Boston Sports Forum Commentary
Del N. Jones
Every team in the AFC East has some sort of football issue going into the regular season.
The New York Jets will have to prove that they can stop the run. The Buffalo Bills will have to show NFL opponents that they can win with Drew Bledsoe, and the New England Patriots will deal with the weekly bulls-eye of being the defending Super Bowl champions.
But trust me, each franchise will happily take their circumstances after a quick peak south at Miami.
The Dolphins pushed their annual December swoon five months ahead of schedule in 2004 with some debilitating events that would make any collection of football players have trouble winning games.
First, franchise player Ricky Williams shocked the organization and the NFL community by retiring one week before the start of training camp. The Williams situation has been an ongoing saga that includes three failed drug tests, an $8.6 million payback desired by the team, multiple telephone conversations, and the possibility that the odd character in cleats could return this season.
You got all that?
If losing a Pro Bowl running back responsible for 37.3 percent of the offense wasn’t enough ill-fortune, newly acquired wide receiver David Boston - the logical second offensive option - was loss for the season with a knee injury.
In a reaction to the personnel problems, a reeling front office traded holdout defensive end Adewale Ogunleye (the 2003 AFC sack leader) to Chicago for wide receiver Marty Booker and a 2005 third-round draft pick.
With a rare trade - especially this late in the NFL calendar - the Dolphins are clearly rocked by the negative developments.
"If Ricky were to come back, he'd have to hold a team meeting and explain to us what his thinking was," defensive end Jay Williams told reporters his take on the varied reports that Williams is lightly considering a return to the Dolphins this year. "He may think he doesn't have to do that, but he definitely has to, because he quit [seven] days before camp started. He let all of us down.
"So if he wants to come back in this locker room, he would have to call a team meeting and sit up there and be a man and explain what was going on in his head. We're all in here depending on each other and the goal is not to let the other man down. And what he did was let us down."
Sure sounds like an undistracted locker room.
With the players they “do have” in uniform, the Dolphins have looked less than sharp this preseason - starting with the two most important skilled positions. There is a quarterback battle between Jay Fiedler and newcomer A. J. Feeley, but neither has looked worthy to be chosen the starter.
That has been overshadowed only by the void left by Williams as a dependable offensive option in the backfield. Williams rushed for 1,372 yards and 9 touchdowns last year, 3,225 yards and 25 TDs in two seasons with the Dolphins.
More importantly, he carried the football a NFL-high 392 times in 2003, leading to sustained drives, shorter games and more rest for a talented, but aging defensive group.
Heading into the final preseason game Travis Minor is the No. 1 running back on the depth chart, though his 26 yards on 19 carries (1.4 average) have hardly compelled the Miami front office to scream "Ricky who!?!?" out the luxury box windows.
The Dolphins have scored just two touchdowns this preseason and are reportedly looking for some veteran help at running back, but have been unsuccessful thus far with the regular season quickly approaching.
"If we can't run the ball, we're sure as hell not going to drop back 50 times and throw it," head coach Dave Wannstedt was quoted as saying recently. "That's not our game."
So what exactly will be Miami’s game?
Defensively may be the only way the Dolphins win in 2004. With Ogunleye’s 15 sacks, they ranked 11th in the league in total defense a year ago. The front seven that still includes Pro Bowlers Zack Thomas (152 tackles), Jason Taylor (13 sacks) and Junior Seau (96 tackles and three sacks) finished fifth in the NFL against the run. But a secondary that also features All-Pro cornerbacks Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain was pushed to 21st in the league defending the pass.
A promising Ogunleye will be missed, but the unit has enough talent to be effective again this year.
The Dolphins won 10 games in 2003 and still missed the playoffs for the second straight season. Wannstedt’s 41-23 record in four seasons is undermined by only one playoff win, and the grumblings about his job security are louder than ever.
After another year out of the postseason, more than one office desk will be cleaned out. Can anyone say rebuilding project?
*Last Year's record: 10-6 Missed Playoffs
*2002 record: 9-7 Missed Playoffs
*Key Players: JASON TAYLOR, ZACK THOMAS, TRAVIS MINOR, JAY FIEDLER, MARTY BOOKER, PATRICK SURTAIN, SAM MADISON
*Toughest games: at New England (Oct. 10), at Buffalo (Oct. 17), St. Louis (Oct. 24) at Seattle (Nov. 21), at Denver (Dec. 12), New England (Dec. 20), at Baltimore (Jan. 2).
This is Part Three of a four-part Preview of the AFC East for 2004. Next Monday BSF will conclude with a preview of the Patriots (Sep. 6).
Commentaries by Del N. Jones are posted on Boston Sports Forum every Monday. His weekend columns can also be read in the Saturday/Sunday edition of The Patriot Ledger or at patriotledger.com.