COMMENTARY: RETURN TO PROMINENCE
by Kevin Dern
Dolphin fans took over the meadowlands and by games end owned the place. Who says Miami doesn't have great fans?
Whether you were at the game in the Meadowlands, Miami, or stuck at home like me, you’ll remember this date for quite some time. The last time the Miami Dolphins were in the playoffs, I was a sophomore in high school. Now, I am almost a year out of college, and they’ve finally returned. A brilliant 24-17 road victory over the New York Jets and Brett Favre, the most over-hyped acquisition in recent memory, and who is also the very same player who surpassed Dan Marino’s records. He most likely concluded his career not riding off into the sunset, but running away from the spotlight; a place where he’s shone so brilliantly so many times before. But not in 2008. This year belongs to Bill Parcells, Jeff Ireland, Tony Sparano, Jake Long, Chad Pennington, and countless other players and coaches who’ve restored this storied franchise’s fans with pride. Bravo!
There were times during my enrollment at the University of Dayton, a school who's sports fans were predominantly dominated by the Bengals, Browns, and Steelers during football season, and oddly by the Cubs and Cardinals during baseball season. My being a Dolphins and Reds fan, I typically didn’t have much pride when sporting my teams’ colors around campus. But by God I did my morning run wearing my Dolphins sweatshirt every day last winter after a 1-15 season. And now, ironically, those numbers 1, 1, and 5, now need a hyphen in the middle. 11-5, completing the greatest turnaround in NFL history, while also turning the football over the fewest amount of times, in NFL history.
(Memo to Stephen Ross: when you do assume full control over this franchise, do everything in your power to ensure that Bill Parcells, the architect of this epic turnaround, remains with the Dolphins throughout his contract, and possibly extend his time as a member of the Dolphins front office. Thank you.)
I remember writing on this site after the 31-10 debacle in Arizona that Dolphins fans should be happy with 4 to 6 wins. I was wrong. Add those numbers together and add one more. 11 wins. Let the talking heads at ESPN start with their detracting comments that we beat up on a week schedule and we’re not playing as good as the Patriots right now. Let ‘em! We beat up on the same schedule and finished the second half of our season 7-1, winning 11 of 14 after that week two drive-by performance.
The Dolphins fans got our rematch, much like Pennington said "that how sports would have it" against the Jets for all the marbles. As far as we are concerned we won and that is all that matters. Next Sunday, at 1pm, Joe Robbie Stadium (yes I know it’s Dolphin Stadium now) will be rocking, against the Ravens a team we fell to earlier in this year, and ironically closed out our last playoff season what seems like many years ago…I guess it was many years ago. This week is time for some revenge.
I look a the match-up versus the Ravens I ask myself "can the Dolphins do it? Can they defeat a team that’s already beaten them, minus two starting guards, and perhaps David Martin and Kendall Langford (who at the time I’m typing this I didn’t see any word on, but was grabbing his knee during the final folly of a play). Are they battle-tested enough?" Well, if you ask me, I’ll give you my answer in a little bit, but bear with me and let's examine what the Dolphins have and haven’t done during the course of their 11-5 season. When I look back at the season, I see just how many different scenarios there were week in and week out that helped prepare our team for the playoffs.
They lose on the last drive with the ball: see week 1.
The win on the last drive with the ball : see weeks 8 and 10.
The lose on the last drive without the ball : see the Texans game.
The wins on the last drive with the defense: see weeks 9, 11, 12, and 15.
The blowout loss: see the loss to Arizona which sparked my posts then and now.
The blowout win: see the unveiling of the Wildcat over New England.
The shootout win: A terrific performance by Pennington in Kansas City.
The shootout loss: Sorry Patriots, Matt Light’s fight didn’t help you.
The dominant performances: see weeks 3, 5, 7, and 14.
The self-inflicted loss: see week 6 against Baltimore.
The game to restore prominence: 24-17. Goodbye Favre, hello playoffs!
This season had it all - ups, downs, highs, lows, fist-pumping moments, and head-scratchers alike. No matter how you slice it, every Sunday afternoon was entertaining except for maybe the game in the desert against the Cardinals. For a team I didn’t expect any more than 6 wins out of, what more could I possibly ask for? This year was great!
Not bad for a team made up of leftovers from the 1-15 disaster, a 1st overall draft pick, free agent castoffs from other teams that worked, and some that didn’t. These were matched with young players producing when called upon, to unheralded players filling in when needed. Seemed that there was always a player that stepped up when we needed it. On offense we saw the likes of Patrick Cobbs, Davone Bess, Joey Haynos, and guards Ike Ndukwe and Andy Alleman all answer the call. On defense we saw Kendall Langford, Akin Ayodele, Charlie Anderson, Nathan Jones - the lists can go on and on, but when you think about it, nearly every player on the 53 man roster has played up to and beyond expectation this season, and throughout the year. And while I can’t speak for the 53 guys on the roster, the starters we lost on IR, and the guys that have interchanged on the practice squad, I’ll wager a good bet that each of them has learned what it takes to win, and has learned to overcome adversity this season.
And that’s just what it’s going to take to beat the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday. Every little experience from each of the different style of games this team has won, and lost, will play a part. The storylines this week, although they won’t be as juicy as the Pennington return to the Meadowlands headlines, still pack some punch. The Dolphins look to avenge another team that previously beat them this year, and personally, I’d love nothing more than to stick it to Cam Cameron, not only for his Gatorade shower this year, but for the absolute ineptitude the man had on the sidelines last year. For losing a team and souring the end of Keith Traylor’s career. For bringing in a guy like Joey Porter and using him entirely improperly. For not working late nights, and for any of you who’ve read Tony Dungy’s book “Quiet Strength” - you’ll know what I mean when I say that Cameron tried to copy other coaches styles, rather than set himself to a high standard the way that Tony Sparano has this year.
Every player is expected to play his best. From the second I saw that video of Sparano yelling at Matt Roth in training camp to buckle his chinstrap and telling Anthony Fasano that he was slow, I knew we were in good hands. And while I didn’t expect this year to go as it has, believe me I’ll take the surprise, I know we’re in great hands for the future. What makes it more impressive to me, as I hit on earlier, is we’ve done it without the superstar names. There’s no Ray Lewis and Ed Reed on our defense. Chad Pennington will hardly ever be confused for Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, and I doubt many fans around the league could name a receiver on our roster not named Ted Ginn. It’s a bunch of lunch-pail guys going to the work and grinding out victories. So, back to my original question, do the Dolphins have what it takes to make a run in the playoffs - my answer is simple, it’s this: Why not?
Everyone’s record means nothing from this point on - it’s win or go play golf. Look at the Giants last year, or the Steelers in 2005. Both were teams that got hot at the right time, and even the Steelers were sitting at 7-5 at one point, as the Dolphins were at one point this year coming off a shaky win against the St. Louis Rams. Look at us now. A dominant performance against the Bills, a bewildering, twilight zone win against the 49ers, a bone-chillingly cold shootout against the Chiefs, and the first win in a while against the Jets, and we’re in the playoffs having ripped of 5 straight W’s. If that’s not a run, I don’t know what is. I love the fact we get another shot against the Ravens. For one, it’s not the Patriots, who’re stuck on the outside looking in - it’s never fun to play a team 3 times in the same season, though a win over Belicheck would’ve been sweet. But the Ravens are a team that packs the D. And looking at the Dolphins path, they’d have to play Pittsburgh next, and potentially Tennessee. No one could question us having run that gauntlet. No one. But it starts this week against the Ravens - here’s some quick bits on how I think we have to take this one.
1. Find a way to run the ball more consistently. Just watching the game live as it happened, and comparing it to the stats afterward, I was stunned to see that Ronnie and Ricky rushed for over 100 yards (21 carries for 107 yards) because it sure didn’t seem like it during the game. 29 carries for 126 yards in total on the ground isn’t bad; but we’re going to need some more of it against that Ravens D to keep pressure off of Pennington.
2. Stopping the run. Larry Johnson ran wild out of the pistol two weeks ago, and the Ravens have been running all season. The first matchup between the Dolphins and the Ravens this year saw Jason Ferguson get nicked up, and having Randy Starks play NT because Paul Soliai was suspended. Le’Ron McClain has proven to be a load in recent weeks, and Willis McGahee still looms large. Giving up 80 yards on 21 attempts by the Jets was solid, but Leon Washington’s ability to rip off chunks of yardage was a bit alarming. Ray Rice could have a similar impact next Sunday, and if I recall correctly, Miami had a tough time slowing him down on several occasions in the first matchup.
3. Limit the big plays. Joe Flacco, if not for Matt Ryan, would be a sure-fire rookie of the year candidate on offense. Hell, he might even still win it. Obviously Baltimore’s defense has set him up several times throughout the course of the year, but the Dolphins secondary must stop the deep pass attempts. And you just know that Cam Cameron will have a little something up his sleeve for this one.
Conversely, Flacco, a rookie, will get his first taste of the playoffs which leads me to key number four.
4. Get after Joe Flacco. The Ravens line is big, but plodding - we must get after the pass-rusher this Sunday. Joey Porter, where’ve you been the last month? Aside from mop-up sacks against San Fran and Buffalo, you’ve not done much…Rattling Flacco early should help us get into a groove and force him into mistakes.
5. Stopping the run is imperative. If we rattle Flacco, Baltimore will likely try to keep running the ball down our throats. Channing Crowder, Akin Ayodele and Jason Ferguson must fill the gaps in the middle and bounce the bigger, slower McClain outside, and gang-tackle McGahee.
6. Do what we do. Play Miami Dolphins football. Any new wrinkle in the offense is a plus as far as I’m concerned. We showed quite a lot against the Jets, and the Ravens will have to prepare for that. I wonder what else is in our bag of tricks. Limit the turnovers, as per usual. Mistakes are killers against Baltimore (see Terrell Suggs prancing to the end zone earlier this year). That play broke that game open, and I believe Miami got of rhythm from that point on en route to the 27-13 loss. But we still had our chances despite that. We must learn from our mistakes.
I’m sure everyone who reads this can think of other keys to victory against the Ravens. But you get the general idea of what needs to be done to move on in the playoffs. Even if the worst should happen, it’s been a hell of a season. Color this Dolphins die-hard impressed with the tremendous turnaround in 2008. I’m even more excited to see what another free agency period and draft class can bring. But looking at what Jake Long, Phillip Merling, Kendall Langford, Donald Thomas, Davone Bess, Dan Carpenter, and Chad Henne have brought to the Dolphins this year and hold for our future, I’m pretty much giddy.
But for now, as far as I’m concerned, the Miami Dolphins are playing with house money. We weren’t supposed to be here, we weren’t supposed to dethrone the Patriots impressive run, we weren’t supposed to end Brett Favre’s careers (Yeremiah Bell you are my hero for that leveling shot you thumped Brett Favre with), but we are! The 2008 Miami Dolphins are playoff bound. I hope every fan is as impressed by this season as I am, and are as ready as I am to root on the Dolphins next Sunday against Baltimore. For the Trent Dilfer’s, Chris Berman’s, Dan Dierdorf’s, Jim Nantz’s (though he wasn’t bad today, Phil Simms was), and John Madden man crushing on the likes of Brett Favre, Tom Brady and/or Matt Cassel, this is our chance to stick it to all of them - they need another week of looking at what we’ve done. I’m glad we’re opening as a home dog. Hell, after this year, that’s the way I’d prefer it. It’s the way this lunch-pail group has done it this year, week after week, unexpectedly playing beyond what’s been expected and as for me - I’m ready for some more! Go Dolphins!
Kevin is a columnist for FinHeaven.com and has been a long time member of the site.He is an avid fan and brings a real fans perspective to you through his commentary. You can find him around on our boards as RoninFin54. Send him a PM and let him know what you think of his article.