Throughout the next three days, we’ll take a look at the New England Patriots’ competition in the AFC East. Let’s start with the Miami Dolphins, a surprising but deserving 2008 division champion.
2008 finish: 11-5 (AFC East champs; lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Baltimore Ravens)
Key additions: Defensive end/outside linebacker Jason Taylor, center Jake Grove, cornerback Eric Green, free safety Gibril Wilson
Key losses: Defensive end Vonnie Holliday, safety Renaldo Hill, cornerback Andre Goodman
Key draftees: Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis, West Virginia quarterback/wide receiver Pat White, Utah cornerback Sean Smith
Why the Dolphins can threaten the Patriots: It wouldn’t be very Bill Parcells-like to see one of his operations fail spectacularly after such a successful go-round. Because of that, the Dolphins should play at a similar level to that of 2008.
They’ve got their core back intact, and quarterback Chad Pennington should continue to thrive in an offense that is geared to his style. The 2008 NFL Comeback Player of the Year threw for a career-high 3,653 yards and 19 touchdowns, his second-highest total ever. Pennington, who finished tied for second in the MVP voting, led the NFL with a 67.4 completion percentage, finished third in interception efficiency (just 1.5 percent of his passes got picked off) and sixth with 7.7 yards per pass attempt.
Running backs Ronnie Brown (916 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per attempt, 10 touchdowns) and Ricky Williams (659, 4.1, four TDs) will keep up their pace, and Brown should actually improve after not being entirely healthy in 2008. Grove will also provide a huge upgrade to the ground attack.
On the outside, expect a statistical leap out of the promising set of young wide receivers who broke out in 2008: Ted Ginn Jr. (56 catches, 790 receiving yards, two touchdowns), Greg Camarillo (55, 613, two) and Davone Bess (54, 554, one).
And finally, the secondary has vastly improved with the additions of Green, Wilson, Davis and Smith.
Why there might not be enough in Miami: It was a dream season for the Dolphins in 2008, with everything going right when they needed it. Of course, the Dolphins deserved the breaks they got, executing with near perfection as they won nine of their last 10 games of the regular season.
But like the Tampa Bay Rays’ miracle run in 2008, it was evident that just about everyone on the Dolphins’ roster had a career season. Their fortunes in 2009 will be based on their ability to provide an encore. That starts with Pennington, whose efficiency was commendable during the regular season, but he’s got to prove he can go out and carry the Dolphins to a victory in the playoffs. It’s similar with outside linebacker Joey Porter, who had a career-best 17.5 sacks as a 31-year-old in 2008. (To take that a step further, those 17.5 sacks accounted for 21.1 percent of his 10-year career total of 83 sacks. A repeat performance isn’t just unlikely — it’s also statistically improbable.)
The Dolphins also have to deal with playing a first-place schedule, which features a road trip to San Diego in Week 3 and a season-finale showdown at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s definitely more difficult than the Patriots’ second-place schedule (hosting Baltimore in Week 4 and at Denver in Week 5).
Miami was a great story in 2008, but it’s hard to imagine the Dolphins can do enough to repeat as division champs.