length of the kick measured from the line of scrimmage without considering any runback). Although net yardage certainly brings into play the effectiveness of the coverage team, it all starts with a punter who can kick consistently with good hang time. Jones also set a new franchise record for punts downed inside the twenty, with 31. Although many doubted the wisdom of Saban bringing in his punter from LSU, the doubters have been silenced. Jones may be the Dolphins’ punter for years to come (or at least until he qualifies for free agency).

Well, “nine-and-seven” has a certain ring to it for Dolfans longing to get back to the playoffs. Without doubt Coach Nick has had a very successful first year, but it’s only going to get tougher from here. A successful draft is needed and it will not be easy with the Dolphins picking down in the draft order this time around. Although Saban has shown he could change the team mentality, he still must fill holes on this team.

Keith Traylor was a wonderful addition who helped the run defense immeasurably, but his age is working against him. A top back-up, if not an outright replacement, is essential. Donnie Spragan and Channing Crowder have performed well at linebacker, but with the anticipated departure of aged Junior Seau, the team needs more depth at that position. Travis Daniels performed well overall at cornerback for a first year player, but he doesn’t look like the second coming of Patrick Surtain or Sam Madison. And speaking of Sam Madison, he figures to follow in the footsteps of Patrick Surtain, who became an ex-Dolphin last off-season. Thus, cornerback needs must also be addressed. Upgrades at the safety position are also needed.

On the offensive side of the ball, the running back position is set (with the only question being whether Ricky is traded), but fullback is a position that needs to be addressed. The offensive line was certainly better than in 2004, but it also needs to be up-graded.

Of course, the biggest need is at starting quarterback. Gus would sure look better on the sideline with a clipboard in the fine tradition of Don Strock. The Fins need someone who looks a little more like Marino behind center on Sunday afternoons.

It will be interesting to see what Coach Nick does to address the team’s needs. From what we have seen of him so far, just don’t bet against him. Even when things looked very bad (like, for example, in the wake of the whipping at the hands of the otherwise inept Cleveland Browns in late November), Coach Nick kept moving forward and somehow convinced his players to get on board. And that is why this first year coach was able to finish in second place with 5 more wins than his predecessor. And that is why Dolfans are looking forward to him leading their beloved team into the 2006 season and beyond. You see, while Gus would look better with a clipboard, Coach Nick would look even better bathed in Gatorade!

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