The Dolphin Report

By Ron Poltorack

IT BETTER BE DAUNTE

If there’s one thing Dolfans’ learned from the season-ending game at Indianapolis, it’s that Cleo Lemon (who was making his first NFL start and only his third NFL appearance) is not an effective NFL starting quarterback. If he can become an effective starting quarterback, then he will need a couple of years of experience to become one. Even if he gets the experience he needs, the question still remains as to whether or not he can become an effective starting quarterback. If he is able to develop, then by the time he does so, the sun will have set on the careers of defensive leaders Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor (who now says he may retire this off-season, but don’t believe it). So what Dolfans really learned against the Colts is that it better be Daunte next year, because there appears to be no other alternative at quarterback. Without an effective starting quarterback next season, the Dolphins will likely make it six years in a row without earning a playoff spot.

Cleo started off well against the Colts, leading the Dolphins downfield on their first drive until it faltered and they had to settle for a 28-yard Olindo Mare field goal. He only got them into scoring position one more time in the first half, resulting in another Olindo Mare field goal. However, after the Colts scored a touchdown with 0:19 remaining in the half, he proceeded to throw a horrendous interception which resulted in a Colts’ field goal with no time left in the half, enabling the Colts to go into the locker room with a 17-6 lead.

Cleo led the Fins to 16 points in the second half, including a touchdown pass to Randy McMichael after a Jason Taylor fumble recovery. However, by the time Jason recovered that fumble, there was under 5 minutes remaining and the Fins were down 27-15. The touchdown pass to McMichael brought them to within 5 points, but it was too little, too late. The Fins got the ball back with 1:03 remaining, but it was to no avail as Cleo’s last second Hail Mary pass was overthrown and landed in the seats behind the end zone. For the day, Cleo was 18 of 36 (50%) for 210 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT.

There were some bright spots in the game. In a punctuation mark to his roughest season, Olindo Mare was 5 for 5 on field goal attempts, 1 for 1 on PATs and he consistently placed his kickoffs into the end zone forcing the Colts to start at their own 20-yard line 6 times out of 7. Ronnie Brown, who missed 3 games in December following hand surgery, ran for 115 yards (21 carries for a 5.5 yard average) to give him his first 1,000-yard season (finishing with 1,008 yards). It came in his second season and the first season in which he did not have to share time with Ricky Williams. Although Jason Taylor did not add to his team-leading sack total, he did recover a fumble, perhaps giving him the season-ending boost he needed to land the Defensive Player of the Year Award, which would be certainly deserving.

Thanks to the media’s ridiculous urge to create stories rather than merely report them, the media focus will continue to be whether Saban is going to leave for the Alabama job (he clearly won’t) and whether Huizenga will sell the team (he certainly won’t either). Both of these are non-stories that were contrived by the media.

Hopefully Nick’s focus will quickly turn to figuring out whether Daunte will be ready to take over the starting job next season. That is the central question to be answered in the aftermath of the 2006 season. Although there are other questions which need to be addressed, nothing is nearly as important. Yes, the team needs help in the defensive backfield and on the offensive line. Yes, the team has to sort out which defensive linemen will be worth retaining. Yes, the team has to figure out what to do with Ricky Williams. But first and foremost, Nick needs to figure out who his starting quarterback will be next season. The position is too important to leave to either Cleo Lemon (who is at best not nearly ready, and may never be) or Joey Harrington (who is at best too inconsistent).

The Dolphins will draft 9th in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft this coming April. That slot is too low to draft a quarterback who has any shot to become a starter next season. If Nick needs to trade up to get Brady Quinn, perhaps he will pull the trigger, but only if it does not appear that Daunte will be ready to take command to start next season. Otherwise, he’ll never pay the steep price for moving up.

The bottom line for 2006 is last place in the division, a 6-10 record (with 3 fewer wins than in 2005) and a fifth consecutive year without a playoff berth. In all, it was a most disappointing year especially given the hope that surfaced last off-season after the Dolphins were able to sign Daunte Culpepper. Even Sports Illustrated had predicted greatness for the Fins going into this year. In the final analysis, 2006 went down the drain with Daunte’s inability to play. The 2007 season will likely go down the drain, too, if Daunte cannot is not ready to go. So, the one thing we know for sure about next year is this: It Better Be Daunte.

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