Postcard from camp: Dolphins
Chad Henne should have one more opportunity to prove he can be a starter
The team is counting on Reggie Bush to be an every-down back despite his history
The Dolphins could either challenge for a playoff spot or pick high in the 2012 draft
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Where Bill Parcells no longer is -- the Dolphins' practice facility on the muggy campus of Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Fla., their training camp's usual site. "No, not really," head coach Tony Sparano said when asked if anything significant had changed in the wake of former team V.P. Parcells' (apparent) retirement, and the fact that the nature of left tackle Jake Long's current injury is being publicly revealed as affecting either his knee or his shoulder should underscore the maintenance of the Big Tuna's omerta.
1. It's too early to close the book on Chad Henne. Dolphins fans welcomed the 26-year-old incumbent quarterback to training camp with boos and chants expressing their desire for the team to trade for the Broncos' Kyle Orton -- interesting in that Henne's first three seasons don't look so very different from Orton's. Orton, as a Bear, threw 30 touchdowns to Henne's 27, had 27 interceptions to Henne's 33, and completed 55 percent of his passes to Henne's 61 percent. More than that, says Sparano, "I see progress in this guy. I see it right now, in training camp. I'm seeing another jump." Henne has been throwing the ball downfield, particularly to Brandon Marshall, with more confidence and accuracy than in any previous camp. Even as some clamor for his backup, Matt Moore -- he of the 55.6 quarterback rating last year with the Panthers -- to start Week 1, Henne deserves one more opportunity before being deemed a failure.
2. The defense could be one of the NFL's best. It should, at the least, be stable: It returns 10 of 11 starters from a unit that ranked sixth overall last season (the only new face is inside linebacker Kevin Burnett, formerly of the Chargers). Included among the returnees is former CFLer Cameron Wake, who last year, in his second NFL season at the age of 28, came out of nowhere to rank third in the NFL with 14 sacks. Wake, who knows now not to take his success for granted, spent the offseason watching a tape not of his sacks, but of plays on which he faltered. "I looked at stuff I should have done better: I should have gotten here quicker, my steps were wrong," he says. "There were sacks I left on the field."
3. Mike Pouncey might be the league's most polished rookie. Pouncey, the Dolphins' first round pick, played only one year of center at Florida, but that was because his twin brother, Maurkice, held down that job until he was drafted by the Steelers before last season. Maurkice started 16 games and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, and now Mike seems set to do the same. "I think an awful lot of his brother," says Sparano of Maurkice. "We've played against him. When you play against somebody and he makes that kind of impression on you -- I was pleased there was another one. I think he's the real deal out there." Mike, now in his second season as a center, says, "Now I feel comfortable at it, and I wouldn't want to play another position. I like being the guy making all the calls."
Paul Soliai, nose tackle. The 355-pound Soliai, 27, suddenly became the very surprising answer to the trivia question "Who is the highest-paid defensive player in Dolphins history?" when they applied their franchise tag to him. He has made 19 starts in his four-year career, yet will earn $12.476 million this season. "Obviously the way we've made the commitment to Paul tells you what it is we think about him," says Sparano. "In our [3-4] defense, it's hard to find those type of players. It's hard to find Vince Wilfork. When you find those guys, you've got to keep them." Soliai, who will make more than 22 times what he did last year -- yet whose first two seasons in the league were marked by listlessness and weight problems -- should have great cause to continue his rapid ascent as the anchor of what ought to be a very good defense.
Reggie Bush, running back. After five increasingly disappointing years in New Orleans -- five years in which his number of receptions dropped in each one, and in which his rushing yards fell in each of the last three -- the former No. 2 overall pick gets a fresh start in Miami, after a July trade. The plan is also for him to have a new role: no longer as a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type, but as an every-down running back. "It's an opportunity for me to kind of prove a lot of the doubters wrong," says Bush, who is not listed on the Dolphins' punt return depth chart. It's an opportunity that won't necessarily last long, as Bush has averaged just 4.0 yards per carry and 12 games per season in his career, and has rookie Daniel Thomas, Miami's second-round draft pick, waiting in the wings.
A 5-11 record is a definite possibility. But there are certainly other possibilities. Miami's schedule presents seven games that will be very difficult to win (at home against the Patriots and Eagles and on the road against the Jets, Giants, Chiefs, Cowboys and Pats), and four games that should be very difficult to lose (at home against the Broncos, Redskins, Bills and Raiders). That leaves five "swing" games -- at home against the Texans and Jets, and away against the Browns, Chargers and Bills. In other words, this most-difficult-to-project team could just as easily go 9-7, and challenge for a wild-card berth, as 4-12. The truth, like most truths, likely lies somewhere in the middle.