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  Mid-Season Report Card
    | Home | News Wire | Roster | Depth Chart | Schedule |  

by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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Before I hand out my mid-term grades, I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment briefly on last weekend’s huge 31-13 win over the previously undefeated Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.


Without a doubt, this was the biggest win of the Nick Saban era and arguably the biggest Dolphin win since the 2004 Monday Night victory over the New England Patriots.


I just have to ask, “Was that really the Miami Dolphins out there?”


Forgive the question, as it has been so very long since we’ve seen a Dolphin team get after it the way this bunch did against the Bears. On the road, against what is arguably the best team in the NFL, when few gave them a prayer of a chance, the Dolphins came out and dominated in all phases.


And, really, the margin of victory could have easily been 45-13. It was the kind of performance we had been hoping to see on a regular basis from the start of the season. It was the type of win that can change the course of a franchise.



Now it is up to the Dolphins to follow it up. As Saban said in his day after press conference, “It’s one game”.


This brings us to my 2006 mid-season grades. If I was grading the Dolphins solely on what we saw last weekend, on one game, I would just write down a big fat “A+” and end the report right there.


Of course it doesn’t work that way. The previous seven games count, as miserable to experience as all but one were.


There’s still a half a season to play. If this Dolphin team can build on the big win over the Bears, 2006 may yet turn out palatably.


Here are my mid-season grades for the 2006 Miami Dolphins.


Offensive Line = C+


A month ago this grade would have been a flat “F”. Pass pro was a joke and there was no appreciable running room to be found. Then someone (Hudson Houck? Tim Davis?) had the brilliant idea to move starting left tackle L.J. Shelton to right guard and shift Damion McIntosh back to his old spot at left tackle. The results have been nothing short of an epiphany. Together with the change at quarterback from Daunte Culpepper to Joey Harrington, the sacks suddenly stopped coming in torrents and Ronnie Brown has started braking loose. With Shelton (345lbs) paired up with 335lb Vernon Carey, the right side of the line has been especially dominant. Center Rex Hadnot is clearly an upgrade over Seth McKinney, while tough left guard Jeno James has been very steady. Joe Berger and Anthony Alabi are good development projects. Kendyl Jacox and the newly signed Toniu Fonoti provide veteran depth.


Halfbacks and Fullbacks = B+


Most people don’t realize that Brown is on pace to gain 1,200+ yards this season, this despite the earlier instability across the offensive line. It will be interesting to see how Brown fares now that the line is coming together. There’s no question that Saban made a wise decision in taking him second overall in last year’s draft. A superior combination of speed and power, he’s the best offensive player on the team. Brown’s back-up, Sammy Morris, has seen spot duty since returning from a four game suspension (substance violation). He is a special teams stand out, as is Travis Minor. Fullback Darian Barnes is a nasty lead blocker with untapped ability as a receiver. Lee Suggs filled in well for Morris during his suspension, before being waived.


Wide Receivers = C+


Perhaps no other Dolphin is a bigger paradox than Chris Chambers. It is maddening to watch him drop a catchable ball on one play and then beat double coverage for a touchdown on the next. It is frustrating to see him running wide open on one play, only to have a pass sail over his head, and then watch him fail to beat simple one-on-one coverage on the next play. There are many who rail for Chambers to get more opportunities, while others fail to see the point in continuing to trust him. As such, I suppose the one word to sum up Chris Chambers as a player is “inconsistent”. One gets the sense that if Chambers wishes to finish his career as a Dolphin, to be regarded among the league elite (Terrell Owens, Steve Smith, Marvin Harrison, et. al.), that he will have to find a way to consistently play to his ability. Marty Booker is not the dominator he once was, probably no better than a #3 wide receiver on other teams. Yet he continues to have a penchant for making long receptions and once again leads the team in average yards per catch. Did you know that Wes Welker is the Dolphin leader in receptions and yards, is 6th in the AFC in receptions, and is 7th in the AFC in punt return average? Is there anything this amazing player cannot do? Rookie Derek Hagan has been a contributor on offense and appears to have a bright future. Perhaps no rookie has improved more since the start of training camp than Marcus Vick. Vick was promoted to the 53 man roster in mid-October. Cliff Russell was waived.


Tight Ends = C


Together with Chambers, Randy McMichael is a poster boy for the team’s inconsistent play through the first half of the season. To be fair, McMichael has made huge strides the past two years in improving his blocking. It is his effectiveness in the passing game as a primary weapon that can no longer be trusted. Drops and mistakes have been evident in his game now for three years running, suggesting that this is not something that will go away. He hit rock bottom against the Green Bay Packers, whiffing two catches that were intercepted, one of which was returned for a touchdown. It continues to be a mystery as to why McMichael deserves his $18 million contract. If Nick Saban had it to do all over again, knowing what he knows now, would he have made the same decision? Justin Peelle is primarily used as a blocker while Tim Massaquoi has seen very little action. Jason Rader was recently waived.


Quarterbacks = C-


The ill-fated decision to start the season with Daunte Culpepper may have been the single biggest factor in derailing the team’s playoff hopes. The preseason was simply a mirage as he clearly was incapable of protecting himself and, as such, was hesitant in the pocket. The results were disastrous. By the time Saban pulled Culpepper from the starting line-up, the Dolphins were already 1-3 and spiraling out of the playoff picture. Not that the Dolphins have been any better with Joey Harrington at quarterback from a winning perspective (1-3), but his quick release and decisiveness have been a key in the improvement of the offense over the past two games. Against the Bears he played his best game as a Dolphin. Cleo Lemon looked most impressive in preseason and is currently second on the depth chart while Culpepper continues to rehab his knee.


Defensive Line = A-


The Dolphins are #4 in the NFL in Total Defense and the defensive line is the primary reason for that accomplishment. A mostly veteran group led by likely future Hall of Famer Jason Taylor, they have been the brightest lights in an otherwise dim season. Taylor surpassed 100 sacks for his career with his dominant (and I mean dominant) play against the Bears. 2006 may end up being his finest all-around season as Saban’s defensive philosophy better exploits Taylor’s considerable skills than did the more vanilla 4-3. Tackles Vonnie Holliday, Keith Traylor, Dan Wilkinson, and Jeff Zgonina have been very active. Starters Holliday and Traylor have had solid production with 58 tackles, 5 sacks, and 6 hurries between them. Kevin Carter has been solid against the run and has collected 3 sacks and 5 hurries thus far. David Bowens and Matt Roth are part of the regular line rotation. Bowens is also a good special teams player. While Roth has been good against the run, he has yet to justify the second rounder the team spent on him. Youngsters Fred Evans and Kevin Vickerson are future contributors.


Linebackers = B+


It has been another typically awesome year for the great Zach Thomas. He is tied for 2nd in the NFL with 75 tackles and 5 passes defended, just 2 takedowns short of league leader Cato June. Off the field, you will not find a player who works are harder and prepares himself better than Zach. Anyone who does not see Zach as a legitimate future Hall of Fame inductee has been sleepwalking the past 10 seasons. The Dolphins would be perennial Super Bowl champs if every player approached the game the way Zach does. Second year man Channing Crowder is really blossoming into a fine player (63 tackles). He’s still learning and will only get better as he gains experience. Donnie Spragan has been steady though unspectacular. Reserves Keith Newman, Keith Adams, and Jim Maxwell are mostly special teams contributors. The grade for this group would be higher if they had more than one sack amongst them.


Defensive Backs = C+


Together with the offensive line, no other group of players has been more maligned than the defensive backs. Part of the problem has been injury (Travis Daniels), part of the problem has been the learning curve required of four new starters, and part of it is simply a lack of talent. Yet I must point out that the Dolphins have the #4 pass defense in the NFL, to which the DBs deserve partial credit. They have improved as a group since the start of the season. Will Allen’s speed and tackling skills have proven him to be a better fit for Saban’s scheme than Sam Madison was. Andre Goodman has been a good contributor, a clear upgrade over the departed Reggie Howard. When Daniels has played, he has shown marked improvement over his rookie campaign. His interception against the Titans preserved a Dolphin win. Michael Lehan has had some good moments but still needs to work on his consistency and technique. Eddie Jackson has been a key contributor on special teams. At safety, Travares Tillman, solid against the run, has been a bust versus the pass. He was finally benched last week in favor of Yeremiah Bell. Bell was outstanding against the Bears and figures to get a lot more playing time for the balance of the season. The other starting safety, Renaldo Hill, is third on the team in tackles (43) and finally picked off his first pass against the Bears. Rookie Jason Allen got his first interception as well last week, though his overall progress has been predictably slow. 2007 figures to be his coming out party.


Specialists = B-


Donnie Jones has had a severe fall off from his fine 2005 effort. Whereas he led the NFL in net punting average this time last season, today he is ranked 27th. Jones is in the Top 10 in touchbacks (14), which has helped the defense with better field position. Olindo Mare’s season is one of mixed results. On kickoffs, he is 2nd in the NFL with 11 touchbacks, an impressive accomplishment using the K-ball. However, Mare is just is 12 of 19 on FG tries (63%) and is only 1 for 5 on attempts from 50+ yards. Both numbers are below his standards. Two of his kicks have been blocked (he has never had more than one blocked in any given season) and his miss from 51 yards kept the Dolphins from tying the Jets in the final seconds. Mare did nail a clutch 39 yarder with 3:39 to play to help the Dolphins defeat the Titans. Long snapper John Denney has been solid in his delivery of the ball and in his blocking.


Coaching = C


While much of the heavy lifting required to transform the Dolphins into champions is done behind the scenes, this grade is based solely on “on-the-field” performance. Getting the team to play with confidence continues to be Job #1 for Saban and his staff. The win over the Bears should help considerably in this regard. Saban has made a number of mistakes in his second season as head coach, from naming his starting quarterback to casually tossing a red challenge flag. To his credit, his continued positive attitude towards the task at hand has kept the team together and focused on giving good effort each and every week. In fact, the Dolphins have been in every game this year. On offense, Mike Mularkey’s playcalling has been mostly confusing and ineffective; he would do well to focus his future game planning around Ronnie Brown as he did against the Bears. Line boss Hudson Houck struggled with a revolving door of right guards to build continuity on the line before getting to a combination the Dolphins could win with. The defensive staff, led by Dom Capers, deserves credit for building on last season’s progress while covering up talent shortcomings. However, the decision to bench Tillman should have been made much earlier and the flip-flopping of Jason Allen from safety to corner and back to safety again was not well thought out. Special teams coach Keith Armstrong is having a challenging year, especially with his coverage teams. If not for a clipping penalty away from the play, Pacman Jones’s return for a touchdown might very well have cost the Dolphins a win over the Titans. The blocked field goal at the end of the first half versus Chicago was a real disappointment, the result of a designed overload on the right side of the Bears line that the Dolphins weren’t in position to pick up. Fortunately the block ended up being of no consequence.



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