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Blueprint for Rebuilding: the 2008 Miami Dolphins

With the NFL Draft looming, VanRam suggested that I pursue the idea of looking at recent rebuilds in the NFL - how did teams suddenly jump from misery to respectability to contention? Examples include the 2008 Dolphins and Falcons, the 2002 John Fox Panthers, the 1996 Tony Dungy Buccaneers, maybe even the San Diego Chargers' brief rise to glory under Bobby Beathard and young Billy Devaney in the early 1990s... if I get that many done between now and the draft.

We have reasons to hope for a speedy turnaround -- the NFL is perhaps the most friendly professional sports league in the world, in terms of allowing teams to rapidly reinvent themselves. The combination of uber-rich TV contracts and a weak players' union makes for a high salary cap and relatively flexible rosters from year to year. And, it's been done before by a few lucky teams.

The first one I'm going to focus on is the 2008 Miami Dolphins.



What Went Wrong in 2007?

How about a simple answer: everything.

The year started when Nick Saban abruptly gave up on professional ball and bolted to Alabama. This sent owner Wayne Huizenga on a widely-publicized two week coaching search, taking him as far as Costa Rica to woo USC coach Pete Carroll. Thwarted, he settled on one of the league's "hot coordinators," Cam Cameron of the Chargers.

It didn't work.

They started the season 0-13. They won their only game on a miracle play in overtime by quarterback Cleo Lemon, defeating the then-downtrodden Baltimore Ravens.

Lemon, John Beck, and Trent Green formed a triumvirate of suck at the quarterback position, combining for a 69.57 QB rating, with only 12 touchdown passes on the year.

Rather than fix the offense, Cameron openly feuded with his team's best player, Jason Taylor.

GM Randy Mueller simply gave up on the season before October's leaves started turning, trading their top two receivers, Wes Welker and Chris Chambers, for a sackful of pretty shells and a dashboard hula dancer. (Actually, two second-round picks and a 7th-rounder.) Replacing these two in the rotation was the colossally over-drafted Ted Ginn, Jr., and a warm body from the 2006 draft, Derek Hagan.

Meanwhile, Ricky Williams was on some sort of spiritual quest, taking a brief time out to carry the ball 6 times for 15 yards. Their one bright spot, offensively, was rookie RB Ronnie Brown, and that light went out as his season was forcibly ended in Week 6 by injury.

The once-mighty Fins defense, already long in the tooth, became toothless. Miami dropped to 30th in the NFL in points allowed, worst in franchise history.

Bottom line: this was a team with no reliable skill position players, an aging core, a clueless GM, and an overmatched coach. This was a franchise in complete, utter ruin.

Starting the Rebuild

Change has to start at the top. However, Huizenga didn't want to be the hatchet man himself.

So in early December, he hired perhaps the best in the business -- Bill Parcells -- to fill the empty position of "Executive VP of Football Operations." (This was a position originally created for Dan Marino back in 2004, a position which he held for all of three weeks before deciding he'd had enough.) Ironically, Parcells was in the midst of negotiating with the Atlanta Falcons, another team badly in need of a top-to-bottom housecleaning, when the Dolphins got him.

The new pecking order in Miami was simple: Parcells would answer to Huizenga, and everyone else in the organization would answer to Parcells. And in less than a month, they did, in a series of quick, decisive moves.

GM Randy Mueller was fired the day after the regular season ended, replaced by a player personnel expert in Dallas, Jeff Ireland.

Coach Cam Cameron was let go shortly after, and the Dolphins were able to hire the Dallas Cowboys hot coaching prospect Jason Garrett Tony Sparano on the first day he became available. (i.e. after the Cowboys extended their sad streak without a playoff win to ten years.)

Following these and a host of other changes to the coaching ranks, the team parted ways with their two most recognized, and most-laurelled players: Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas.

As these stalwarts were shown the door, everyone waited for the other shoe to drop, the day when Parcells would take Ricky Williams out into the woods and gently, but mercilessly, put an end to his indifferent NFL career. But throughout his tenure as coach, he has shown a tendency to keep one jackass on his roster -- just one -- as long as they had talent and could be cowed by his superior will. So rather than cut Williams and get nothing but pyrrhic satisfaction, he put a charge in him and got half a pro-bowl-worthy rushing tandem.

Step 2: The 2008 Draft

By virtue of their 1-15 record, the Dolphins had first pick. But the 2008 draft turned out to be a chaotic mess, featuring no sure-fire first-pick talent, no WRs chosen in the first round, and a record 34 draft-day trades. With absolutely nothing behind center, a quarterback would have been an easy choice. And as #3 pick Matt Ryan showed, he would have been a good one. Or, they could have chosen to replace Jason Taylor with edge-rusher Chris Long, and remake their trademark defensive ferocity. But Parcells and Ireland handed coach Sparano, an offensive line specialist, a premier left tackle in Jake Long.

It was a simple matchup: a player who "had no question marks" according to pre-draft analysis, with a coach who was best positioned to get the best out of him.

Here's how the entire Dolphins day 1 draft shaped up:

1 OL Jake Long (Michigan) started all 16 games, went to Pro Bowl
2 DE Philip Merling (Clemson) backup player, started one game
2 QB Chad Henne (Michigan) pick acquired from San Diego. slated for opening day competition.
3 DE Kendall Langford (Hampton) pick acquired from Detroit. no longer listed on depth chart.

Clearly, the Dolphins' draft-day interest was in building strength up the middle. But they didn't rely on first-year players to carry them forward. Rather, they added low-cost depth with hidden gems on the Dallas roster.

Prior to the draft, Miami dealt two second-day picks to the Cowboys for three players who would step in and make immediate contributions: LB Akin Ayodele, NT Jason Ferguson, and TE Anthony Fasano. No household names, but each played significant contributions, starting at least 13 games each. Fasano surprised the league by catching 7 touchdowns, third most in the NFL among tight ends, and three more than the celebrated Jason Witten.

The Dolphins also found two gems among the undrafted: kick return specialist Davone Bess, and their eventual starting place kicker, Dan Carpenter.

Step 3: Luck

After the personnel moves of Spring, this team was a lot younger, and a lot deeper, but still lacking proven talent or any semblance of on-field leadership. The Dolphins appeared to be fine with this, preferring to give room to the younger players on the roster to compete, grow and potentially blossom under the new coaching staff. But then, one of their division rivals would unwittingly put the perfect Parcells player on the free agent blocks.

On August 7th, the Jets completed a trade for the suddenly unretired Brett Favre, and released Chad Pennington.

On August 9th, Pennington signed with Miami and reunited with his old coach.

If Pennington cared that he wasn't wanted in New York, if he cared that there were already two weeks gone in training camp, he didn't look it. The 31-year-old took over this Dolphins team and put up unbelievable numbers, passing for career highs in yards, and numbers he hadn't seen in six years in touchdowns and QB rating.

It was the ultimate low-risk, high-reward move. It should be the headline gamble for the 2008 Dolphins, and would be except for one game in Week 3:

Step 4: The Surprise (aka the Wildcat)

The Dolphins started off 0-2, and had to travel to New England for Week 3. Even without Tom Brady, the Patriots were 13-point favorites to win. But the Pats' defense was old and slow, especially when moving laterally. And the Dolphins' offensive line was young and athletic, and had two monstrous running backs behind them. And with absolutely nothing more to lose, Sparano ordered up some back-to-high-school misdirection football plays, and beat the living shit out of their chowder-eating nemeses.

Ricky Williams rushed for 98 yards on 16 carries. Ronnie Brown did even better, with 116 yards and an eye-popping 4 TDs rushing, and tossed a fifth TD on a halfback option pass. Chad Pennington had probably his easiest day ever against New England, completing 17 of 20 passes without a sack.

The Wildcat was never as significant a factor again in the season, but their success -- and the fact that they caught the mighty Belichick off guard with it -- made it the "in" phenomenon of the league. More importantly, it made Miami harder to gameplan against. The Wildcat gave them a mystique that made them actually feared as opponents.

With the tone-setting win, the 2007 Dolphins entered the bye week and disappeared forever, to be replaced by the 2008 Dolphins, who would win 10 of their next 13 games and steamroll into the playoffs, one year after being toe-tagged and put on a slab.

That's how they did it, in part at least. What will the Rams do?