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  Season Slipping Away
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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We never saw this coming.


Yet here we are, staring unbelievably at Miami’s dismal 1-3 record at the quarter pole, wondering if this is all there is to the hype, or if a corner has yet to be turned.


If we carefully and objectively sift through the ashes of the latest nightmare, a 17-15 loss to the lowly Houston Texans, we will find a team that is slowly (VERY SLOWLY) improving.


The problem here, of course, is that there are only 16 games in a season. At their current rate of “improvement”, 2007 NFL Draft talk will begin before Halloween.


Who could have imagined it? Who ever thought we’d be facing this early chin music again, given all the dramatic changes since the infamous crash and burn of 2004?


Yes, I know…in today’s NFL, you never count any team out. And, honestly, the Dolphins just have too much talent to be playing this poorly.



Yet reality smacks us in the face like a wet towel. The product on the field is inexcusably lousy.


I’m an optimist at heart but, right now, it is difficult to see how these Dolphins have a prayer of defeating the Patriots and Jets on the road these next two weeks. Not when they stink out loud against the likes of the Bills and Texans and, arguably, the Titans….creampuffs all.


Offensively, they’re among the worst in Dolphin history. The loss of Scott Linehan and, perhaps, Gus Frerotte has obviously been more costly than anyone expected.


In the end, it takes coaches and players to fix the problems.


Start with the coaches. New offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and his staff have done a terrible, terrible job in fielding a winner. The line is surrendering sacks at a record-breaking pace, the receivers can’t make plays, their best player (Ronnie Brown) is not involved nearly enough, and the quarterback (Daunte Culpepper) is still struggling to find himself.


As a whole, the offense simply lacks identity and purpose. Once again, it is fair to question whether Mularkey was the right man for the Dolphin job. Mularkey’s a smart guy but was it a wise decision by Nick Saban to splice Mularkey’s philosophy onto Scott Linehan’s system and expect everything to jell in just one offseason?


Or, did Saban privately expect that it would take this long?


This we know: only eight teams scored fewer points than Mularkey’s 2005 Bills. At their current pace, the Dolphins will fall well short of those anemic Bills.


Saban’s not going anywhere but Mularkey can’t be anywhere else but on the hot seat right now given the autonomy (and salary) Saban gave him to get the job done.           


The same can be said for Culpepper, though it is fair to question the wisdom of him starting the season given his all too obvious health issues.


His play in the preseason, what little there was of it, appears to have been a mirage. The truth of the matter is that he is not sufficiently recovered to help the Dolphins win games now. And, given the porous pass protection in front of him (more on that in a minute), his lack of mobility is more troublesome.


The end result has been indecisive play. To his credit, he is learning to better function within his current limitations. Saban even said he was the offensive player of the week. However, the bottom line is that Culpepper has, thus far, been more of a hindrance than a help.


Is a less than full-strength Culpepper better than a full-strength Joey Harrington?


In the judgment of the coaches, the answer is apparently “yes”. Keep in mind that Saban is a long term thinker. As such, he probably sees benefit in continuing to play Culpepper now so that he will be ready for the future.


Of course Saban won’t come out and say that but neither will he damage the team’s long term investment in Culpepper by benching him.


As for the offensive line, things just haven’t improved. Yes, right guard has been a revolving door that the opposition has taken advantage of. But that can’t be the only cause of the flood of insufficiently checked pass rushers and an absence of holes to run through. And, since Saban won’t tell us who’s been naughty or nice (outside of Vernon Carey—nice), we are left to speculate.


In all fairness, it is difficult to specifically lay blame on individuals without knowledge of the protection schemes. What we do know is that, without an effective offensive line, nothing on offense works well.


Defensively, the Dolphins continue to make mistakes, especially in the undermanned secondary. Yet it is hard to lay the weight of this 1-3 mess on the defense when they have pitched a winning effort in every single game this season.


Yes, I know they gave up 14 fourth quarter points to the Texans. But when you hold the opposition to 17 points, you should win the game when the other team’s defense is the worst (worst!) in the NFL.


Guys like Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor have to be questioning their teammates, the coaches, everything. They expected the team to be moving forward, to be improving. Yes, they’re “team first” guys and always will be. But they’re human, too.


So are the fans.


Last year the Dolphins went 3-7 before the lights came on, too late to make the playoffs. These Dolphins need an epiphany, and soon, or else 2006 will end with another playoff miss.


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