You can check out my articles under the Miami Dolphins section of isportsweb . com Dolphins ‘09 Lemons = 2010 Lemonade By Ronn Burner • on January 18, 2010 Doesn’t writing a “Season in Review” article in December tell you all you really need to know about the season? Yeah, I know we’re well into January but I could have written this in December. I think you get my point. I needed that time to step back and reflect on the season that was. It would be easy to sit here and go Christian Bale on the Dolphins for treating our emotions like a baby treats a diaper but after the dust settled from their end of season implosion I realized that we actually overachieved. Instead I have 10 reasons why 2009 was a success. Don’t get me wrong, Miami sent me into Tasmanian spins all year long but now that it’s over there is reason to believe that anything less than a playoff run in 2010 would be a failure of “Waterworld” proportions. Our dry land is the AFC East title. Just to briefly recap the season, Miami finished the year a disappointing 7-9 but in all fairness the expectations heading into the year were really not much more than that. Let’s be honest, 10-6 looked like a pipe dream, 9-7 looked optimistic, 8-8 looked realistic and 7-9 looked probable. That assessment looked on point after an 0-3 start to the year getting dominated in Atlanta, losing in heartbreaking fashion at home to the Colts on Monday Night Football followed by another tough loss and long flight home from San Diego. Our disappointment isn’t because Miami finished at 7-9 and out of the playoffs. It’s because they tricked us into thinking we were something we were not. It’s because the resilient Dolphins fought like crazy and sucked us back in by proving they can beat anybody by going 7-3 over their next 10 putting us at 7-6 and not only in the Wild Card driver seat but with their sights set on defending their AFC East crown. I literally wrote the Dolphins off after they completely fell apart in the 4th quarter getting blown out by the Buffalo Bills, yes those Buffalo Bills, in Week 12. It was actually relieving, the season was over and I had moved on until they shockingly beat the New England Patriots the following week and sucking us all right back into the drama. All of the sudden, we were not only in the thick of things but we were in the driver seat and controlled our own destiny with what appeared to be a very manageable remaining schedule. Reality check, Miami drops three must-win games in a row that put the kibosh on that notion real quick thus leaving us let down and frustrated. It’s not all for naught though my fellow Dolfans. Growing pains. Remember, Peyton Manning once threw 28 interceptions in a season. I know! It’s time to make lemonade… 1. Schedule. Based on last years records, we had the toughest schedule in the NFL, against the top Quarterbacks in the league including Drew Brees, Manning, Phillip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady twice and that doesn’t even include Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub. In fact, if you throw Mark Sanchez in the mix, Miami faced 3 of the 4 quarterbacks still alive in the playoffs. No doubt that these guys had their successes but considering we had two rookie corners starting Miami held their own and got much needed experience against the best. Oh yeah, and we had to play 3 games in 11 days, with two of them on the road including 2 games in 4 days. An absolutely brutal stretch even though we won two of those games. We earned that first place schedule by winning the AFC east in 2008 just like we will have earned next years 3rd place and much easier schedule… allegedly. Home games include Detroit, Chicago, Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Cleveland while we travel to Baltimore, Cincinnati Oakland, Green Bay and Minnesota plus the usual division home and away with New England, Buffalo and the New York Jets. It’s completely insane to predict possible outcomes at this point since we clearly have no idea how things will change between now and then but on the surface it should be a much easier road. 2. Injuries. Name another team in the NFL that could have done better than 7-9 after losing their Pro Bowl quarterback, running back, cornerback, best defensive lineman and played musical chairs on a MASH unit offensive line? You can’t, because nobody had this amount of injuries and even if they did they wouldn’t have won 7 games with ample opportunities to win several more. 3. Lack of Big Plays. It’s hard enough to win in this league with a playmaker and damn near impossible to win without one. Miami didn’t have one. We all hoped it would be Ted Ginn until he proved the Venus de Milo had better hands than he does. Google it. We’re all stupid. He had numerous opportunities to make a play at wide receiver and failed each and every time. Who could forget his pathetic effort on the game-winning touchdown against Indianapolis and his dropped touchdown against San Diego? Granted, he single handedly won the game against the Jets with two kickoff returns for touchdowns but that was a complete aberration. He was a complete non-factor in the kicking game other than that game and was a joke at receiver for 15 of 16 games. I’m done blaming Ginn, it’s not his fault. It’s ours for thinking he could be the guy over and over and over again expecting a different result. Isn’t that the definition of insanity? He just flat out doesn’t have the components to ever be a quality football player and despite reports that he will be in Miami next year I will be shocked if he is. 4. More Stupidity and old-fashioned bad luck. Blown calls are part of the game but nothing hurts more than losing a huge game to the New Orleans Saints after mounting a 24-3 first half home lead only to see a bonehead timeout by Tony Sparano just before the half give Sean Payton time to reconsider his field goal attempt from the 1 giving the Saints a touchdown instead of 3. Ok, that was just stupidity, not bad luck but early in the 3rd quarter Darren Sharper picked off Henne and returned it for what appeared to be a touchdown. The replay clearly showed a Sharper fumble at the 2 through the end zone in what should have resulted in a touchback giving Miami the ball at the 20. Instead New Orleans got the touchdown ultimately costing Miami the game. Sure, there were many other opportunities to win that game but the game was over after that play. Clock management, the two-minute offense and play calling (Ummm… Ricky Williams interception from the 3 yard line) were all at the very least embarrassing. 5. Turnovers. In 2008 Miami set an NFL record with a grand total of only 13 turnovers and finished 1st in the league with a +17 turnover ratio. In 2009 Miami had 29 turnovers and finished 27th with -8 turnover ratio. That is a remarkable turnaround. Enough said. That cannot and will not happen in 2010. If it does, we’ll be having this conversation again next year and again and again until it doesn’t. 6. Key Stats. Offensively, Miami finished 1st in the league in plays from scrimmage (1088), tied for 1st on 3rd down percentage (49%), #2 on 4th down (72%) converting on 13 of 18 tries, tied for #4 in fewest penalties, #8 in time of possession (32:01). All great stats but unfortunately other than being 4th in 3rd down percentage (35%) the defensive unit finished in the middle of the pack across the board and ultimately resulting in the firing of DC Paul Pasqualoni. Unless your goal is a top 10 draft pick every year this has to improve… significantly. 7. Draft. 7-9 puts us at #12 and #44 overall. 9-7 puts us at #24 and #56 overall. #12 and #44 is way better. 8. The Magnificent 7 and 7. An important year in the maturity of Chad Henne, Jake Long, Vontae Davis, Sean Smith, Brian Hartline, Nate Garner and Randy Starks. A very young and talented core group of players that should be the heart and soul of the Dolphins for a decade. These next seven have the potential to become special and/or vital cogs as well, Losake Polite, Cameron Wake, Davone Bess, Justin Smiley, Donald Thomas, Kendall Langford and Phillip Merling. Not to mention we are set at kicker with Dan Carpenter and Punter with Brandon Fields. An excellent nucleus to build around. 9. Uncapped Free Agency Market. Miami has plenty of cap space as it is and clearly has shown a willingness to spend money unless of course it’s for stadium upgrades. Anquan Boldin, Vincent Jackson, Brandon Marshall, Miles Austin and Vince Wolfork to name a few are not officially locked down and although the Tuna is not likely to splurge the Dolphins are expected to be active and in desperate need of plugging holes via Free Agency and the trading block. 10. Year 3. We are entering year 3 of the Tuna. With a healthy Will Allen and Jason Ferguson returning with second year standouts Sean Smith and Vontae Davis with a year under their belts there is no reason to think Miami will not be improved across the board. It’s rare to not have one position that may take a drop off, in Miami’s case improvement is all but certain in all position units. Taking all of these things into consideration makes it difficult not to expect an excellent 2010 campaign. Many decisions have to be made and each one affects the next. As I see it there are 4 major areas of concern that must be addressed one way or another. The most obvious and glaring holes in the Dolphins armor that will be off-season priorities. 1. Playmaking Wide Receiver. At this point, I’m just sick of talking about it. Boldin, Marshall, Miles, Jackson, Dez Bryant (OSU), Arrelious Benn (Ill.), Damian Williams, Orande Gadsen, Martha Stewart, the Hamburger Helper glove or anybody, somebody has to come in and not only take Ginn’s roster spot but instill fear in opposing cornerbacks, including Darrelle Revis, the moment they sign. 2. Free Safety. Gibril Wilson may as well catch a ride with Ginn out of town and go bowling or something and if they somehow survive the chopping block they’re going to need a deck of cards to play “War” and pass their time together on the bench. Due in large part to Wilson’s poor play, the Dolphins secondary was about as sound as using a basketball net as a canteen. It would be difficult to replace him and not consider it an upgrade. 3. Middle Linebacker. Channing Crowder is an above average linebacker at best against the run and a flat out liability in pass defense. Akin Ayodele is a decent player but he’s not the guy that is going to lead your 3-4 defense in tackles, rush the passer and defend the pass. With Parcells and Sparano at the helm rest assured Miami will find at least one linebacker that they do believe will be that guy. If Alabama star Rolando McClain slips to #12 consider this hole plugged. 4. Nose Tackle. It isn’t an accident that the Dolphins top 5 rated rush defense dropped faster than Obama’s approval rating after losing Jason Ferguson for the season. He is a stud and when he’s healthy he dominates and makes Crowder and Ayodele appear to be very good linebackers. The problem is, at 35 years old, he isn’t exactly a spring chicken and his health will always be a concern.It also raises the question of how important does Parcells feel Jason Taylor and Joey Porter are to the future of the team. 5. Running Back. Ronnie Brown is a do-it-all beast of a running back when he is at 100%. Nobody can deny that. The issue has been his durability since he’s only managed to get through one season without missing games. Ricky Williams stepped in admirably and went over 1000 yards for the first time since 2003. Though he is a young 32 in running back years, he is still 32 years old. Brown is still only 28 years old so he should definitely have plenty in the tank but injury concerns and his contract situation are a couple of 800 lb. gorillas. Essentially, if the NFLPA and the league’s owners reach a new CBA before March (the current CBA will expire after the 2010 season), Brown would become an unrestricted free agent — and he could leave Miami for a bigger contract elsewhere. But if a new CBA is not reached (which looks inevitable), Brown will be under contract with the Dolphins for another year, and he would be paid a $5 million salary, unless of coarse Jay Leno wants to play running back for Miami. Either way, another running back will likely be added for depth to protect the oft injured Brown, aging Williams and fresh off the Injured Reserve list, Patrick Cobbs. Lex Hilliard is a nice player but he can’t do what we need from our feature back. Come to think of it, neither can Leno.