Running in Place?

Here we are, on the verge of closing out another playoff-less season, and it's clear the Dolphins have taken a step back after what overall was a fairly encouraging 2005 season. Now, we're back to just about where we were at the end of the 2004 season. Unfair? It's hard to really think otherwise.

It seemed the Dolphins franchise had hit rock bottom after the 4-12 fiasco of 2004, which was the result of the Ricky Williams departure, an offense without a quarterback, a defense that was good but never quite good enough and a dysfunctional coaching staff.

Can you say things are much different two years later?

Ricky Williams still can't be counted on. Sure, he's scheduled to return to the Dolphins in 2007, but would it surprise anyone if something happened between now and his expected return?

At quarterback, the Dolphins have nothing but question marks. Daunte Culpepper is no sure thing for next season because we just won't know how good he can be until the games start for real.

Joey Harrington already has proven -- he did it again against the Jets -- that he's not the long-term answer. Cleo Lemon? Sure, he had his moments in the second half against the Jets, but does he really look like a starting-caliber NFL quarterback?

That means that if Culpepper doesn't pan out, the Dolphins will be back at square one at the all-important quarterback spot, which means another season of too many games when the Dolphins score between 14-17 points.

There have been 10 games this season where the Dolphins have scored 17 or fewer; that's unacceptable. That's the exact same number as happened in 2004, and the Dolphins have one more game to top that.

The Dolphins offense of 2005 was no juggernaut, but at least Miami was able to get over 17 points 10 times, including six consecutive games with at least 23 points to close out the season.

The defense, meanwhile, is the same as it's always been.

The effort against the Jets was solid, but it collapsed after the Dolphins took a 7-3 lead in the fourth quarter.

First, it was Michael Lehan dropping an easy interception, only to see the Jets score a touchdown four plays later.

Then there was the screen pass to Leon Washington that gained 64 yards on the last play before the two-minute warning.

Look, championship-caliber defenses don't allow those type of plays at crunch time. The defense, put simply, don't have a championship-type defense.

Yes, the defensive line is very good. Zach Thomas is a tremendous linebacker. But there still is no playmaker in the secondary.

The Dolphins haven't had one since they traded Patrick Surtain to Kansas City. Yeremiah Bell looks like the guy who has the best chance of developing into someone like that, but for all his potential he has a brutal game against the Jets and still isn't there.

The defensive flaws are precisely why the Dolphins shouldn't be so conservative when it comes to going for it on fourth down. That was a major complaint of fans with Dave Wannstedt, but the truth is Nick Saban isn't much different.

Come on, kicking a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Jets 7-yard line with 2:19 left and the Jets leading by three? Are you kidding me?

What you're doing then is pinning the game on your defense to get you the ball back quickly with a three-and-out to kick another field goal, this time for the win.

But the likelihood of a three-and-out isn't necessarily that great, and it's more likely you're playing to go to overtime.

Besides, if you want to trust your defense to win the game, go for the first down and if you don't make it, then your great defense will stop the Jets, you use your remaining timeouts and you should get the ball back in great field position.

No, Saban took the conservative approach and it backfired on him. Just like it did so many times when Wannstedt was the head coach.

Sadly, this team looks just a little too much like that team of 2004. The record probably will end up being two games better, but that's because there haven't been major injuries on defense as there were in 2004 when both defensive tackles -- Larry Chester and Tim Bowens -- went down early in the season.

The rest of it? Pretty much the same.

That's not quite what we expected when Nick Saban took over as head coach. And that's what makes it all the more disappointing.

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