THE BELIEF The
off-season trade for Daunte Culpepper gives the Dolphins their best quarterback
since Dan Marino. It will be the springboard to undreamed-of success.
THE REALITY Who
can argue? The only thing is, Miami is thin. It's a team of stars, and if one
or more of them go down--that could be disastrous.
Let's start with
Culpepper, who came from the Vikings for a second-round draft choice, almost a
gift. A Dolphins official says their study of the quarterback before the deal
was "extensive, extensive, extensive." The first concern was how his
right knee would hold up. Last year he tore three ligaments, and it's almost
unprecedented for a player to come back from that kind of injury in under a
year. "I never felt pain like that in my life," Culpepper says. "It
felt like my leg was broken in half." Thanks to renowned orthopedist Dr.
James Andrews, Culpepper started the first preseason game, on Aug. 12.
And what of his
game? After 2004, one of the finest seasons a QB ever had, the bottom fell out
for Culpepper even before the injury. He was hesitant, unsure of himself. He
threw into coverage. He repeated mistakes. "I looked at film, and I could
see one thing after another," Culpepper says. "Things never felt right.
We lost our coordinator, our center and Randy Moss, our leading receiver.
Everything started going bad [in '05], and it just got out of control."
former Lions starter Joey Harrington hasn't had a particularly noteworthy camp.
Ronnie Brown must carry the running game while Ricky Williams is off serving a
one-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. After Chris
Chambers, there's no deep threat among the receivers.
And then there's
the offensive line. Oversized, sluggish--that's been the rap. But in 2005,
under the tutelage of Hudson Houck, one of the best coaches in the business, it
showed some life. "The other day I tackled Ronnie a little too hard, and a
little bit of a fight broke out," middle linebacker Zach Thomas says.
"Three linemen jumped me. They've got an attitude now." That's thanks
to Houck, who always favored those big, area-blocking linemen he had clearing
the way for Emmitt Smith in Dallas. "He tells us we're in a heavyweight
fight," says center Rex Hadnot. "He says the big guy will wear the
smaller guy down. That's what we want to do--wear 'em down, break their
You can find all
sorts of hints that this could be a really big year in Miami. The Dolphins have
the momentum of six straight wins at the end of last season. Half their
schedule is against teams that drafted in the top 10. Thomas and Jason Taylor
are still the focal figures of a defense that's carried the team since Marino
left. And offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who did exotic things in
Pittsburgh with his combination wideout-quarterback, Antwaan Randle El, has
found another one in Marcus Vick, the free-agent quarterback who was bounced
out of Virginia Tech for on- and off-the-field misbehavior. Vick has had a
remarkable camp as a receiver. He looks as if he'd played the position all his
life. Just another plus for a team that could have a ton of them.
7 at Pittsburgh