Eric Hartz: Tony Sparano was hand-picked to coach the Dolphins by Bill Parcells and led the team to a remarkable turnaround in 2008. What did Parcells see in Sparano that made him think he was the guy to turn the franchise around, and how did he get the team to perform so much better in just one year?
Alain Poupart: Parcells saw in Sparano a guy who was extension of himself, who would act and talk and coach just like he did. Make no mistake, there's a lot of Bill Parcells in Tony Sparano. Sparano is a no-nonsense, no b.s. type of coach who is not afraid to get in a guy's face. He earned the respect of his players very quickly as a rookie head coach, which certainly wasn't the case as previous head coach Cam Cameron. His ability to get his players to buy into his program (having Parcells around clearly didn't hurt) immediately made the team better and then the arrival of a steady hand at quarterback like Chad Pennington was the final piece.
EH: Davone Bess, Greg Camarillo and Ted Ginn Jr caught 54, 55, and 56 passes in 2008, respectively. Do you expect one of these players to break out in 2009? Or will the Dolphins strive for similar balance this season?
AP: Everybody down here talked in the offseason about a breakout for Ginn because it's his third year in the NFL, and that's usually when wide receivers make the big jump. But at this point he still looks like almost purely a speed guy, and those type of receivers generally don't rack up a lot of catches, particularly when the team doesn't have a big arm at quarterback. In terms of receptions, the guy who could put up big numbers is Bess simply because he always seems to find a way to get open. But he's clearly a possession receiver, so his yards per catch average won't be very high. The fact of the matter is the Dolphins are badly lacking a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
EH: The "Wildcat" offense got a lot of attention last season. But how much do the Dolphins actually use it? Is it a legitimate offensive strategy or a gimmick? And, if it's the latter, has its time passed?
AP: Ah, the obligatory Wildcat question. I'm surprised that wasn't question No. 1. It most definitely is a legitimate offensive strategy and its time hasn't passed yet and won't pass until the Dolphins get stopped repeatedly. Miami didn't have success with it last week in Atlanta, running it three times for 4 yards. But on the one pass attempt, rookie quarterback Pat White had Ginn open downfield and simply overthrew him. Make no mistake, the Dolphins drafted White in the second round with the idea of being able to do more things out of the Wildcat, and last week was just the beginning. The Dolphins generally used it about a half-dozen times per game last year, and I would expect a similar dose, obviously depending on the flow of the game.
EH: One common thread between last season's playoff loss to Baltimore and last week's loss to Atlanta was turnovers — Miami had five turnovers against the Ravens and four against the Falcons. After just 13 turnovers all last season, they have nine in their last two games. Where did this turnover bug come from, and how do they get it fixed?
AP: I'm not a big fan of pounding on the turnover angle because in both of their last two meaningful games, the Dolphins were badly outplayed even without the turnovers. The offense simply couldn't move the ball against Baltimore in the playoffs and the same held true against Atlanta. Only one of the four turnovers against Atlanta occurred in Falcons territory, so it's not as though a lot of great scoring chances were wasted. In both the Baltimore and Atlanta games, the Dolphins were pounded up front. That's the bigger issue, and that's what needs to get fixed. The turnovers are a symptom, not the cause of the problem.
EH: Joey Porter made a huge impact for the Dolphins last season with 17.5 sacks. He'll be going up against a gimpy Charlie Johnson or Tony Ugoh Monday, who lost his job to Johnson in the offseason. Do these guys have any chance against Porter? How have the teams that have had success against Porter done it?
AP: Porter was shut out by Atlanta last week, and the reality is he was very quiet in the last month of last season as well. So I'm not sure I would view him right now as a scary pass rusher. So definitely Johnson or Ugoh have a shot against Porter, even though it doesn't appear that physically he has lost anything. Teams that had success sometimes double-teamed Porter, but oftentimes were able to block him with just one guy as well. I'm not so sure I wouldn't be more worried about Jason Taylor on the other side if I were the Colts.
EH: Jason Taylor is back in Miami after famously feuding with Bill Parcells last summer on his way out the door to Washington. How is Taylor getting along this time around? Is he showing signs of getting back to his old self, or is he on the downside of his career?
AP: Taylor would tell you the whole "feud" thing was Parcells was way overblown, even though it was obvious the Dolphins didn't care for Taylor doing the Hollywood thing with "Dancing With The Stars" and Taylor wanted to play for a contender (little did he know the Dolphins would be in the playoffs). After being released by Washington this offseason, Taylor basically told his agent it was the Dolphins or nobody else and eventually just told the Dolphins to make him an offer, any offer. That led to Taylor being signed for the bargain-basement price of $1.1 million. From all indications, Taylor and Parcells are just fine, and Taylor also is a fan of Tony Sparano's. As for how much he's got left, that's yet to be determined even though his new role as strongside linebacker in the 3-4 should prevent him from racking up the huge numbers he used to put up a few years ago.
EH: Chad Pennington seems to be perennially under-appreciated, but had a terrific season for the Dolphins in 2008. Is he firmly entrenched as Miami's QB, or is he just a few bad performances from being replaced by Chad Henne or Pat White?
AP: You're absolutely right about Pennington always being under-appreciated, but that comes with being a brainy quarterback with a below-average arm. The big thing about Pennington is he's in the last year of his contract and the Dolphins haven't made a major push to get him signed to an extension. It's clear that Chad Henne — most definitely not Pat White — is the quarterback of the future in Miami, and the feeling is that despite his great 2008 season his leash isn't nearly as long as some of the other starting QBs in the league.
EH: The Colts and Dolphins had a fierce rivalry during their AFC East days, but have played just twice since 2003. Who are some players on the Dolphins' defense fans should keep an eye on that might not be household names?
AP: Pretty much everybody on defense except for Porter and Taylor. They clearly are the two marquee players on a defense that has some talent but little fanfare. The guys to watch, though, probably would include rookie cornerback Sean Smith, a second-round pick from Utah who's got unusual size at 6-3 and great ball skills; defensive end Kendall Langford, an All-Rookie selection in 2008 who is very good against the run; and safety Yeremiah Bell, who along with Ricky Williams, is the only player who was with the Dolphins the last time they faced the Colts.
EH: This offense is certainly one of the more interesting and versatile in the NFL. A lot of players get involved and touch the ball, and it must be a challenge to prepare against. What have the teams that have had success shutting them down recently done? And can the Colts be one of those teams?
AP: It's very simple, and actually something that probably applies to most offenses: winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Dolphins have spent a lot of money on their offensive line (the number is $70 million in guaranteed money over the last two years), but it's coming off a horrible game at Atlanta when John Abraham and company wreaked havoc the whole day. That was the reason for the four turnovers. The Dolphins really have no game-breakers on offense (Ginn isn't there yet), so they usually have to put together long drives to score. That requires consistently winning the battle up front to get the running game going and avoiding negative plays, such as sacks, that can put the Dolphins in tough yardage situations. Let's face it, a third-and-8 for the Dolphins isn't the same thing as a third-and-8 for the Colts. The Dolphins offensive line is a lot better than it played against Atlanta, and improvement there is the team's first order of business.
EH: Finally, what's your prediction for Monday's game, and why?
AP: I do believe the Dolphins offensive line will get much better on Monday night and I do believe it will win the battle up front, which will make the offense that much more impressive. Don't look for the Dolphins to turn the ball over against the Colts, and it won't be because Anthony Fasano is more careful with the ball or Chad Pennington is more accurate with his throws. On the other side, there's reason to worry about the Dolphins defense stopping Peyton Manning, particularly with two rookie cornerbacks getting significant playing time. So I would imagine both teams would be able to score points and the game coming down to the fourth quarter. The home crowd at Land Shark Stadium will help, and in the end I can see the Dolphins making just a few more plays. Call me a homer if you'd like, but I see the Dolphins escaping with a 24-21 victory.
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