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  Final Exam: Beat The Patriots
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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When Nick Saban agreed to come to Miami a year ago, it was clear that a major rebuilding project awaited him. At the time, no one really knew how long it would take to return the 4-12 Dolphins to their winning ways.



That’s because no one really knew how Saban, the latest college coach to make the NFL leap, would do.


Saban never had a losing season as a head coach in the college ranks. Now, with at least a .500 record guaranteed, he can add the NFL to his impressive resume.


Can anyone doubt that owner Wayne Huizenga made a great decision in bringing Saban to Miami?


Clearly, Saban and his staff have this team back on the right track. For the first time in a great while, there is a conviction that the Miami Dolphins will soon be back in the hunt for their third Super Bowl title.


Defensively, we’ve seen new creativity in coverages and schemes; this has allowed the Dolphins to overcome talent shortcomings in the secondary while creating big read and react problems for opposing offenses.


For example, the defense has been so successful in pressuring the quarterback that they need just two more sacks to break the team record set in 1983 (49).


Give Saban an opportunity to add better players into the mix and this unit is going to be good. Really good.


Offensively, the Dolphins are undergoing a renaissance.


Line boss Hudson Houck has indeed worked miracles by taking a collection of poorly performing pieces and transforming them into a synchronized unit. The offensive line is truly the pleasant surprise of 2005.


Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, maligned by many (including yours truly) for poor playcalling, has really improved his work since leaving the press box for the sidelines. The result: more effective, practical, and timely in-game decisions that players have raved about.


And while the search for the quarterback of the future will continue to be at the top of GM Randy Mueller’s to-do list, it is evident that the Dolphins already have much of what they need at the other skill positions.


Good coaching and good playing came together during the second half of the season to produce a five game winning streak, including the first undefeated December in 20 years, for an 8-7 record.


Pretty good stuff for this bunch.


No, it isn’t good enough for a playoff berth but it is commensurate with a realistic and positive expectation for a team that is on the way back from the nadir of its storied history.


All that remains for the 2005 Dolphins is the final test, another lock-up with old nemesis New England.


In the not too distant past, it was the Dolphins who owned the “Patsies”; two annual wins that were all but expected.


Today, Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots rule the football world. They have what the Dolphins want to regain.


And so it is fitting that the final game of the 2005 season be played in Foxborough, pitting two terrific head coaches and the teams they define.


In terms of the playoffs, the game is meaningless. The Patriots will learn nothing, gain nothing from this game. In fact, they have much to lose in terms of added injury to an already depleted roster. Their desire to maintain positive momentum going into the playoffs will be their motivation to play well.


However, from the Dolphin perspective, there is great benefit in playing this game: the opportunity to measure work-in-progress against the world champions, on the road and in cold weather.


Simply put, do the Dolphins have what it takes to beat the Patriots in the most hostile environment they can possibly face, on the eve of the playoffs?


Win or lose, more will be learned about what needs improving. Saban and his staff will take this knowledge, add it to what they already know, and use it to make the 2006 team better. The optimism about the Dolphins’ future will be bright.


If the Dolphins win there will, of course, be a mixed conclusion drawn. Most observers will maintain that the Pats had little to play for and that the Dolphins did their thing against second stringers.


Fair conclusion. Still, there is some real respect the Dolphins will earn by punking the Pats in their house.


Let’s stop there because we really can’t oversell the ramifications of a Dolphin win. It’s only when the big money is on the table, say the division title and a playoff berth, that a real message gets delivered.


For 2005, the Dolphins have already earned a “B+”. Give them a solid “A” if they defeat the hot Pats in cold New England.




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