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  10 Questions Going into Training Camp
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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I love this time of year.


Everything is clean. Hope springs eternal. The playoffs are possible. Everyone is tied for first. The game is fun.


Pick your cliché, they all fit.


This is also a good time for the Miami Dolphins. A new start, more than anything else, is what this franchise needs. Managing Partner Wayne Huizenga began the process, even before last season’s 1-15 nightmare came to a merciful end, by hiring Bill Parcells as his football overlord.


The Big Tuna, as he is affectionately called, wasted no time in cleaning house. Coaches, front office types, and players were changed. Even Jason Taylor, who wants to be elsewhere, was put in his place.


Make no mistake about it; the Miami Dolphins are the Tuna’s team. He knows winning football and how to make it happen. And the Miami Dolphins have already begun to take on his personality.


It all starts with toughness, intelligence, and hard work. On offense, this is expressed on the field with power football featuring a big, physical line. On defense, it’s a 3-4 scheme with big LBs and DEs, and a two-gap DT.


While a lot of progress has been made in turning the Dolphins around (about 50% of the roster has been turned over, for example), much work remains. As the roster stands today, the Dolphins don’t appear to have all the pieces in place to end their six year playoff drought. The most glaring and frustrating problem continues at the most important of positions, quarterback. This, more than any other single factor, could keep the Dolphins home for the postseason yet again.


But games are not played on paper, and this team is making important and meaningful improvements towards regaining their rightful place in the game. In the NFL, really sports in general, we’ve seen time and again how bad teams can become winners, even champions, almost overnight. Witness the 2007-8 Boston Celtics as the most recent case in point, going from rock bottom to NBA Champions in just one year.


No, I’m not suggesting that the 2008 Dolphins are going to the Super Bowl. But they do have a chance to become winners again. A decent chance.


That journey will soon begin when training camp opens later this month. That’s when paper will become reality, when we’ll begin learning how good the 2008 Miami Dolphins can be. As always, there are key questions which must be answered. Here are my Top 10 (in no particular order):


1) How long will it take for the Dolphins to grasp Dan Henning’s offense?

If anything has served as a poster child of the team’s futility, it is the persistent and frustrating instability on offense (system, players). Did you know that Henning’s playbook represents Miami’s fifth new system in five years, and that there have been five different opening day starters at quarterback during that time? In this case, major change was unavoidable as last year’s bunch flat out stunk. This is Henning’s second stop in Miami, having previously served on Don Shula’s staff for two seasons (1979-1980). The sooner the offense can function instinctively well in Henning’s system, the sooner the wins will come.


2) Who will start at quarterback?

This is the single biggest personnel question. Simple logic says that the starter should be John Beck. Why? Start with the investment the previous regime made in him, a high second rounder. Add to it the fact that the guy will turn 27 in August, and you quickly understand the urgency in finding out if Beck is this team’s QB of the future. He has talent, but how long will it take to get it out of him? Developing a future leader must be a top priority this season. It’s probably not Chad Henne at first, simply because it is so difficult for a rookie to start day one in today’s NFL. And for sanity’s sake, it shouldn’t be Josh McCown. He hasn’t shown any signs in six years of NFL duty that he is this team’s quarterback of the future, and there’s nothing that indicates he’ll be any better as a Dolphin. Nevertheless, it could be McCown who gets the initial nod if Beck or Henne can’t prove they are ready to play on opening day. That, Dolfans, would be a major disappointment.


3) Who will start at running back?

Ronnie Brown is the former second overall pick, on the verge of a Pro Bowl season before injuring his knee trying to make a tackle on an interception return versus the Patriots. Ricky Williams is the eccentric, oft stoned, oft suspended, former Heisman trophy winner who holds the team’s single season rushing record (1,853 yards in 2002). Ronnie is almost fully recovered, but probably won’t be all the way back by the time training camp starts. Most agree that Ricky is the more talented runner, and has already impressed Parcells and his lieutenants with his renewed dedication to game. Both players fit the power ball style that Parcells favors, though Ronnie is the better receiver. Will Brown be healthy enough to earn the job outright? If not, does the new regime trust Ricky enough to start him?


4) How long will it take Michael Lehan to recover from his ankle injury?

Lehan, whom the Dolphins smartly re-signed, is coming off his best season as a pro (56 tackles, seven passes defensed, a pick, a sack, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown). However, an unfortunate ankle injury suffered during an OTA has set him back with his offseason training regimen. Already thin at CB, the Dolphins are counting on Lehan to challenge for a starting job opposite Will Allen. How long will it take Lehan to fully recover, and how effective will he be when the season begins?


5) Who will prevail at Guard?

The newly signed Justin Smiley is already penciled in at one guard position. Veteran Steve McKinney would seem to be the logical choice for the opposite side, provided his health is good enough. The other options, a collection of rookies and lesser talents, are not all that palatable. One wonders what the Dolphins were thinking when they decided to let Rex Hadnot leave in free agency.


6) What should the Dolphins expect from Ted Ginn, Jr.?

Improvement, a lot of it. That’s a reasonable expectation with Ginn having a healthy offseason to train hard and be coached up by crack WR coach Karl Dorrell. The result should be improved route running and awareness of coverages. Of course there’s the speed, that wonderful world class speed, and knowing how to better shift gears at key times in the pattern. In the open field, no one separates better. As a kick and punt returner, Ginn will be more dangerous now that he has better blockers. All told, 2008 should be an exciting season for him.


7) What will happen with Jason Taylor?

JT has little choice now but to report to camp as he has lost his battle with Parcells. He won’t retire, by his own admission, nor is he likely to hold out and thus damage his reputation. He won’t be traded, not now anyway, not with low ball offers on the table. Whether or not you think the Dolphins should have traded him in a fire sale is irrelevant, because it only matters what Parcells thinks. Simply put, Taylor is worth more to the Dolphins as a Dolphin. Parcells figured this out early on, which is why he couldn’t be suckered into a low value trade. Whether or not JT will be a Dolphin beyond the trading deadline (around Week 6) is yet to be determined. Just know that there is no way Parcells will unload his best player for anything less than proper compensation. For now, enjoy watching #99 do his thing as a DE/OLB.


8) How will the Dolphins replace Zach’s productivity?

They won’t, not with one guy. The newly acquired Charlie Anderson, Reggie Torbor, Akin Ayodele and others will join Dolphin vets Channing Crowder and Joey Porter in figuring it all out. The one guy in this group who can raise his performance the most is Porter. He has all the tools and should be a nice fit in Paul Pasqualoni’s 3-4 scheme, versus his awkward and sometimes invisible presence last season.


9) Who will start at Safety?

Everyone at safety seems to have some sort of blemish or issue to overcome. Yeremiah Bell (achilles) and Renaldo Hill (knee), probably the two best players at the position, are coming off of serious injuries. Jason Allen, the team’s 2006 first rounder, made solid strides last season but has a reputation for being a poor practice player. Last season he finally got a chance to play, but only because of injuries to Bell, Hill, and others. To his credit, he led the team in interceptions and was seventh on the team in tackles despite only starting nine games. However, if Allen continues his pattern of being a poor practice player, he leaves it up to the new regime to decide which version to believe in…the practice version or the game version. In the end, some players are just better gamers and it could be that Allen fits this profile. If anyone can see clearly on this one, it is Parcells. Meanwhile, the biggest worry is that Bell and Hill will be slow to return to form. Logically, Bell would be the bigger concern given the unpredictable nature of his injury. The hope is that at least one of them is good enough to go come opening day. If not, newcomers Chris Crocker and Keith Davis will get a chance, as will second year man Courtney Bryan.


10) Is there enough talent to win more than they lose?

There is a big difference between having a winning record and making the playoffs, as the Dolphins have painfully learned in the past. However, going from a losing record in one season to a winning one the following year is quite doable in today’s NFL. Yes, the 2007 Dolphins went 1-15. But their talent was better than that, much better. That’s why a good goal for these Dolphins would be to finish at 8-8 or better. This is realistic if we closely examine the strengths of this team. On offense, it is a solid line that should get better each week, two outstanding talents at RB, and a WR (Ginn) who can threaten the deep third of the field almost at will. If they can get reasonable efficiency from the QB position, it will add up to a nice formula for ball control offense. Defensively, they will be solid if the line is as improved as some believe. Whether or not they can return to their dominant ways remains to be seen, though a Bill Parcells’ team always prides itself on good defense. On special teams, it is already apparent that the Dolphins helped themselves in free agency. Coverage teams should be especially improved over what we saw last season. If the injury bug can stay away, and the team’s improved conditioning should be an enabler to this, the Dolphins have a decent shot at becoming a winning team again.

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