Only three assistants survived Nick Saban’s staff reshuffle -- special teams coach Keith Armstrong, strength and conditioning coach John Gamble and defensive backs coach Mel Phillips. Phillips, remarkably, has survived 20 years with the Dolphins, working first for Don Shula, then staying on the staffs of Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt and Jim Bates.
All downhill from here The Dolphins didn’t start games that poorly in 2004. At the end of their 16 first quarters, they were tied at 79. So what was the problem? The third quarter. They were outscored 95–34.
Where did everyone go?
After the trade of cornerback Patrick Surtain, the Dolphins have no players remaining from their 1998, 1999 and 2000 drafts. Jimmy Johnson conducted the first two, and Dave Wannstedt had final say over the third.
It’s been a decade since linebacker Junior Seau made the playoffs. He last qualified with the Chargers in 1995. Seau has played only six playoff games.
Saban was very familiar with his first four draft selections. He coached against Ronnie Brown and Channing Crowder in the SEC, he coached against Matt Roth in the last Capital One Bowl, and he coached Travis Daniels at LSU.
The Prophecy: “If the Dolphins don’t (make the playoffs), many of them, including their coach, might find themselves starting over somewhere else.”
The Lie: “Nothing appears to be wrong with (Ricky) Williams, so a better line might be all he needs to get back to his previous productivity.”
—Athlon Sports Pro Football 2004
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Following the most chaotic season in franchise history, the Dolphins finally could celebrate on Christmas. That's when one of college's most successful coaches announced he would accept the challenge of restoring their relevance and credibility.
Surprisingly, LSU's Nick Saban was not simply playing a practical joke. Saban, the Bill Belichick disciple hotly pursued by NFL teams for a decade, did indeed agree to a contract valued at $22.5 million over five years, with the understanding he would have total control over the organization's operation. Owner H. Wayne Huizenga would have offered anything to avoid a repeat of 2004, during which a 4-12 record was merely one of the embarrassments. It started badly, with star running back Ricky Williams quitting one week before training camp. Then it got worse, with serious injuries, hurricane-related rescheduling, a failed steroids test, and offensive staff bickering among the lowlights. Enter Saban. "I don't think that I can turn this program around," Saban says. "I think the people that we can put together as a team can turn this program around."
In a move that will define his tenure as Miami's top decision-maker, GM Rick Spielman sent a 2005 second-round choice to the Eagles for A.J. Feeley, who had gone 4-1 in 2002. Dave Wannstedt never warmed to the newcomer, however, making him split snaps with incumbent Jay Fiedler during training camp and yanking him in and out thereafter.
Taking a beating behind a bad offensive line, the strong-armed Feeley showed promise and toughness but could not avoid some disastrous mistakes, many of which were returned for scores.
Even if Feeley improves under the new staff, it still might not be enough to hold off veteran signee Gus Frerotte. Frerotte, who turns 34 in late July, has made only 20 starts since 1998, but one was a near-perfect performance in Scott Linehan's system in Minnesota in 2003. Frerotte's relationship with Linehan, the Dolphins' new offensive coordinator, gives him the same advantage over Feeley that Fiedler had last summer.
Williams was the story of the 2004 season, even if he couldn't stick to one story regarding why he really left. Saban has allowed for a return, but there are many hurdles.
So the new coach used the No. 2 overall pick on Ronnie Brown, a versatile 230-pounder from Auburn. "I've got first-hand knowledge playing against this guy. He put half of our defensive team in the training room for a week every time we played him," Saban says.
If Brown stays out of the training room, that will be an improvement for the Dolphins, who rushed for only 1,339 yards two years after Williams alone rushed for 1,853. Travis Minor, Sammy Morris and Lamar Gordon were among those who took turns as the primary back, but none could stay healthy. The same was true of Rob Konrad, so Heath Evans takes his place at fullback.
We'll know more when Ricky Williams shows up at training camp, but right now the controversial running back appears to serious about returning this year. If he does come back, he'll have to face league discipline for a drug violation, which will be a four-game suspension. Williams will create a media circus, but if he'll make an impact on the field is a big question mark.
Is this finally the year for Chris Chambers? After four years of frustration in a conservative offense, Chambers may finally get the chance to emerge as a true No. 1 receiver. To achieve his first 1,000-yard season, he must make tough catches over the middle as well as his usual spectacular grabs down the field and along the sideline.
He has a solid complement on the other side in Marty Booker, who lacks breakaway speed but should exceed his 50-catch total if the quarterback and offensive line play improve.
The Dolphins still could use a consistent No. 3, with Derrius Thompson and Bryan Gilmore still the primary options. The team will rely heavily on tight end Randy McMichael, who had 73 catches and four TDs. McMichael has been the offense's most emotional player, and with more consistency, he should be in the Pro Bowl before long.
You'd have better luck picking five numbers for the lottery than guessing which five numbers will make up the offensive line. There are about 50 possible combinations, including the one most responsible for allowing 52 sacks while giving little help to the running game.
The overall personnel has hardly changed, but most expect the line play to improve because of the presence of new assistant Hudson Houck, who did a terrific job with little proven talent in San Diego.
First, he must decide on a left tackle, since all the quarterbacks are right-handed. Wade Smith, the 2003 starter, regressed, forcing Damion McIntosh to take over, even though the free agent addition had not full healed from offseason surgery. Ideally, 2004 first-round pick Vernon Carey will emerge, but Carey could also start at guard.
John St. Clair was the Dolphins' most consistent lineman in 2004, but there's no guarantee he'll start at right tackle again. Nor is hyped 2004 signing Jeno James safe at left guard. Rex Hadnot will push incumbent Seth McKinney at center, or maybe start at guard, and Stockar McDougle will get one last shot to live up to his potential.
Jason Taylor stands alone, which means he is hardly ever left alone. Double- and triple-teamed even more after the trade of Adewale Ogunleye, he still managed 9.5 sacks. But Taylor will need others to emerge if he is to reach the same statistical levels as in prior years.
Saban has said that Taylor is among his foundation players, which is why he has given him the helpful hands of Kevin Carter, Vonnie Holliday and rookie Matt Roth. Carter, unless too far past his prime, could give Saban a run-stopper and interior pass-rusher perfect for 3-4 schemes. David Bowens, who has tried to make up for lost speed with a non-stop motor, is still around, as are run-stuffers Tim Bowens and Larry Chester, mammoth men coming back from major injuries.
Saban hopes to blend old and young into a dynamic and flexible unit. But it will be a challenge. It starts with Zach Thomas, and how healthy he can remain. He can still be dynamic, but his body has begun to break down in recent years, and blockers got into him more easily after Bowens and Chester got hurt last season. "Last year and the last couple of years, we would bend and we would break, too," Thomas says. "We did have a good defense, but we're trying to take it to be No. 1."
In a surprise, Junior Seau returns for a 16th season. Still an inspirational leader, the future Hall of Famer played reasonably well before tearing a pectoral muscle. He can't be counted on in an every-down capacity anymore, but he can still fill a role.
Saban prefers big linebackers, so some holdovers, including 2003 second-rounder Eddie Moore and 2004 seventh-rounder Derrick Pope, may struggle to hold onto spots. Donnie Spragan emerged as a starter in Denver last season, and rookie Channing Crowder has big-play ability and could make an immediate impact.
No returning defensive back had an interception last season. Good thing the secondary is Saban's specialty. Patrick Surtain, the unit's premier player, is gone. That means Sam Madison must move back into the No. 1 cornerback role, lost step or not. The other side is in flux. Will Poole was the favorite to land a starting spot, but he tore up his knee in a May mini-camp. Mario Edwards, Reggie Howard and Travis Daniels, who played for Saban at LSU, will be in the hunt for the job.
Tebucky Jones and Travares Tillman were signed to replace Arturo Freeman and Sammy Knight at safety, but it's unclear if that is an upgrade. Tony Bua, a converted linebacker, and Yeremiah Bell also will get looks.
Olindo Mare is no longer an elite kicker, but you could still do worse. He made 12 of his 16 field goals in an injury shortened season, but the Dolphins actually got better production from his replacements, who were 7-of-7. Because of the suspect offense, Matt Turk punted 98 times, and was adequate.
Wes Welker is a fan favorite with his fearlessness and ended a 15-year drought by returning a kickoff for a TD. But the new regime might opt for more speed.
It's Saban's show now. He is calling every shot, and so far, fans have been pleased with his decisions, just as they were at the start of Jimmy Johnson's tenure in 1996. Much will depend on how he works the salary cap, which was not a factor when Saban last coached in the league.
The roster is in transition, and the division is strong, so it would be asking too much to expect the playoffs now. A seven- or eight-win season would be a great accomplishment. In two years, Saban will have more of his type of players, and by 2007, he might be able to make a real playoff run.