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  Rapid Learning Curve Key to 2008 Success
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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It’s easy to be impressed with the progress the Miami Dolphins have made this past month, freshly underscored by their 24-0 thumping of the putrid Kansas City Chiefs, Miami’s first preseason shutout in almost 30 years.


It’s also easy to remember the old refrain, “the preseason means nothing”.


Just don’t tell that to the Dolphins. When it comes to player development, especially for young and new faces on a rebuilding team, they know this preseason means everything.


They also know that the faster the development comes, the sooner the winning will follow. This is the key to success for the 2008 Miami Dolphins.


Of course, it’s easier said than done with a team that’s made extensive changes, with more surely to come.


Consider that the Dolphins could have as many as 19 new positional starters from last year’s season opener, and that the final roster will have at least 24 new faces on it. That’s almost 50% roster turnover for those of you doing the math. Add to this a new coaching staff and new accompanying offensive and defensive systems. Taken at once, it’s a load for any organization to manage well.


The new regime certainly deserves credit for stepping up to the challenge; the evidence thus far suggests that this should be an improved team. Yet one wonders just how quickly improvement can realistically be made, or even expected, in just one season. Will it be enough to make the Dolphins a winner in 2008?


The answer to this question will fall mostly on the younger players. With as few as three positional starters returning, an unavoidable and heavy dependency is upon them to step up and deliver right away.


It’s a lot to ask. Almost half of the current roster has three years or less of experience and not all of them have been full time contributors. To be clear, this isn’t just a depth issue; on offense, more than half of the projected starters fall into this category. Both kickers do, too, as does a projected defensive starter (DE Kendall Langford).


There’s also the challenge of assimilating a number of new positional starters, even among the veterans. This problem is most evident on defense, with the switch to a 3-4 base alignment.


These are some of the things that keep head coach Tony Sparano and his staff up at night.


For example, Sparano, a former offensive line coach, knows well that the faster rookie starters Jake Long and Donald Thomas “get it”, the sooner the winning will come. But Sparano also knows that there will be growing pains, a very normal thing when three of his five line starters have a combined 16 games of NFL experience.


Privately, one would expect Sparano to be pleased with the enormous progress his players have made this past month. Yet he well understands that the live exercise hasn’t yet started, that more difficult situations are yet to be faced by his young charges, and that they’ll be tested beyond what they’ve experienced thus far.


Even veterans who are new to the team or new to a position will be the first to admit that much more work is needed if this team is to win at least as much as they lose.


Take new starting QB Chad Pennington. He’ll be a Dolphin all of one month when the season kicks off.  Two weeks ago, he was calling plays and literally guessing as to what routes all of his receivers were running. He’s farther along now, but still in need of work to get synched up with his new targets, especially #1 WR Ted Ginn, Jr.


“We have a lot of work to do, we really do”, said Pennington. “I'm happy that we've been able to connect in the two games that we've played together. I think he's got a lot of talent. But at the same time, we've got a long way to go to make sure we can play with consistency. Three quarters of football is not enough to say we've got it down yet. We have to make sure we continue to work out here at practice and continue to talk to each other and always discuss things so we can really get on the same page."


On defense, you’ll get a similar story from LB Channing Crowder, of whom more will be expected now that Zach Thomas is in Dallas. He isn’t naïve as to the state of things, and won’t allow a defensive shutout against a bad team to cloud his objectivity.


“We’re really not together yet right now”, said Crowder after the win over the Chiefs.  “We made nine penalties, (forced) some turnovers, so we’re not there yet. But you can tell we’re progressing each week and that’s what the preseason is all about. Just keep working. Like I said, there are a lot of good things and there are a lot of bad things as well. If we can get as close to perfection as we can, we can be a good team.”


A good team would suit Dolfans just fine. Just hope the learning doesn’t take too long.

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