Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dolphins now look like a football team

Thursday, Jul. 30, 2009 - 2:20 p.m. ET

DAVIE, Fla. -- A year later, Tony Sparano can laugh about his first impression of the Miami Dolphins.

The team he took over in early 2008 was coming off a 1-15 season, the worst in franchise history. It showed when Sparano conducted offseason workouts.

"It sometimes didn't really look much like football out there," Sparano says with a smile. "A little bit of rugby, a little bit of other things going on, but not a whole lot like football all the time."

Then came a sudden transformation. The Dolphins went 11-6 in 2008, climbing from worst in the NFL to first in the AFC East. They ended a seven-year postseason drought and became the first team in league history to make the playoffs a year after winning only once.

Now the challenge is to continue the extraordinary progress of last season. As preparation for Year 2 of the Bill Parcells regime begins Sunday with the first training camp practice, coach Sparano isn't counting on much carry-over.

"What's in the past is in the past," Sparano says. "Nothing is owed to you. Nothing is guaranteed to you in this league. That's not the kind of business that we're in. ...

"That being said, there are some things you can take from 2008. There's a confidence."

Prospects are a lot rosier than at this time a year ago, when there was so much uncertainty following the biggest organizational shakeup in decades. The Dolphins had a rookie head coach, no starting quarterback and 45 new players.

The offense and defense have both been significantly upgraded since, and Sparano and his staff have won the respect of the players.

"A year later, they understand what it is that we're looking for as coaches," Sparano says. "They know the system better. There are fewer mental errors. Guys are able to react a lot faster. Without being arrogant, it's like night and day."

The steady roster turnover since Parcells took over continues. Only 21 players who were with the team in 2007 remain, and that includes Jason Taylor, back after a year in exile with the Washington Redskins.

The position most dramatically improved under the Parcells regime is quarterback, which now includes NFL Comeback Player of the Year Chad Pennington, highly regarded backup Chad Henne, and Pat White, a second-round draft pick in April who could thrive in the Wildcat package introduced last year.

The Dolphins didn't make much of a splash this offseason in free agency, where the most prominent additions were Taylor, center Jake Grove and defensive backs Gibril Wilson and Eric Green. Other noteworthy newcomers include cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith and receiver Patrick Turner, all rookies.

"We're excited about what happened in the offseason with all the new faces that we have in free agency and with the draft," says Pennington, coming off the best season of his nine-year career. "That is why every year is different. What we did in 2008 has no bearing in 2009. We have a big challenge ahead of us: to learn each other and to build team chemistry and to work together."

Some of the new faces at practice will be on the sideline. Owner Stephen Ross completed his purchase of the team from Wayne Huizenga in January, and new minority owners Marc Anthony and Gloria and Emilio Estefan may stop by to check out their investment.

One goal in camp will be to find ways for Taylor to complement linebacker Joey Porter and upgrade the pass rush. The Dolphins are counting on rookies to shore up the two thinnest areas, the receiving corps and secondary. At least four starting jobs are up for grabs: receiver, right guard, cornerback and defensive end.

Miami hopes to carve out a role for White in the Wildcat, the variation of the single wing that rejuvenated the offense last season. White discovered in offseason workouts that the NFL is different from West Virginia, where he set a career NCAA record for yards rushing by a quarterback.

"Guys are definitely running around faster," White says. "They are lot smarter, they are bigger, faster and stronger. It's going to take some adjusting, but hopefully I will get there one day."

Like White, Sparano will find the competition stiffer this season. As a consolation prize for going 1-15, Miami benefited from a soft schedule in 2008, but this year the Dolphins face four defending division champions, including Super Bowl winner Pittsburgh to conclude the regular season.

The first of four exhibition games is Aug. 17 against Jacksonville.

As Sparano prepares to lead the first practice, he's confident his players are ready to follow - more so than at this time in 2008.

"I'm doing the same things right now that I was a year ago," he says. "The difference is they're paying attention a little bit more. Last year, every day you came out, you had to prove something to the players. Now I think these guys understand there is a method to my madness. They have bought in, and there is some history there."

Associated Press.


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