The Miami Dolphins have found the sizzle they've been so desperately seeking. Now it's time to see if there's any substance to go along with it.
Determined to create a buzz in a city that's become captivated by LeBron James and the NBA's Heat, owner Stephen Ross got his wish for some desired star power with the Dolphins' trade for Reggie Bush in late July. And while the arrival of the electrifying running back should generate some excitement among both Ross' celebrity clientele and a fan base that's grown more and more apathetic over the team's recent run of mediocrity, it's also a move that adds more weight on the already sore shoulders of head coach Tony Sparano and quarterback Chad Henne.
Bush wasn't just brought in to boost ticket sales. The hope is the former New Orleans Saint can breathe some life into an offense that was overtly stale during last season's 7-9 disappointment, Miami's fourth losing campaign in the last five years. The Dolphins were the third-lowest scoring team in the NFL in 2010, mustering 15 points or less nine times over the course of the schedule.
"I think we all talked about having exciting brand of football," said Ross. "We're addressing one of our biggest needs. Everybody criticized us for was about [a lack of] speed. I think we're certainly showing that that's a thing that the Miami Dolphins will have plenty of."
Henne received plenty of blame as well for Miami's poor production after putting forth a maddeningly erratic season, and the Dolphins' brass didn't hide their diminishing faith in the young field general with their very public flirtation with Denver's Kyle Orton just prior to training camp. While a proposed deal with the Broncos ultimately fell through, it's as clear as the waters of the Biscayne Bay that 2011 will be a make-or-break year for the impending free agent.
The same could be said for Sparano, whose teams have composed back-to-back sub-.500 records after he guided Miami to a surprise AFC East title in his first year at the helm in 2008. Ross briefly courted then-Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh in January, shortly after the Dolphins ended last season with a humiliating three-game losing streak, before having to do a messy about-face and extending Sparano's contract by two years through 2013.
While that decision may show a recommitment to the current regime on the surface, Ross has also made it no secret that he expects the Dolphins to win -- and win soon.
"We're going to do everything we can to be [in the postseason]," he said. "They (Sparano and general manager Jeff Ireland) have all the resources they need. I want to give them all the support that any owner can give anybody, and that���s how I look at it.
"I bought this team to really bring a winner. Not to see how much money I can make."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Miami Dolphins, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 7-9 (3rd, AFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2008, lost to Baltimore, 27-9 in AFC Wild Card
COACH (RECORD): Tony Sparano (25-23 in three seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Brian Daboll (first season with Dolphins)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Nolan (second season with Dolphins)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Brandon Marshall, WR (86 receptions, 1014 yards, 3 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Cameron Wake, OLB (57 tackles, 14 sacks)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 21st overall (21st rushing, 16th passing), 30th scoring (17.1 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 6th overall (7th rushing, 8th passing), tied 13th scoring (20.8 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: RB Reggie Bush (from Saints), FB Charles Clay (6th Round, Tulsa), C Mike Pouncey (1st Round, Florida), OT Marc Colombo (from Cowboys), ILB Kevin Burnett (from Chargers), QB Matt Moore (from Panthers), QB Kevin O'Connell (from Jets), RB Daniel Thomas (2nd Round, Kansas State), RB Larry Johnson (free agent), OT Ray Willis (from Seahawks), NT Ronald Fields (from Broncos), OLB Jason Taylor (from Jets), OLB Jason Trusnik (from Browns), ILB Marvin Mitchell (from Saints), ILB David Nixon (from Rams)
KEY DEPARTURES: RB Ronnie Brown (to Eagles), ILB Channing Crowder (released), QB Chad Pennington (not tendered), QB Tyler Thigpen (to Bills), RB Ricky Williams (to Ravens), RB Patrick Cobbs (to Saints), C Cory Procter (not tendered), OG Pat McQuistan (to Titans), ILB Tim Dobbins (to Texans), OLB Quentin Moses (not tendered), S Jonathan Amaya (to Saints)
QB: Henne (3301 passing yards, 15 TD in 2010) displayed real promise in his first season as an NFL starter in 2009, compiling an encouraging 7-6 record and flashing above-average arm strength and accuracy. However, last year's performance was a step backward for the former second-round draft pick. He threw 19 interceptions, all but four of which came in Miami losses, and needs to show better decision making in order for he and his team to reach the next level. After making an unsuccessful run at Orton, the Dolphins settled on ex- Carolina reject Matt Moore (857 passing yards, 5 TD, 10 INT) to replace the exiting Chad Pennington as the No. 2 quarterback. The fifth-year pro did have his moments in a 10-start stint with the Panthers over the past two seasons, and possesses enough ability and experience to be at least a serviceable backup. The likely front-runner for the third-string job is Kevin O'Connell, a third-round choice of the Patriots in 2008 who's failed in previous stops in New England and with the New York Jets.
RB: Bush (150 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 1 TD) never had the opportunity to be a feature back in New Orleans, but the dynamic playmaker will get every chance to prove himself in his new home. His top-notch receiving skills will be a boost to a Miami passing game that was stagnant for much of last season, but whether he can handle the stress of an increased workload remains to be seen. Bush played in only eight games in 2010 due to a broken leg, and missed time in each of the previous three years with knee injuries. To help ease the burden on their new offensive centerpiece, the Dolphins drafted Kansas State's Daniel Thomas in the second-round of April's draft and plan to use the 230-pounder as a grinder between the tackles, though the rookie hasn't yet completely won the coaching staff's trust during a ho-hum preseason. Miami also added two-time 1,000-yard rusher Larry Johnson midway through camp, though it's questionable the 31-year-old has anything left after spending most of last year on the street. Another rookie to watch is sixth-rounder Charles Clay, a fullback/hybrid tight end who caught 189 passes in four years at the University of Tulsa. His hands and versatility could make veteran lead blocker Lousaka Polite (62 rushing yards, 1 TD, 12 receptions) expendable.
WR/TE: Henne won't have a scarcity of capable weapons to work with when he drops back to pass. Top receiver Brandon Marshall (86 receptions, 1014 yards, 3 TD) is a two-time Pro Bowler with three 100-plus catch seasons under his belt, sure-handed Davone Bess (79 receptions, 5 TD) is one of the league's better slot receivers and third-year man Brian Hartline (43 receptions, 1 TD) has averaged better than 15 yards per reception over his short career. More big- play potential was added to the mix with the selection of rookie Clyde Gates, who ran a blistering 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash at this year's combine, in the fourth round of the most recent draft, though the small-school project remains raw in his technique. Tight end Anthony Fasano (39 receptions, 4 TD) is a Sparano favorite and a stout in-line blocker who set career bests in both catches and receiving yards (528) in 2010. He'll again team with young reserves Jeron Mastrud and Mickey Shuler in double sets, a formation where Clay may be utilized as well.
OL: After struggling to sustain continuity along the front line a year ago -- a factor in the the team's lackluster overall showing on offense -- the Dolphins took steps to address the situation in the offseason. Miami used its first- round choice on University of Florida standout Mike Pouncey, the twin brother of Steelers' Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, and will immediately install the talented 22-year-old in the middle in place of pedestrian incumbent Joe Berger. Ex-Cowboy Marc Colombo was signed to take over at right tackle and move veteran Vernon Carey inside to guard, where the staff wasn't enthralled about the play of 2010 third-rounder John Jerry last season. The left side remains intact and is a strength, as tackle Jake Long earned first-team All-Pro honors in spite of playing through a dislocated shoulder and feisty guard Richie Incognito turned in a solid year. Depth is also good with Berger and Jerry both former regulars and Nate Garner, injured for all of 2010, able to fill in at either guard or tackle. There's still concerns over the unit's overall effectiveness, however, as Pouncey will be thrown into the fire as a rookie and both Colombo and Carey have been showing signs of regression recently.
DL: The Dolphins finished seventh in the NFL in rushing defense (100.1 ypg) last season, in no small part due to the large presence of nose tackle Paul Soliai (39 tackles, 2 sacks) in the middle of the line. An underachiever through his first three seasons, the 355-pound plugger emerged as an interior force and was rewarded with a $12.3 million franchise tender for his efforts. He's the anchor of a quality three-man front that also contains two impact ends in returnees Randy Starks (30 tackles, 3 sacks) and Kendall Langford (47 tackles, 3 sacks) and a first-round pick behind them in second-year pro Jared Odrick, back from a leg fracture which limited him to just one game as a rookie. Phillip Merling, another high draft selection hampered by injuries last year, also figures in the rotation along with valued vet Tony McDaniel (36 tackles, 2.5 sacks), with ex-Bronco Ronald Fields (22 tackles) picked up in the offseason to back up Soliai.
LB: Pass-rushing terror Cameron Wake (57 tackles) is one of the league's great stories, having toiled for two years in Canada before joining the Dolphins as a 27-year-old free agent in 2009. After compiling 5 1/2 sacks in a backup role that year, the outside linebacker burst into stardom by notching 14 quarterback takedowns last season, tied for the third-highest total in the NFL. He's the headliner of an excellent four-man crew that also sports two high-caliber inside defenders in Karlos Dansby (95 tackles, 3 sacks) and free-agent pickup Kevin Burnett (95 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 INT), signed to a four-year deal following a career year with the Chargers. Sophomore Koa Misi (41 tackles, 2.5 sacks) fills out the starting group after delivering a solid debut alongside Wake, though he'll rotate with franchise icon Jason Taylor (36 tackles, 5 sacks), Miami's all-time sack leader who was brought back for a third tour of duty with the team after a one-year stop with the rival Jets. Two other newcomers, Jason Trusnik (24 tackles, 1 sack with Browns) and Marvin Mitchell (43 tackles, 1 sack with Saints), were added to further comprise the depth ranks and aid on special teams.
DB: Miami sports a young and skilled cornerback combo in 2009 first-round pick Vontae Davis (54 tackles, 1 INT, 12 PD) and Sean Smith (51 tackles, 1 INT), a second-round grab in that same draft who brings imposing size at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, while eighth-year pro Benny Sapp (41 tackles, 2 INT, 10 PD) provides the secondary with a proven nickel defender in the slot. The Dolphins also own one of the league's top run-stopping safeties in the physical Yeremiah Bell (101 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT), who's led the team in tackles in each of the last three years. Free safety has been a camp battle between Chris Clemons (61 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT), a 15-game starter in 2010, and second-year man Reshad Jones (21 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), with special-teams ace Tyrone Culver (25 tackles) once again slotted in as Bell's understudy. Veteran Will Allen (21 tackles, 2 INT) is also back from an injury-shortened last season, though the 33-year-old will have to hold off challenges from second-year holdover Nolan Carroll and impressive rookie Jimmy Wilson (7th Round, Montana) to maintain his roster spot.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Though the Dolphins were dreadful in kick and punt coverage -- which triggered the dismissal of coordinator John Bonamengo in October -- and hardly special in most phases of this all-important area, punter Brandon Fields stood out as one bright spot. The strong-legged 27-year-old ranked third in the AFC with a 46.2 yard gross average and placed a career-best 31 kicks inside the 20-yard line, fourth-best in the conference. Kicker Dan Carpenter was among the league leaders with 30 field goals made, but misfired on 11 of his 41 attempts one year after connecting on a sharp 25-of-28 tries. Bess averaged a respectable 11.4 yards per punt return but could yield those duties at times to Bush, owner of four career scores in that department. Carroll (24.3 avg.) did a decent job as Miami's main kick returner last season, though he's facing competition from both Gates and undrafted rookie receiver Phillip Livas in the preseason.
PROGNOSIS: Ross has upped the urgency following a second straight lower- division finish, and it's evident that both Sparano and Henne are feeling the heat from both the fans and media following last year's poor closeout. Fortunately, the Dolphins do possess a playoff-caliber defense that should keep the team in games, and there are enough playmakers at the skill positions that an upgrade from its poor 2010 point total is feasible. How much Miami improves depends on how Henne performs in his contract year. If he can play at a reasonably high level, the Dolphins can indeed make some noise in the AFC. If not, expect a new coach and quarterback to be taking their talents to South Beach in 2012.