Postcard from camp: Dolphins
Brandon Marshall gives Miami the game-breaking WR it previously lacked
Chad Henne, who became the starter in Week 3, is the unquestioned No. 1 QB
Linebacker Koa Misi leads the youth movement on the Dolphins defense
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Ben Reiter had to say about the Dolphins camp in Davie, Fla. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
"Home of Bergeron Rodeo Grounds," the sign reads as you drive into Davie, Fla., but this town of 90,000 also plays host to chaos that is even more controlled -- at the Dolphins' practice facility, on the main campus of Nova Southeastern University. The Dolphins, like half the teams in the NFL these days, choose to eschew moving vans and dorm room beds so as to conduct training camp at their year-round, state-of-the-art home, replete with a four-year-old, looming white practice bubble that covers more than two acres of synthetic turf and shields them from the late summer South Florida rains. All the better for Bill Parcells, now entering his third year as the Dolphins' Executive Vice President, to keep an eye on his charges. On Tuesday, as a torrential downpour beat down on the bubble, Parcells comfortably watched his team's two-hour session from a plastic chair stationed on the 50-yard-line, the Big Tuna departing only as end-of-practice wind sprints began.
1. LeBron James wasn't the only one who took his talent to South Beach this summer. Brandon Marshall, Miami's new 26-year-old receiver, came to town with plenty of baggage, but did not back off talking about his numerous legal troubles and petulant behavior during his four years as a Bronco. "We play a sport where we're supposed to react before we think, and that has hurt me," he said. "Instead of sometimes sitting back and thinking, I was reacting. I've been playing this game since I was 5 years old, and it was instilled in me just to react. That's what makes me good on the field, and unfortunately it hurt me in the past a few times."
Despite Marshall's rap sheet, the Dolphins on April 14 traded a pair of second-round picks for him and immediately signed him to a four-year, $47.5 million contract extension -- and it's been so far, so very good. He has used his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame to consistently dominate on the practice field, and has shown why he, in 2009, became just the fifth wide receiver ever to string together three consecutive seasons of 100+ receptions.
A happy Marshall should provide the Dolphins with something they haven't had in years. "We've had good receivers here in the past, but ... not a game-changer like Brandon," says running back Ricky Williams. I think it's really going to open up our offense a lot."
Marshall might be four inches shorter than LeBron, and 20 pounds lighter, but his impact on the Miami sporting scene could be just as significant.
2. Miami's running back tandem will be unmatched. Just three teams featured a duo who rushed for more combined yards than Williams' and Ronnie Brown's 1,769 last season, despite the latter being lost for the season in Week 10 after suffering a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot. The former admirably carried the load from there on, en route to his first 1,000-yard season since 2003, and it's difficult to decide which is more impressive: that he accomplished that feat at 32, or that he is the Dolphins' longest-tenured player, after all of the stops-and-starts that have pocked his career, not to mention one of the longest-tenured employees. "The groundskeepers are still the same," Williams notes. "The secretaries that work upstairs, for the most part they're still the same."
Williams is now beloved and deeply respected by his fans and teammates, and whatever he has done -- the yoga, the meditation, the massage, the vegetarian diet, the couple of years off -- has worked, even if no other football player could ever hope to replicate it. He's still running hard, and he looks years younger than his actual age, and he and Brown could both easily surpass the 1,000-yard mark in 2010.
"Two totally different backs -- it's amazing to have that kind of versatility between the two," says linebacker Karlos Dansby, a friendly type who is as fond of the duo as he is of the word "man." "Ronnie, man, he can see it before it even happens, if you ask me. Make guys miss in the hole. Ricky, he's like a piledriver, man. I can't believe he's doing it like that, man. S***, ain't nothing changed. He lives a different type, but he's still got it, man. It's amazing for him to still be playing at that kind of level. To see him running hard -- oh yeah, man."
3. This is now firmly Chad Henne's team. Henne, a second-round pick in 2008, was far less ballyhooed than the AFC East's other first-year starting quarterback -- the Jets' Mark Sanchez -- both before and after he took over for the injured Chad Pennington in Week 3. But by most measures, Henne has outperformed the man they call The Sanchize: in QB rating (75.2 for Henne, 63.0 for Sanchez); in passing yards (2,878 for Henne, 2,444 for Sanchez); and in touchdown-to-interception ratio (12 to 14 for Henne, 12 to 20 for Sanchez).
"Last year he got thrown in and did a great job once Pennington went down," says left tackle Jake Long. "As the games went on, he became more and more the rock of our offense. Now he's our leader. When he speaks, everybody shuts up, and you just listen to him." Henne is now entrenched, and with an elite receiver in Marshall at his disposal, the wise bet is he will continue to outpace Sanchez.
On March 5, the Dolphins signed the 28-year-old Dansby to a five-year, $43 million free-agent contract (with $22 million guaranteed), making the former Cardinal the NFL's highest-ever paid inside linebacker ... for two whole months. (The 49ers gave Patrick Willis a five-year, $50 million deal in May.) Dolphins brass has yet to feel even a hint of buyer's remorse. "Never mind leadership things, because I think he has leadership qualities," explains Sparano, who has called Dansby the most impressive player in Dolphins camp. "His awareness, his recognition, and how fast he pulls the trigger when he sees something, for a big man" -- Dansby is 6-4, 250 pounds -- "is tremendous, it really is."
Dansby, who recorded 553 tackles and 25.5 sacks in his six seasons in Arizona, will be tasked with leading the revitalization of a 3-4 unit that was only middling in '09 (it ranked 17th in total defense, 15th in points allowed), and with providing it some pressure-tested experience. He and defensive end Charles Grant are the only Dolphins who have ever played in a Super Bowl. Though Sparano says he has yet to decide who on the field will call the defense's plays, Dansby feels he knows who it will be. "I think I will be wearing the sticker and making some of the calls," he says.
Koa Misi, outside linebacker. That $43 million surely helped, but Dansby says he signed with the Dolphins, the first team he visited as a free agent, for one central reason: "The youth, man!" "Gotta lot of young guys with a lot of talent, from the d-line all the way back to the secondary," he continues. "It's an organization that's on the turn, and I wanted to be part of a winner."
When he became a Dolphin, Dansby didn't yet know that the front office was about to give new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan (the successor to Paul Pasqualoni) even more youth to exploit: seven of the team's eight draft picks were defenders. Included among them was Misi, the 6-3, 251-pound second-round pick out of Utah, who is in line to start alongside first-rounder Jared Odrick, the right defensive end from Penn State. At least five probable starters will begin the season at 25 or younger, and Sparano does not view that as a negative. "Don't really have any concerns about it," he says. "A lot of our young players have played a lot of football. The good news is that the JV is becoming the varsity."
The numbers on an opposing player's chest. The scratches on his helmet. Perhaps a stream of mucus, forcibly ejected from his nostrils. Not images observed by me -- at least up close -- but those perceived on each and every play by Long, the Dolphins' No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft and a Pro Bowl selection in each of his first two seasons. Long rarely gets to appreciate any of Henne's zippy throws, or Marshall's acrobatic catches. "I don't see much," he says. "Mostly I'm just trying to stay in front of a guy, and that's it. I don't get the luxury of watching the ball getting thrown or caught. Not until film the next day."
The 6-7, 317-pound Long is just 25, but he has quickly become perhaps the most irreplaceable member of the Dolphins' offense, the player who allows both the passing and running games to go. Henne has been his teammate for seven years now -- four at Michigan, then three with the Dolphins -- and appreciates Long, who attended his wedding in Pennsylvania in July, more than anyone. How many times in their long partnership has Long allowed a defender to get in a truly clean shot at him? "Less than a handful," Henne says. "I can always count on him, and what he does."
1. Ricky Williams, M.D.? That's what Williams says we will be calling him 10 years from today. "I'm studying pre-med, taking classes when I have the time," he says. "I have a lot of sciences to get through -- physics, organic chemistry, chemistry, calculus. I want to go into psychiatry, and that's a four-year residency." You'd be right to be skeptical if such a plan were to be expressed by any other 33-year-old NFL star. But Williams is so unique, so mold breaking, so steadfast in his beliefs, that you have to think he'll do it.
2. If you're looking for a potential sleeper on the Dolphins -- from a fantasy football perspective, or otherwise -- look no further than wideout Brian Hartline, Miami's fourth-round pick out of Ohio State last year. Had Parcells stayed for those end-of-practice wind sprints, he'd have seen that Hartline won every one, and Hartline should open the season as a complementary deep threat starting opposite Marshall. "The games last year weren't too big for Brian," says Sparano of a rookie season in which Hartline led the team with three touchdown grabs. "He caught the ball and ran with it. This guy has big-play potential."
3. Sparano was asked Tuesday if he'd ever consider following former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson by competing on the reality show Survivor. The answer was a definitive no. "I'm with him all the way -- better him than me, though," Sparano said. "He's got that old fishing thing figured out. I still haven't figured that fishing thing out. He's going to eat OK, I imagine." Tune into Survivor: Nicaragua's premiere Sept. 15 on CBS to see if, as expected, Johnson's one personal item was a good-sized can of hairspray.
4. Marshall had no clue as to whether LeBron would be joining him in Miami, but he did have an inkling as to the free agency destination of Chris Bosh. "I met Bosh a week or two before he signed here," he says. "I was trying to pick his brain to see where he was going, and I was hoping he was going to pick Miami. He gave me kind of a wink." A wink? "To me it was a head's up, saying, it's probably going to happen."
5. My takeaway from the Dolphins? That their relative youth, and especially an awfully difficult early schedule that has them facing 2009 playoff teams in six of seven games between Weeks 2 and 9 (in the Vikings, Jets, Patriots, Packers, Bengals and Ravens), should lead them to miss the postseason for the eighth time in nine years. But the Dolphins are definitely a team on the long-term make, and it's not difficult to imagine that one year soon, South Beach will host not one, but two, championship parades.
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