My gut feeling here is 8-8 or 9-7. I would like to think this team can catch the lightning they had in 2008 and make it to 10 or 11 wins again, but I don't see Chad Pennington suddenly dropping into Sun Life Stadium. The "experts" have predicted everything from 3-13 to 11-5. I will safely say they are somewhere in between.
Everyone focuses on the fact that Chad Henne had an off year last year, and he is still the quarterback. They don't look at the improved offensive line, the improvements at wide receiver, and the improvement in the short passing game/speed rusher that Reggie Bush brings. With a 7-9 record last year, I think this team will at least get to 8-8, and more likely 9-7, saving head coach Tony Sparano and general manager Jeff Ireland's jobs in the process.
Best Game on the Schedule
Three games jump out immediately.
Opening night, the Dolphins host the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football. Talk about a way to start the season. This could set the tone for the early portion of the Miami schedule, given the Dolphins follow this up with a game against a team they've never beat (Houston), an up-and-coming team (Cleveland), and a team out on the west coast (San Diego).
The next one is the Thanksgiving game against the Cowboys. This will mark the first time that Sparano and Ireland have taken the Dolphins to Dallas, since they came over to Miami from the Cowboys in 2008. With all the connections between these two teams, and both teams looking to improve after a disappointing 2010, this could be a huge game.
And finally, Week 17, the Dolphins host the New York Jets. Dolphins fans hate the Jets. Jets fans hate the Dolphins. What better way to finish the year?
If you held me to one game, I would probably go with Week 1 - but by the time we get to Week 17, that's one what everyone will be focused.
Player Who Takes a Step Back This Year.
Kicker Dan Carpenter worries me. I really don't have anything that makes me doubt he will rebound from an off 2010, but I can't seem to shake the idea that something is wrong with Carpenter. At the Phinsider, we started calling Carpenter "DC$" - or D.C.Money - back in his rookie year in 2008. It felt like, whenever Carpenter walked on to the field, you could go ahead and put up three points. He hit 84% of his kicks that year,and increased it the next year to 89.3%. In fact, he was ahead of the all time accuracy record by 0.2%, with a career rating of 86.7%, needing to get to 100 attempts before taking his spot in the record book. But, it all came to a halt last year. Suddenly a guy with record setting accuracy dropped off, finishing with a 73.2% - dropping him to 80.9% for his career, four kicks short of qualifying for the record. I don't know if something really is wrong with DC$, but I'm not sure he can get back up into the 80+% range either. He could, very easily, continue to drop off this year.
This is funny, because I was having a discussion just yesterday about this. The Dolphins have always had a highly recognizable player - Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Dan Marino, Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor - but who do they have now? JT is back, but he's not the player he was in his prime. So who is it?
I think the term "breakout player" indictaes a player who suddenly everyone knows. If that's the case, there are several in Miami, even if they performed exceptionally last year. An example is linebacker Cameron Wake. Wake finished third in the league with 14.0 sacks last year, yet no one knows who he is.
Then you have our stars in the making on the outside. Cornerbacks Sean Smith and Vontae Davis are a force. Around the league and among the players, you hear about them. Quarterbacks don't challenge them. But, they don't have the interception numbers to garner the media attention, and they don't have Rex Ryan to declare them Smith or Davis Island.
On offense, I think tackle Jake Long will get more attention. Maybe he's not a "breakout" player, since he's regarded as one of the top tackles in the game, and a potential Hall of Famer just three years into his career - but I think his stock will rise even more with the improvement on the O-line.
And finally, wide receiver Brian Hartline. Hartline is developing very quickly into a solid wide out for the Dolphins. He and Henne seem to be on the same page, and they work well together. With the attention that Brandon Marshall brings on the opposite side of the offense, and the emergence of Davone Bess as a slot reception machine, I think Hartline could have a big year.
Best Player On The Dolphins No One Has Heard Of
A bunch of the players above would qualify in this role as well. But, I am going to say fullback Louaska Polite. Polite started to gain some notoriety in 2009 when he couldn't be stopped on short yardage. He dominated. But, he fell off a little last year. The Dolphins pride themselves on being a power run team. If they are going to succeed running the ball, Polite is literally going to have to lead the way. I think, if he can return to some of his 2009 form, Polite could quickly come off this list.
The Dolphins Are Underrated At...
Can I say "The Dolphins?" With people like ESPN's Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic predicting 3-13 or 4-12 records, respectively, the Dolphins are being HUGELY underrated this year.
If I were writing this a couple of weeks ago, the easy answer would have been Channing Croowder. Crowder never seemed able to make the big play, but for some reason, his presence elevated the defense. He was a running stopper. But, all anyone ever saw was his mouth. However, he's (temporarily) retired now, so I have to look somewhere else.
I'm going to answer Yeremiah Bell. Bell was drafted by the Dolphins in '03, spent that year on the practice squad, two more years as a reserve player, before cracking the starting lineup in 2006. He's been there ever since (not coutiing the second part of the '07 season when he was on IR). Bell has broken the 100 tackle mark each of the last three years, leading the Dolphins for each of the years since Zach Thomas left.
I'll give an honorable mention to defensive end Kendall Langford. He's not the franchise tagged defensive tackle Paul Soliai, or the Pro Bowl defensive end Randy Starks, but Langford always seems to be in on the play. Great job, but doesn't get a lot of notice.
The Dolphins Are Overrated At...
This one was easy for me. The Wildcat. The Dolphins took the league, and especially the Patriots, by surprise when they unveiled the Wildcat formation in 2008. Since then, the formation has been adopted by nearly every team, and is not the huge gains offense it was when the Dolphins first started using it. But, realistically, that's not what it was ever made to be. The Wildcat offense is another form of the power running game the Dolphins utilize. Now, you have to worry about two play-making running backs on the field. The downside is, although Ronnie Brown did throw the ball a few times, there was never a passing threat when the Dolphins lined up in the formation. The media took off with the Wildcat love, and they made it sound like Miami's entire offense was the Wildcat. The Dolphins made it popular, but never used it as their base offense. It was always a portion of the running game.
I would expect the Dolphins to utilize the Wildcat even less this year, but new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll did run it, and run it well, in Cleveland, so it may not be completely dead in Miami, yet.
Fantasy Football Outlook
It's very hard to love anyone on the Dolphins this year. Their strength is going to be the defense, so that's probably the top of the fantasy outlook.
Chad Henne will, most likely, continue to be up and down. He'll gain you a ton of points one game, only to follow it up with something less than ordinary.
Wide receiver Brandon Marshall should have a better year. When you only catch three touchdown passes on 86 receptions and 1,014 yards, you would think the fantasy points have to go up, right? He has to find the endzone more often that last year. Davone Bess could be a good 3-4 wide receiver in a PPR league. He caught 79 passes last year, with only 820 yards. I would expect him to be in the 85-95 catches range this year, if the Dolphins do stick to their "explosive" new offense. And, as I said above, Brian Hartline could be a sleeper late in the draft. He has a huge upside, and with Marshall and Bess drawing the attention, he could find himself open for big gains - but that's a huge "COULD."
At the running back spot, the Dolphins now have Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas. Bush will be Bush, gaining you some big plays, but not reliable enough, fantasy wise, to consider as a top running back. Thomas will be interesting. He's built to be a work horse running back, but so far in training camp, he hasn't shown the ability. Part of that could be the offensive line's lack of cohesion, but it could also be a problem with Thomas. I have seen him going in mid-to-late rounds of various drafts, and I would take him there, as long as I felt comfortable with my top two running backs already.
Best Media Personality In Miami
Back in April, Miami's top media personality lost his fight with cancer. Jim "Mad Dog" Mandich was a huge part of the Dolphins experience in Miami. Miami great, former linebacker Zach Thomas, probably expressed Mad Dog the best:
"He spoke from the heart, and that's why everybody loved him. He wasn't the guy to be negative. He wasn't that he he just told it like it was and that's why everybody loved him. I loved to listen to him on the radio because he knew what he was talking about. Also, I remember after tough games, I wasn't ready to talk to any reporterd and he was down there, waiting to do the radio. I mean, after having a tough game and losing, you'd look at him, and he looked like he was worn out, because it bothered him just as much, or more, than even the player. You never really see that with reporters, but his love and passion for the team, and thee game were second to none. He was a guy you always wanted to bee around, and that's why I hated to see over this last year him going through this sickness."
While no one can ever replace Mad Dog, Miami's best media personality right now is Jeff Darlington. Darlington covers the Dolphins for the Miami Herald and is often seen on ESPN, Miami's CBS4, and other TV networks, along with multiple radio stations.
Best Players to Follow on Twitter
Cornerback Sean Smith - Very active on Twitter. Seems to "get" the fans - @SeanSmith4
Cornerback Vontae Davis - Very active on Twitter, like his best friend Smith. Funny and down to Earth. - @VontaeDavis21
Running back Reggie Bush - Extremely personable, always communicating with the fans. Seems to love being in Miami and talking with people. - @reggie_bush
Linebacker Kevin Burnett - New addition to the Dolphins, but immediately came in, started taking questions and interacting with the fans, following everyone who wrote to him - @KevinBurnett47
Hall of Famer Dan Marino - He's not very active, but it's Dan Marino. If you call yourself a Dolphins fan, you have to follow #13. - @DanMarino