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  Six Keys to Success for 2006
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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Iím not much into predicting records. As the great Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope once wrote, ĎThere are a thousand ways to be wrong but only one way to be rightí.


These days, the Miami Dolphins seem to be doing more things right than wrong. Thatís a testament to the solid leadership and football savvy that Nick Saban has brought to the team.


Without a doubt, these Dolphins are on the rise.


But they are not a championship caliber team, at least not yet. As meaningless as preseason games are, they have confirmed as much in terms of team strengths and weaknesses.


While we wonít be able to judge the real improvement of this team until the end of the season, it now seems reasonable to conclude that the Dolphins have enough talent to make the playoffs.


Do they have enough to pass the New England Patriots as major-domo of the division? Itís possible, but somewhat of a long shot given the relative state of affairs.


So what must the Dolphins do to fulfill their potential?


Here are my six keys to success for 2006:


1) Starters Must Avoid the Injury Bug

Overall, the Dolphins are not a deep team. About the worst thing that could happen is for injuries to limit or lay up key starters at some pretty thin positions (e.g. cornerback, running back, or wide receiver). Saban and GM Randy Mueller have made significant progress to remediate this inherited problem, especially at quarterback. Nevertheless, the general falloff from the starters to the back-ups is still too dramatic.


2) Improve Scoring Output by 20%

Last year the Dolphins scored 19.9 points per game. Only two 2005 playoffs teams, both in the weaker NFC, scored fewer points than the Dolphins did and made the playoffs (Chicago and Tampa Bay). Thatís just not good enough in todayís NFL, especially in the AFC, to ensure the playoffs. With the acquisition of Daunte Culpepper and the maturation of Ronnie Brown, scoring output needs to improve. While preseason games mean little in terms of won/loss records or stats, it is admittedly concerning that the Dolphin offense weíve seen thus far under new offensive boss Mike Mularkey (16.3 ppg) more closely resembles Mularkeyís 2005 Buffalo Bills (16.9 ppg) than the 2005 Patriots (23.7 ppg). Perhaps we shall see an improvement when the starters play full time.


3) Confuse the Coverages

It is crystal clear that the Dolphins are not overly talented in the secondary. Furthermore, injuries (especially to Travis Daniels and Will Poole) and a damaging holdout (Jason Allen) have put the Dolphins in a difficult early position. It is a good thing that Saban and new ex officio d-coordinator Dom Capers are two of the most brilliant defensive minds in the business; it will take all their cunning, trickery, and sleight of hand to get by. And while Daniels should get healthier, Allenís holdout and flip-flop between safety and cornerback have doomed him to near irrelevance for most, if not all, of 2006.


4) Beat NE Once and Win Most of the Divisional Games

The NFL playoff system is predicated on dominance within a given division. In the last five years, only six teams made the playoffs while winning just half their divisional games (2001: Tampa Bay, 2002: Cleveland, 2004: NY Jets, Denver, Minnesota, Seattle). Last year the Dolphins won half of their divisional games and missed the playoffs by one game, a divisional game (the 16-23 home loss to New England on November 13). They also missed the playoffs in 2003 with a 4-2 divisional record, with a devastating 0-12 loss at New England late in the season being the difference-maker (leaving them 0-2 vs. NE). Bottom line: Because of the divisional tiebreaker system (with head-to-head being the first tiebreaker), the Dolphins would considerably improve their playoff chances by achieving no worse than a split with the Pats as well as a winning divisional record.


5) Reduce the Number of Penalties by 25%

Perhaps the most disappointing and shocking aspect of Year One of the Nick Saban Era was that his team was the most penalized in Dolphin history and one of the most penalized, both in number (7th most) and yards (8th most), in the NFL. In this regard, Saban has much to do if he is to be truly compared to Don Shula. Shula believed that good teams simply do not beat themselves and, as such, had no appetite for the mental mistakes that primarily cause penalties. This tenet still holds true today (see Steelers, Pittsburgh, 2006). Once again recognizing that preseason games are meaningless in terms of stats, the Dolphins are again amongst the most penalized teams in the NFL. Itís hard to believe that Saban can be satisfied with this and wonít demand better from his players.


6) Convert 40+% of Third Down Situations

The Dolphins had a big time of possession problem last year (3rd worst in the league at 27:25), caused primarily by their poor third down conversion rate (35.1%, 8th worst in the NFL). This resulted in the Dolphins having the 4th highest number of punts (92), thus placing an incredible amount of pressure on their defense to win. The offense must hold on to the ball longer if the Dolphins are to become a legitimate playoff team. QB Daunte Culpepper should be a huge enabler in making the necessary plays on third and fourth down, both with his arm and impressive running ability.



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