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  Phins.com - Fixing Offense No Easy Task
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

Click Here To Contact Chris



Chicken soup from chicken ... feathers.



That’s the job that head coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan face in the aftermath of the wreckage of the 2004 Dolphin season.


That must be one sweet contract Linehan signed. How else to entice a guy to trade in the keys of a Lamborghini for those of a broken down Edsel?


The Dolphins ranked 29th in Total Offense, and were 27th in Scoring, 30th in Total Yards per Play, 28th in Total First Downs per Game, 24th in Third Down Conversion Percentage, 28th in Average Time of Possession, and last in Turnovers Allowed (42, tied for the second-worst mark in team history).


They were second to last in Total Rushing and in Average Yards per Game, 29th in Total Rushing attempts, last in Average Rushing Yards per Attempt, last in First Downs gained via the Run, tied for 19th in Total Rushing Touchdowns, and 29th in Total Rushes of 20 Yards or Greater.


In the passing game, they were 21st in Total Passing and 20th in Total TD passes but were dead last in Pass Completion Percentage, Interceptions Thrown, and Sacks Allowed.


“Embarrassing” is what Dave Wannstedt called it.


I can’t print what his sharpest critics have called it.


There were times during the season where this unit was flat out unwatchable, even laughable, unable to break a huddle or snap the football without some sort of ridiculous mishap.


It made the days of Dan Marino and the Marks Brothers seem so far away.


So how does Saban fix this mess?


Start with Linehan, an excellent teacher and strategist. His work in Minnesota was well regarded across the league.


Saban will leave the task of re-tooling the offense mostly to Linehan, opting to offer ideas and suggestions for improvement. Yes, there will be some mandates that Saban will hand down but he understands that Linehan is the expert he needs to get the job done.


Linehan’s decision to adapt the existing playbook to his offensive philosophy was a wise move as it is easier for him to learn the current Dolphin terminology versus making major changes that could be confusing to the players.


Expect Linehan to keep using the plays that fit his talent, discard what does not, and add in missing pieces that he feels strongly about.


Linehan will open up the offense, just as he did in Minnesota. This was obvious during the various Offseason Training Activity (OTA) sessions.


For Dolfans yearning for exciting football, this is good news.


However it is players that win games, not playbooks, and the Dolphins have some glaring weaknesses to shore up.


Start with the offensive line, a rather worthless unit last year.


This is where new line boss Hudson Houck helps.


Perhaps the best in the business, Houck’s recent work with the 2004 San Diego Chargers has been widely praised. Drew Brees’s emergence as a Pro Bowl quarterback is attributable, in part, to the dramatically improved play of their line.


Fixing the offensive line is the single most important thing the Dolphins need to do in order to develop an effective offense, even more important than the proceedings at quarterback (more on that later).


To accomplish this daunting task, Houck needs to find five solid starters who can work well as a cohesive unit.


Not surprisingly, Houck has wasted little time in acting.


After assessing his group’s strengths and weaknesses, he moved players into positions where they stood the best chance of success.


The biggest changes have been at Tackle where Houck quickly agreed with Saban’s early assessment of the position as being a major concern.


For example, the move of Wade Smith to Center all but confirms the conclusion that many had come to long ago: Smith can’t play Left Tackle in the NFL.


Houck’s move of right tackle Vernon Carey to the left side is a bold move. Clearly, Houck believes that Carey could be much more than anyone envisioned.


Carey is a very talented player, versatile enough to work at both Guard and Tackle in college. Houck believes he has the physical frame (6-5, 335), functional strength, and adequate nimbleness to get the job done.


The trick here will be for Carey to learn the techniques needed to neutralize the game’s best defensive ends. Early returns from the various OTAs have been encouraging, with Carey reportedly holding his own against Jason Taylor.


Simply put, it would be a tremendous boost if Carey works out at Left Tackle. We’ll know more once the pads come on and the drills shift into full speed.


At the opposite side, Stockar McDougle is an important upgrade. His acquisition all but confirms that John St. Clair wasn’t the answer that the previous regime touted him to be.


Houck will make McDougle even better, perhaps good enough to warrant Pro Bowl consideration. For those who appreciate good line play, it will be fun to watch him work.


Jeno James, the team’s best run blocker, is a safe bet to continue at Left Guard with Seth McKinney and Rex Hadnot having the inside track at keeping their respective jobs at Center and Right Guard, respectively.


Back to quarterback, where questions are flying around incumbent A.J. Feeley and newcomer Gus Frerotte.


While some feel as though Frerotte will eventually win the starting job, neither man has looked particularly impressive. Political correctness aside, this has to be troubling to Saban and Linehan.


Though it is still early in the game, the Dolphins must settle the quarterback competition as early as possible to avoid a repeat of last year’s debacle.


Linehan claims that neither man has an edge thus far, noting “it’s the one who executes and manages the game the best who is going to play”.


Nice words but hardly reassuring to a team that needs certainty at this most important position.


Both men offer something of value. Feeley possesses what Linehan has called “exceptional talents as far as throwing the ball”, while conceding that his “familiarity” with Frerotte gives him comfort in knowing he has someone who can execute the system.


This is an area where Saban and Linehan must act decisively, for the good of the team. They must understand that dragging things out through the preseason, as Wannstedt did, would be a mistake.


It says here that the Dolphins MUST determine, once and for all, whether or not Feeley can play. They cannot do that if he is sitting on the bench.


They also must know that they are not likely to be going to the Super Bowl in 2005 and that Frerotte, 33, won’t be the guy who eventually takes them there.


So why waste time playing Frerotte?


If Houck and Linehan can create a quality learning and playing situation, one that gives Feeley a fair chance to develop, Feeley ought to get the nod.


The issue with Feeley has never been lack of physical skills. It has been a lack of experience...and a solid ground game to back him up.


Here enters Ronnie Brown and, maybe, Ricky Williams. They could very well be the most important players on offense.


Questions abound regarding Ricky’s return while Brown must prove his worth as a high first round pick. If both men are right, they will create major match-up problems for defenses, especially in the fourth quarter.


The Dolphins should be OK at receiver and tight end, though it will be interesting to see if Chris Chambers can finally earn a season’s worth of production to match his oft-hyped skills.


All things considered, getting the right people in place and getting them to dance in tune with the music will be a monumental task. Perhaps this is why Saban is setting the bar low in 2005, suggesting that the goal should be an overachieving team.


Or, perhaps he is setting low expectations in order to create greater upside.


Whatever the intent, it figures to be a long way to the promised land for this bunch.




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