Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Dolphins, Part II

In Part II of an exclusive three-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and DolphinDigest.com's Alain Poupart continue their back-and-forth interaction with 10 questions from Craig to Alain. What's the biggest reason for Miami's amazing 2008 turnaround? How has Bill Parcells put his stamp on the team so quickly? What newcomers have had the biggest impact? These Q&As and more inside.

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: As the season nears mid-December, the Dolphins are 8-5 and in first place in the AFC East less than a year removed from a 1-15 finish. What description fits best: Shocking? Surprising? Or, Should have seen it coming?

Alain Poupart, Associate Editor, DolphinDigest.com: I think I'll go with B, surprising. I didn't go with shocking because of Bill Parcells' history of turning franchises around, and quickly. Remember that in 1997, he took over as head coach of a Jets team that went 1-15 the previous year and guided it to a 9-7 finish his first year. That said, no one really expected the Dolphins to either be 8-5 at this point or find themselves in control of their destiny when it comes to winning the AFC East. As important as Parcells' arrival, though, was the signing of Chad Pennington in August. It was when he arrived that the possibilities for this team really started getting interesting.


Craig Massei: What is the biggest reason for this amazing turnaround? Are the Dolphins really as good as their record? Were they a lot better than their record indicated last year?

Alain Poupart: Three-part question, and I'll address first the biggest reason for the turnaround. It's a close call between Parcells and Pennington, but I'll go with Pennington. The Dolphins have had mediocre quarterbacking since 2000 and that's held back some teams that otherwise could have been very good. On the flip side, Pennington has played so well that he's made what really is a no-better-than-decent team overall into a very solid team. For part two of the question, I'll defer to Parcells, who always has been fond of saying, "You are what your record says you are." The Dolphins are not an 8-5 team that you look at and think it could be 12-1, and they've definitely benefited from a soft schedule. But it's also a fact that this team has been playing very well of late and doing whatever it's had to to win. Finally, last year they would have been a lot better than their record with better coaching and more depth. The front-line guys formed a decent enough squad, but guys 35 to 53 on the roster were below NFL caliber and it didn't help that Cam Cameron was in way over his head as a head coach.


Craig Massei: Bill Parcells always seems to have a big impact right away on every team he ever has been associated with. Can you describe the impact he has made on the 2008 Dolphins and how he has put his stamp on the team so quickly?

Alain Poupart: The impact Parcells has made his implement a philosophy, and that philosophy is the Dolphins are going to work very hard, they're going to be disciplined, they're going to be tough. Those are the kind of players the Dolphins retained from last year's team and the kind of players they went out and acquired this offseason.


Craig Massei: Parcells took a chance on Tony Sparano as his coach. How is Sparano doing in his first season as a NFL head coach, and why does he seem to be such a good fit for this team? How has he been able to avoid the struggles that usually find first-year coaches that take over losing teams?

Alain Poupart: The record tells you the kind of job Sparano has done, and the word would be "excellent." The reason is such he's a good fit is that he embodies what Parcells is all about. You want to do a football movie, you cast Sparano in the role of the coach. He looks the part, he talks the part and he acts the part. He quickly earned the players' respect because he was straight up with them from the start. Before he ever played a game, he already had done a better job than Cameron, whose players didn't think much of him. Sparano will yell at players, but he doesn't do in nearly as condescending a way as Nick Saban used to do when he was in Miami. For the final part of the question, I'd point that both Mike Smith in Atlanta and John Harbaugh in Baltimore have had tremendous success, so I'm not so sure a first-year coach having quick success is so unusual.


Craig Massei: The Dolphins obviously must have a lot of new parts that are contributing, but how big was it for them to be able to get a veteran of Chad Pennington's caliber to come in and play quarterback? It's so difficult to get good QB play in the NFL, and it sure appears that Pennington has brought that to the Dolphins. How well is he playing, and how important has that been to the team?

Alain Poupart: Again, this is a question that's been somewhat answered, but it bears repeating: The Dolphins are not 8-5 without Pennington, not even close. In fact, I would include him in the MVP conversation. That's how good he's been. Just look at his numbers. His completion percentage is 66.4 percent, he has a passer rating of 93.7, and his six interceptions are the biggest reason the team has a chance to set a new record for fewest giveaways in a 16-game season. On top of that, he's made clutch plays time and time, particularly in the fourth quarter of games. Being able to get him, thanks to the Jets making the trade for Brett Favre, will go down as one of the most fortunate events ever for this franchise.


Craig Massei:What other newcomers, and what other changes that the team has made, have been vital to the Dolphins' turnaround?

Alain Poupart: Aside from Pennington, other newcomers who have made an impact include undrafted rookie wide receiver Davone Bess, rookie offensive tackle Jake Long, former 49ers guard Justin Smiley (until he sustained a season-ending leg injury in the victory at St. Louis two Sundays ago), nose tackle Jason Ferguson, rookie defensive end Kendall Langford and kicker Dan Carpenter. Of those, it's Long and Smiley who have made the biggest difference because they've helped solidify what has for too long been a bad offensive line. In terms of other overall changes made, it's pretty much the attitude and the Wildcat formation, which has made their offense perhaps more difficult to defend.


Craig Massei: We caught Ricky Williams' act a while back when he was here in Northern California doing some … uh … ‘meditation.' How did that pothead ever get another chance with the Dolphins, and is there any lingering resentment or something of that sort from the way he flaked on the team earlier? Is Williams a good soldier now, or is he still something of a problem child?

Alain Poupart: Let me guess, you're not a big Ricky Williams fan? I, on the other hand, happen to really like the guy, both as a person and a football player. Look, he's a different type of guy, not an all-football-and-nothing-else matters kind of guy. Say what you want about him, but he's always been a hard worker when he's been on the team and that hasn't changed this year. And, no, there is no lingering resentment toward him from his teammates. The only issue anybody ever had, really, was the timing of his "retirement" in 2004 when he did it right before training camp. Ricky Williams is a very smart guy, and he's also a brilliant running back in his ability to recognize where the hole is.


Craig Massei: Jason Taylor was practically an icon in Miami. How much has he been missed since he danced away from the Dolphins, just not on the field but also in the locker room and among the fan base?

Alain Poupart: Hmm, let's see, the Dolphins were 1-15 with Taylor, they're 8-5 without him, so the answer is, no, he hasn't been missed. The fans down here have been so starved for a winning team we have barely heard the names of Taylor and Zach Thomas, who were two fixtures here on defense for so long. His pass rushing hasn't been missed nearly as much as it otherwise might have been because of the season Joey Porter has had, but it is interesting to wonder just how destructive that pass rush could have been with Porter on one side and Taylor (obviously, a healthy Taylor) on the other.


Craig Massei: Despite Taylor's absence, the Dolphins' pass rush still has looked pretty stout this year. Obviously, Joey Porter has stepped it up and is having a monster year. Does everything revolve around Porter in the pass rush in particular and the defensive scheme in general? How much better does he make the players around him when he's such a force on the edge?

Alain Poupart: The 3-4 defense is designed for the linebackers to make the big plays while the defensive linemen do the grunt work. Porter is back playing weak-side linebacker in a 3-4, which is what he did in Pittsburgh for so long. It's a perfect fit for his skills. I wouldn't necessarily say everything revolves around him on defense, but he's clearly the key to the pass rush. In fact, the one complaint here lately has been that nobody else has really stepped up in the pass rush. But backup OLB Charlie Anderson had a big game last week, so maybe he's the guy who's going to respond down the stretch.


Craig Massei: The Dolphins are in the top half of the NFL in both total offense and total defense a year after finishing in the bottom third of the league in both categories. That indicates nice balance, but are special teams Miami's Achilles' heel? Statistically, they appear to be some of the worst in the league. How much are they hurting the Dolphins, and what's up with Ted Ginn as a returner? Has he made any impact in that role whatsoever? Has he been a disappointment in that area?

Alain Poupart: Yes, special teams have been a problem all year. The kick coverage has been the issue, with the Dolphins giving up punt returns for touchdowns against Houston and Oakland, and giving up 80-plus-yard kickoff returns to Denver and New England. The coverage has been better in recent weeks, and Coach Tony Sparano has had rookie kicker Dan Carpenter vary his kickoffs (pooch, squib, directional, you name it) to help in that regard. The other problem is the Dolphins have gotten little from their return game. Ted Ginn Jr. is a burner, but he's a straight-line runner, so if there's no big opening immediately in front of him, he doesn't get much accomplished. On the positive side, both Carpenter (19-for-22 on field goals) and punter Brandon Fields have had good years.

PART III: Make sure to check back on both SFIllustrated.com and DolphinDigest.com as Alain and Craig conclude the series with a closer look at Sunday's game with key matchups, keys to the game, why each team will win and why each will lose, and final predictions.



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