But when running back Ricky Williams suddenly announced his retirement prior to training camp last year, the mask-covering issues within the Miami offense came to light.
Without a talented, powerful running back to depend on, the Miami offense struggled mightily. The lack of a running game put additional pressure on the quarterbacks to get the job done on their own. Play-action passing was not threatening, and teams often found that loading the box and challenging the Miami offense was the recipe for victory. The Dolphins' offensive line, which already was questionable in regards to overall talent, could not fend off what would become a free-for-all attack from the defense.
Quarterbacks Jay Fiedler and A.J. Feeley wavered through the season, playing like mediocre talents on a bad football team. There was a lack of direction and, most importantly, there was a lack of imagination and consistency generated by the offense and its coaching staff. Inconsistency reigned throughout the Miami roster, receivers dropped passes at an alarming rate and offensive linemen missed assignments with regularity.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Dolphins fought through injuries and issues with the offense to again be a productive unit. While the offense wallowed in mediocrity, the defense consistently was mired by playing on a short field. For as bad as the 2004 season was, the Miami defense played at a high level.
The 2005 season could be a different story for the Dolphins. Salary-cap issues and free agency may lead the organization to part with numerous defensive standouts. With marginal overall talent on offense, these same cap issues would have minimal impact.
The only recognizable facet of the Dolphins' organization may be their uniforms. Nick Saban steps into the fire, replacing Jim Bates (the interim head coach for Dave Wannstedt). Cutting costs to gain fiscal responsibility is an early motto of the Saban-led Dolphins, but quality and depth could suffer in what may be a true salary-cap purge before he is done.
Saban, a defensive specialist and former head coach at LSU, is making quick work of large contracts to aging players and salary-cap issues which had a stranglehold on the organization. The Dolphins' defense will sport a new look in 2005. High-quality players such as Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas, and Sam Madison are expected to return to lead the unit. Change is going to be dramatic, though.
Starting cornerback Patrick Surtain has been given the opportunity to seek a trade and starting defensive tackles Tim Bowens and Larry Chester may be replaced after suffering season-ending injuries. Linebacker Junior Seau must accept a pay cut or he will be released. Safety Sammy Knight will likely leave as an unrestricted free agent and safety Arturo Freeman has been notified he will be released on or before March 1. Linebacker Morlon Greenwood is an unrestricted free agent and would like to return to the Dolphins, but talks with the team have not been promising. Defensive linemen Jay Williams, Jeff Zgonina and Bryan Robinson are all expected to be released or depart through free agency.
If a deal can be reached to trade Surtain, 2004 draft pick Will Poole is expected to step into his starting spot opposite Madison. While there has been some discussion within the team to trade Madison, nothing has transpired.
Offensively, Feeley must prove he is a capable starting quarterback, a sufficient running back must be secured, and the play of the offensive line needs to greatly improve. The offensive line's inconsistency and injury issues remain a concern, but simplified line calls could be in the offing under Saban.
The expectation is for Miami to become more of a vertical team by using the talents of wide receiver Chris Chambers and tight end Randy McMichael more. If wide receiver David Boston is retained, the Dolphins would sport a very good corps of receivers that has the ability to change the complexion of games.
SALARY CAP STATUS:
Approximately $8 million dollars over the expected 2005 league-mandated salary cap, with further player releases and contract negotiations required.
Offensive line – Despite the line's struggles in 2004, new head coach Nick Saban doesn't anticipate making wholesale changes … yet. Wade Smith is recovering from knee surgery and should be ready for training camp, but the team doesn't appear enthralled with him as its starting left tackle. Second-year pro and 2004 first-round pick Vernon Carey will get an opportunity to win the starting spot, but the team will look to free agency for a veteran blindside protector (like Jonas Jennings) prior to the draft in April.
Running back – There should be no shocking announcements to catch the Dolphins off guard this offseason. Not having a quality starting running back was disastrous for Miami. Under Saban, the Dolphins will not be nearly as dependant or one-dimensional. Saban is looking for a running back, but will not pay a king's ransom for a running back. To get salary-cap issues under control, expect the Dolphins to look at mid-range type of players at the running back position in free agency or via a trade. Chester Taylor (Baltimore) and Anthony Thomas (Chicago) are options, as is Reuben Droughns of Denver.
Defensive line – Injuries to Tim Bowens and Larry Chester, the release of Jay Williams, the potential trade or release of Jeff Zgonina and the potential free-agent departure of Bryan Robinson leave the Dolphins in a precarious position. Depth issues are evident and the quality of play by Bowens and Chester is in doubt. The Dolphins will not be a major player in free agency, especially for a defensive tackle or end, but the team is expected to improve the depth along the line in free agency with fringe-type players and may look towards the draft as a means to improve the position.
Quarterback – The release of veteran Jay Fiedler opens the door for A.J. Feeley to become the Dolphins' starting quarterback. Miami will seek a veteran backup quarterback in free agency, with Gus Frerotte being the top choice to be reunited with new Miami offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Sage Rosenfels is expected to depart via free agency to seek an opportunity to play.
FREE AGENCY / OFFSEASON:
KEY ACQUISITIONS: None.
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Jay Fiedler; DE Jay Williams; S Arturo Freeman.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: QB Jason Garrett; LB Morlon Greenwood; SS Sammy Knight; TB Travis Minor; DT Bryan Robinson; QB Sage Rosenfels; S Shawn Wooden; CB Jimmy Wyrick; LS/TE Ed Perry.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: C Seth McKinney; DT Dario Romero.
Team Needs: Miami Dolphins
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