Will the Wildcat work again?
Dolphins' offensive approach wins games but not necessarily fantasy titles
"It's the sport of kings, better than diamond rings
That's why we're here to sing, football.
Sunday in the snow, referee's whistle blows
We've been warriors toe to toe, football" -- LL Cool J
Are you old enough to remember the film the above song lyrics came from? It's "Wildcats" -- a 1986 movie about a ragtag team of football underachievers who get a new coach, add a little bit of trickery and hard work to their repertoire, and suddenly find themselves at the top of the heap. If that doesn't describe the 2008 Miami Dolphins, I don't know what does.
Coming off a 1-15 fiasco in 2007, the team fired Cam Cameron and brought in unproven Tony Sparano. After an 0-2 start, it looked like the team was headed for another disastrous season, but then inspiration struck. Sparano instituted a new offensive formation with no quarterback. With running back Ronnie Brown taking direct snaps from the center, the team surprised the New England Patriots 38-13, with Brown running for four touchdowns. So effective was this new wrinkle that several teams around the league quickly incorporated their own versions into their offensive schemes. The name of the formation? The Wildcat, of course. Miami ended up winning nine of its last 10 games and won the AFC East with an 11-5 record. Goldie Hawn would have been proud.
Of course, that's the glossy, romanticized view of this team. The fact is, the Dolphins were not nearly as bad as their 1-15 record in 2007 would have you believe, and they weren't nearly as good as their 11-5 record last season. Quarterback Chad Pennington came over from the Jets to manage the offense, and he did it better than anyone could have imagined, throwing only seven interceptions all season, helping to propel Miami to a turnover differential of plus-17, tops in the NFL. That's why we think this team is due for a setback in 2009. There's very little chance that this team will hold on to the ball as well as it did last season.
If you saw the playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, in which Pennington threw four picks and the Dolphins were soundly thrashed 27-9, you saw a sneak preview of what this season holds for the Dolphins on a much more regular basis. The receiving corps on this team is very average, and with so many Wildcat imitators around the league, the one weapon that made the team unique last season won't be so unfamiliar to opposing defenses. That's not to say this team can't contend for a playoff spot, but with Tom Brady back in New England and Terrell Owens now with the Buffalo Bills, and with two rookie defensive backs joining a unit that finished 25th in the league against the pass, we'll be surprised if the Dolphins do any better than 9-7.
What to look for in camp
The innovative Wildcat formation helped propel the Dolphins to a division title in 2008. But now that the league knows what's coming, will it be nearly as effective in winning games?
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Key position battles: The problem with the Dolphins' wide receivers, from a fantasy standpoint, isn't talent. They have three solid options in Ted Ginn Jr., Davone Bess and Greg Camarillo. The problem is that not one of the trio is any better than either of the other two, and with no clear favorite to be the team's go-to guy, it's hard to draft any of them with any degree of confidence. Look at 2008's reception totals: Ginn had 56, Camarillo had 55 and Bess had 54. Ginn certainly is the fastest of the bunch, but Pennington rarely throws the ball downfield to take advantage of that speed. If somebody emerges as a true No. 1 option during camp, he will have a lot of value, but if these guys continue to share the spotlight, you'll be better served to let them start the season on the waiver wire.
Tight end also has a bunch of interchangeable parts competing for playing time. Miami likes to trot two tight ends out on the field quite often, and Anthony Fasano and David Martin both got their shares of touchdowns last season, but in this offensive scheme, their red zone targets are few and far between. Not to mention that both Fasano and Martin are in the walk years of their contracts, and Miami might want to work Joey Haynos and fifth-round draft pick John Nalbone into the mix to prepare for Fasano's and Martin's eventual departures. Heck, there's even been talk of giving Ernest Wilford some time at the position. There's just too many cooks in this kitchen to expect any of them to have any legitimate fantasy value in 2009.
Fitting in: Pat White was drafted out of West Virginia with an eye toward the Wildcat. The added wrinkle with White is that he was a quarterback in college, which could add a deeper dimension to the tactic than when Brown ran it last season. (Of course, using White in this fashion might result in a decline in Brown's fantasy value, and Brown is pretty much the only Dolphin who has any fantasy value to begin with.) If Camarillo isn't able to make a full recovery from his knee surgery, White could work his way into the mix regularly as a wide receiver, and if Pennington gets hurt, White certainly could challenge Chad Henne for some time under center. He's going to have a part in this offense one way or another -- it just remains to be seen how big that part will be.
The Dolphins' secondary got a makeover in the offseason, with the free-agent signing of Gibril Wilson and draft picks in the first two rounds -- Vontae Davis (Illinois) and Sean Smith (Utah). They'll join Yeremiah Bell and veteran Will Allen in a unit that needs to come together quickly to keep teams from racking up passing yards at the rate of 227.8 yards per game like they did last season. Expect some bumps along the way as veteran receivers take advantage of the rookies early in the season.
As for the rest of the defense, the dancing prodigal son returns, as Jason Taylor waltzes back to Miami after a disappointing single season in Washington. He probably won't be an every-down player but should help take some of the heat off Joey Porter on third downs, perhaps enough to see him improve on last season's terrific 17.5 sacks.
On the line: Jake Grove was signed as a free agent from Oakland to be the Dolphins' center, and he certainly is an upgrade over Samson Satele, but he has had injury problems in the past, missing 26 games over five seasons. That's room for concern, although if he's healthy, he'll join Jake Long, Justin Smiley and Vernon Carey in providing plenty of holes for Brown to sneak through and more than adequate protection for Pennington. The only spot on the line that's a true question mark is right guard, where Donald Thomas, who missed all last season with a broken foot and then tore a pectoral muscle in the offseason, will compete with Brandon Frye, Andy Alleman, Shawn Murphy and last year's starter, Ike Ndukwe, for the job. Whichever guard emerges from this competition surely will be the weak spot on the line and tested frequently by opposing defenses, but as long as the rest of the line stays healthy, there's enough talent here to compensate for this one area of weakness.
The bottom line
Miami is a "team" in the truest sense of the word. The Dolphins don't have a lot of superstars, and the big personalities they do have -- Porter, Taylor and Ricky Williams -- are content to take on supporting roles rather than starring ones in the name of winning football games. That's terrific for fans of the team and refreshing in this age of "me first" players who spend more time figuring out how to tweet from the sidelines than watching game film. However, from a fantasy standpoint, it's awful. Outside of Brown, who should be able to handle lead-back duties all season long now that he's another year removed from his ACL surgery, there isn't a single player we'd feel confident about drafting for our fantasy team, except as a very late-round roll of the dice. If you're drafting a Dolphin in Round 5 of your fantasy draft, I've got just one thing to say to you: "U-G-L-Y, you ain't got no alibi."
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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