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  Two Keys to Dolphin Success in 2009
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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53 players, a head coach and his staff, a myriad of training, equipment, and front office personnel…all working together as one team…this is what it takes to win consistently in the NFL.


One of the biggest reasons for last year’s unprecedented turnaround was the cultural restoration that Bill Parcells, Jeff Ireland, and Tony Sparano achieved. By this I mean the return of the “team” concept that Don Shula insisted upon and won many a game with during his legendary career.


This is why it may seem odd to you, the reader, that I have specific “keys to success” for 2009. Admittedly it is odd and a tad illogical to me as well, because common sense tells us that the level of performance by each individual member of team is what wins games. This, in and of itself, is the key.


Yet, after taking in an offseason of work and games, I am convinced that two areas in particular will do more to decide the fate of the 2009 Miami Dolphins than any other single factor.


The first is quarterback Chad Pennington. No other Dolphin is more valuable, or irreplaceable. Simply put, he is the best QB the team has had since Dan Marino plied his trade here almost a decade ago, and another big reason why the Dolphins won 11 games last year.


Pennington was so good last year, he set a team record for passing accuracy (67.4%), shattering Marino’s career (59.4%) and 1984 single season (64.2%) records. His 97.4 passer rating was second only to Marino’s 1984 record effort (108.9). That, people, is some good playing.


But passing numbers only begin to define Pennington’s importance to the team.


In the huddle, he commands unmatched respect; his teammate’s belief in him is unswerving and emphatic. In the locker room, he is the ultimate team guy and is a role model to others, even to those who might take his job away in the near future. In the film room, no one prepares better or studies harder; you will never find Pennington unprepared to play. Ever. He is the leader of the offense and, maybe, the team itself.


Still, there are those who still sniff at Pennington, a runner up for last year’s NFL MVP award. The big criticism is, of course, his right arm. Not strong enough, they say, to win a championship.


You know, there was another Dolphin QB who took similar criticism: Bob Griese. Two rings and a Hall of Fame induction later, Griese got the last laugh. So it isn’t too surprising that Shula himself believes that Pennington is cut from the same cloth as Griese…efficient, prepared, unselfish…in short, a winner. A guy who gets the job done.


Yes, someday back-up Chad Henne will probably take Pennington’s job away. But someday is not today, and not this season. Pennington’s just too good, just too much on top of his game. That’s good news for the Dolphins, and why the worst possible thing that could happen would be for Pennington to suffer a serious injury; the gulf between Pennington and Henne is still too vast, the drop off in ability still too great, for the absence not to be keenly felt.


So Pennington must stay healthy and he must keep to his efficient and accurate ways for these Dolphins to have a chance of repeating as division champs. No one knows this better than Pennington and his offensive line.


Of course Pennington would never admit it publicly, but deep down he had to know that 2009 would be his and his alone. This is a reason why he put the offseason to very good use in improving his conditioning and his strength, preparing for what he hopes will be his best season. Every indication suggests that Pennington is ready to have a big year.


He just needs to stay clean.


The second key area for 2009 success is the Secondary.


As I wrote in my “10 Questions Going into Training Camp” column this past July, the Dolphins are asking a lot, an awful lot, of a rookie cornerback (Sean Smith) to guard Randy Moss, perhaps the best wide receiver in football, twice a season. Moss heads up a tough 2009 draw of top shelf talent within the division that includes Lee Evans, Wes Welker, Terrell Owens, and Jerricho Cotchery. Reggie Wayne, Michael Jenkins, Marques Colston, Steve Smith, and Andre Johnson will try to get their licks in as well in the conference games.


As with most rookies, Smith has had good and bad moments during the preseason. His one-handed interception of Mark Brunell was incredible to say the least, while his work in the Buccaneers game was incredibly bad. This leaves us wondering how this rookie will stand up to regular season football and the best receivers and passers in the game.


Ditto fellow rookie Vontae Davis, who figures to see more extensive action as the season progresses. How the Dolphins plan to use him as an extra defensive back is not clear. That he will be tested is.


Another thing that’s clear…defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni likes what he sees in these two talented, but in experienced, DBs. And he’s not afraid of playing them.


“Obviously I like their athleticism. I like their competitiveness”, said Pasqualoni. “They are very, very coachable guys. They really, really try to do the techniques and fundamentals the way we are trying to handle it, trying to coach it. They have been very, very good to work with. (But) they are young. They are in the NFL now. Everybody is good. Everybody is good every week. So they are just going to have to understand what the preparation process is each week for the next 16 weeks. What the intensity and focus is. That to me is the biggest difference college and the NFL. The intensity of the meetings and all that stuff.”


Can these two rookies get good enough, fast enough? The Dolphins hope so. One big advantage they have is veteran Will Allen, a tremendous peer resource for them to learn from.


At strong safety, the steady Yeremiah Bell returns. This could be a breakout year for him, so keep your eyes on #37. But also keep your eyes on fellow starter at free safety, Gibril Wilson. He’s had a tough adjustment period since coming over in free agency from the Raiders. The knock on him was that he was somewhat of a liability in coverage; we saw some evidence of this during the exhibition games.


So the Dolphins have two highly competent vets and three question marks at the starting positions and one of the top reserve jobs, with Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, and Phillip Rivers coming up at the top of order.


Scary stuff, people.


Here’s the bottom line for the Dolphin defense in 2009: they have what Sports Illustrated’s Peter King calls “one of the top five front sevens in football”. If their secondary shows up, it could be a top five defense. If they don’t show up, it’s going to be a very long and painful year for the Miami Dolphins.

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