The Dolphins have continually produced a quality product to put out on the field, but they have never reached elite status. Not since 1992 have they advanced past the second round of the playoffs and it has been 19 years since they have appeared in the Super Bowl.
They consistently have quality players; currently MLB Zach Thomas, DE Jason Taylor, WR’s Chris Chambers and David Boston and RB Ricky Williams, but head coach Dave Wannstedt has lacked a big-time quarterback to run the team. They are hoping that issue has been rectified with the offseason acquisition of former Eagle’s third-stringer A.J. Feely, who was brought in to challenge incumbent Jay Fiedler.
Wannstedt was forced to change offensive coordinators twice during the offseason when 2003 offensive coordinator Norv Turner was hired on by Oakland as their head coach and first choice Joel Collier (now the Dolphins’ running backs coach) was forced to step down due to exhaustion. Wannstedt settled on former Indianapolis tight ends coach Chris Foerster who brings with him the two-tight end formations that are so prevalent in the Colts’ offensive scheme.
The Dolphin defense is the strongest unit on the team and they should continue to excel. Wannstedt is a defensive coach at heart and defensive coordinator Jim Bates runs an attacking defense that blitzes little and depends on players making plays with basic schemes designed to let the players fly to the ball. Miami finished 10th overall in the NFL surrendering 299.2 yards per game, while ranking 6th in the NFL in takeaways with 36.
Offense: Luckily for Foerster, he already has a lot of the components to run the power type offense he plans to install.
At RB, Williams is a bruiser who keeps pounding away all game, gaining most of his yards during the second half of games. His average dropped almost a yard and a half from 2002 going from 4.8 to 3.5 last year. Poor offensive line play was the major cause, as well as a QB who couldn’t challenge defenses down the field. Teams stacked the line of scrimmage by bring up safeties to stop Williams and thus the entire Dolphin offense.
Even with all this, Williams was still able to manage 1,372 yards on the ground with nine TDs, while also catching 50 passes out of the backfield for 351 yards and one TD. Williams is great between the tackles, excels at cutting back in the hole, and doesn’t go down on the first hit. He has carried the ball 775 times in the last two seasons and if the Dolphins aren’t careful he could wear down quickly.
Look for the Dolphins to work in three-year veteran Travis Minor who is more of a scat-back, change-of-pace type back. Minor runs well outside the tackles, but also isn’t afraid to mix it up between the tackles.
Fiedler is the penciled in starter behind center heading into training camp, but fans should expect to see A.J. Feeley taking snaps when the season opens. Feeley, who did not play in 2003, was 4-1 in starts for Philadelphia in 2002 and the Dolphins gave up a 2005 second rounder to acquire his services. He has a decent arm and he has great touch. Fiedler started 11 games in 2003 and passed for 2,138 yards and 11 TD’s with 13 INT’s. He lacks arm-strength and mobility, but he is accurate (career average 59.4%) and he makes quick decisions.
If WR David Boston can keep his head straight and his motivation at a high level, the Dolphins may have one of the most dangerous starting wideout tandems in the league. Boston is huge (6’2”, 250 lbs) and fast. He is great in the open field and has the ability, with his size and strength, to go up in traffic and come down with the ball. Boston posted sub-par numbers in San Diego in 2003, catching 70 balls for 880 yards and seven TDs, but then again, he was the only target in San Diego. The Dolphins are hoping for a return to his 2001 form when he posted MVP type numbers for the Arizona Cardinals (98 receptions for 1,598 yards and eight TDs).
Chambers is an emerging force on the other side. He plays bigger than his 5’11” frame would suggest and he has great hands. He has good speed and has really polished his route-running skills. In 2003, he caught 64 passes for 963 yards and 11 TDs. He is also a great blocker down-field, which is a big key for this offense. Terrance Wilkins and Derrius Thompson will be the third and fourth receivers. Thompson is more of a possession receiver and Wilkins is better as a slot-receiver in the three wideout sets.
The Dolphins are lucky to have one of the best tight ends in the NFL playing in their offense. Two-year veteran TE Randy McMichael is on the cusp of stardom. He can stretch the deep-seam with his speed and has great hands; however, he is only an average blocker. John Jones and Donald Lee back up McMichael, with Lee seeing the most time as the second tight end. As of this writing, McMichael’s status is up in the air after being involved with a domestic disturbance with his pregnant wife.
The offensive line is the sore spot of the unit. In the offseason, the Dolphins replaced four of their five starters. Cohesiveness will not be an option early in the year, but they do have some athletes who can play. LT Wade Smith has good footwork and long arms. He is athletic, but very young (only in his second season). A solid free agent acquisition during the offseason was LG Jeno James. He is a superb run-blocker who has five years of starting under his belt. Former Ram John St. Clair and rookie Vernon Carey figure to battle it out for the starting RT spot. Carey is athletic and huge (6’4”, 363 lbs) and figures to be starting sooner rather than later. Seth McKinney is the center and he is a good leader who can pull on sweeps. The LG position right now is Greg Jerman but Taylor Whitley will challenge him during camp.
The Dolphin offense struggled in 2003 finishing 24th in the league in total offense at 288.1 yards. They must do a better job of stretching the field so teams can’t stack the line against Williams. If they don’t it could be a very long season.
Defense: This is the strength of the team and they will need to continue their stellar play if the Dolphins have any chance at the playoffs.
At DE, Adewale Ogunleye and Taylor form one of the best end combinations in the league. Taylor is lightning quick and very active. He plays on the weak-side of the offensive formation and registered 13 sacks in 2003. He is strong at the point of attack and he has a knack for causing fumbles when he wraps up the QB. Ogunleye is a restricted free agent and may not be back. If he does return he brings an active motor and solid pass-rushing skills for a young player. His 15 sacks led the Dolphins and placed him second in the entire NFL.
At tackle, the Dolphins have two massive run-stuffers who do not offer much in the way of a pass-rush. 10-year veteran DT Tim Bowens and six-year man Larry Chester are big, space-eaters. They will rotate with 34 year-old Jeff Zgonina. The Dolphins need to hope they don’t lose Ogunleye or Taylor for a significant amount of time otherwise their aging tackles will be exposed.
At linebacker, Thomas is the leader of the entire defense. He makes all the calls and plays from sideline to sideline. Thomas is a tackling machine, leading the Dolphins with 153 tackles last season. He is also adept at dropping into coverage, something he has worked very hard on during his career, intercepting three passes and knocking down ten others.
LB Junior Seau had a solid season on the outside. He appeared to be an injury waiting to happen in his final few seasons with San Diego, but 2003 saw him bounce back with an injury-free season. He finished third on the team with 96 tackles and seven tackles for loss. He still plays with abandon, but he is not able to cover backs out of the backfield like he used to. The other outside spot will be a battle between second-year man Eddie Moore and veteran Morlon Greenwood. Greenwood is solid, but Moore is more athletic.
At corner the Dolphins have two good ones in Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison. Surtain is a shut-down corner who is one of the best in the league at man-to-man. He finished tied for fourth in the NFL with seven INT’s and led the Dolphins with 13 passes defensed.
Madison had an off-year for a player of his talents. He struggles in zone coverage as he lacks the recovery speed to break on balls. He still managed three INT’s and 10 passes defensed. Miami picked up some insurance if Madison cannot regain his top-flight status when they signed free agent CB Reggie Howard from Carolina and drafted USC’s Will Poole in the fourth round. Poole will be the fourth corner and Howard will be the nickel corner when the team takes the field in September.
Last year the Dolphin safeties were exploited in coverage and so changes were made. Gone is S Brock Marion who signed as a free agent with Detroit. Vying for his spot will be career backups Antuan Edwards and Arturo Freeman. Edwards covers better, but Freeman is the better athlete and bigger hitter.
SS Sammy Knight is back and while he plays the run well, he is a huge liability in coverage. The Dolphins will do their best to keep him out of situations where he is expected to cover receivers or backs.
Special Teams: Seven-year veteran K Olindo Mare had an off-year concerning field goals. His accuracy fell to 75.9%, hitting 22 of 29. His kickoffs were excellent though, as he registered 24 touchbacks, the most in the NFL in five years. P Matt Turk returns and while his 36.6 yard average won’t wow anyone, he specialized in placing 33.8% of his punts inside the 20 yard line.
The last time the Seahawks and Dolphins met: After a humiliating 23-0 opening day loss to the Dolphins in Miami in 2000, the Hawks hosted Fiedler and company at Husky Stadium in 2001.
It was a cold late October day on the western shores of Lake Washington and the Seahawks were coming off the bye week with a 3-2 record.
The Hawks had the chance to draw first blood, but K Rian Lindell’s 35-yard field goal sailed wide…and it would end up being a costly miss.
Controversy also struck early, when RB Shaun Alexander fumbled and it was recovered by the Dolphins at mid-field. It appeared that his knee had hit the ground well before the ball came loose and the Seahawks challenged the call. Initially the referees reversed the call and gave it back to the Hawks, but then in a stunner, they reversed their reversal and the Dolphins were in business. Their short drive, ended with K Olindo Mare hitting a 48-yard field goal.
Later in the second quarter Dolphins QB Jay Fiedler capped off a nine play drive with a 10-yard TD scamper.
After what appeared to be a three-and-out series, WR Alex Bannister recovered a muffed Jeff Feagles punt on the Miami 28. Shortly thereafter, QB Matt Hasselbeck hit TE Itula Mili with a 15-yard TD pass.
The Hawk defense held the Dolphins to three-and-out on the next possession and Hasselbeck capped the ensuing drive with a 17-yard TD pass to Darrell Jackson. At halftime the Hawks led 14-10 and momentum appeared to be on their side.
In the second half the Seahawks managed only two Lindell field goals while the Dolphins were able to register a 1 yard TD run by former Seahawk RB Lamar Smith and a 39 yard TD reception by former Seahawk WR James McKnight.
Late in the game, trailing 24-20, the Seahawk defense registered a big play when McKnight was stipped of the ball and S Reggie Tongue returned it to the Dolphin 26. After three plays where the Hawks were unable to move the ball and with time running down, head coach Mike Holmgren made the questionable call of going for a 35 yard field goal. Lindell missed his second field goal of the game, pushing his 35-yarder wide right and costing the Hawks any chance of pulling the game out.
The Dolphins pulled out the game 24-20 and Seahawk players and coaches left with a bitter taste in their mouths.
Hasselbeck finished 16 of 28 for 230 yards and the two TD’s. Alexander ground out 87 tough yards against a solid Dolphin D, while Jackson had a great day against CB Patick Surtain, catching 5 passes for 121 yards and one TD.
On defense CB Willie Williams, replacing the injured Shawn Springs had two INT’s and played a great game.
2004 Projection: On paper the Dolphins should again be good. They have a solid defense and enough playmakers on offense to score some points. It all depends on how the line gels and if Feeley is as good as Dolphin management thinks he is.
If Feeley is the playmaker the Dolphins envision and the line plays well and stays healthy, this could be a 10 win team. If not they will be looking at 8-8 and another year out of the playoffs.
They have the talent to make a push for the playoffs and a run at the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, they have had the same talent the last two years and have not put it together…so why should 2004 be any different?
Wannstedt needs to get the most out of these players and if they don’t produce, 2004 could be his last season at the helm.
.NET Reporter Scott Eklund
writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.