Dolphins believe they're headed in right direction

Updated: September 1, 2008, 4:14 PM ET
Associated Press

DAVIE, Fla. -- Last winter, a Florida grocery chain sold the Miami Dolphins logo on doormats. They were discounted: two for the price of one.

And when the Dolphins mascot made an appearance at a Miami Heat game, he drew boos.

For a team that goes 1-15, the offseason can be tough, but for the Dolphins it was also productive. They installed a new regime led by Bill Parcells and began to rebuild the roster from the foundation, with even cornerstones Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas replaced.

Now that they're on the verge of another season, with the opener against Brett Favre and the New York Jets looming Sunday, the Dolphins can't say they're good. But they're certain they'll be better than in 2007, the worst year in franchise history.

"We've made some improvements in pretty much every area," new general manager Jeff Ireland said. "We have a good young nucleus of players that we feel very good about working with and developing."

More than half the team is new, with only 26 holdovers from 2007 on the 53-man roster. The Dolphins have a new coach in Tony Sparano, a new quarterback in Chad Pennington and a new cornerstone in tackle Jake Long, the top overall pick in the draft. Only one player in the offensive line and two players in the defensive front seven return at the same position. Miami even has a new kicker in Dan Carpenter, one of 11 rookies to make the team.

"We had some holes to fill," Ireland said. "We have been here for six or seven months now and it has never stopped, so I don't think it's going to stop now. That is the one thing that has been constant around here: change."

A new season is always a time of optimism, and in the NFL, regime change tends to inspire false confidence. Even so, it's hard to argue with the Dolphins' contention they're bound to be better, if only because last year they were so bad.

"We've got a lot to prove," linebacker Joey Porter said. "We can't do any worse than we did last season, so we're definitely looking up."

The Dolphins actually could do worse, but it's difficult to imagine Parcells tolerating an 0-16 season. And unlike a year ago, when coach Cam Cameron's decisions caused head-scratching even during the exhibition season, Parcells' moves have won widespread praise.

"The way he came in and cracked the whip, nobody is walking around here feeling safe," Porter said. "There's a sense of urgency about everything we do. We lost that last year. Now everybody has stepped it up. He made you feel like if you didn't, you wouldn't be here. He'll get rid of you."

Exhibition games mean little, but the Dolphins appeared much improved while going 3-1 in the preseason. With Pennington and promising rookie Chad Henne, the outlook at quarterback hasn't been so rosy since Dan Marino retired. Former offensive line coach Sparano has the Dolphins blocking better for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, meaning the ground game may actually become a strength. And significant progress is evident on special teams, the most embarrassing aspect of the NFL's most embarrassing team in 2007.

"We've gotten a lot better," Brown said. "We've got an opportunity to do something special. The mentality is different. It trickles down from the top. You see guys excited about being at practice and excited about the task."

In the Dolphins' favor is a soft schedule -- only three opponents had a winning record last year. And in the NFL, bad teams can improve quickly. The seven previous teams to go 1-15 averaged nearly seven wins the next season.

In Las Vegas, the odds of the Dolphins winning the Super Bowl have dropped to 40-1 from 250-1 seven months ago. Still, even a .500 season is considered a long shot for a team that hasn't reached the playoffs since 2001, the longest such drought in franchise history.

Porter figures low expectations will work in the team's favor.

"They're still looking at us as the same Miami Dolphins," he said. "They're still going to doubt us. I like being that guy. Keep us under the radar. Count us out. And then by the time you find out you're in a fight, it's too late."

Doormats no more? The Jets will find out Sunday.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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