Commentary

Camp Confidential: Dolphins reluctant to embrace rebuilding label

With a new regime in place and questions at many key positions, the Dolphins are clearly in rebuilding mode -- even if some of their players refuse to admit it, writes Tim Graham.

Originally Published: July 28, 2008
By Tim Graham | ESPN.com

Ricky Williams and Chad HenneIcon SMIRunning back Ricky Williams, left, is trying to regain his old form. Meanwhile, rookie Chad Henne and John Beck want to be the Dolphins' QB of the future.

DAVIE, Fla. -- Perhaps the players can't see the franchise for the scaffolding.

Or maybe it's a simple case of denial.

The Miami Dolphins are talking proud after their worst season in franchise history and one of the most absolutely awful campaigns the NFL has seen.

"As far as I'm concerned, we're not rebuilding," 11th-year defensive end Vonnie Holliday said Saturday, when training camp opened and the Dolphins got to work on trying to erase the memory of a 1-15 mess.

"I can't rebuild. … I'm competing like we're going to the Super Bowl this year."

Summertime is for unbridled football optimism, but the Dolphins in the Super Bowl?

They haven't been to the playoffs since the '01 season. They have a first-year general manager and a first-year head coach. They're not sure who their quarterback will be. They traded their best player, Jason Taylor, for draft picks five days before camp.

"Everyone's coming out here with one common goal, and that's to win," new receiver Ernest Wilford said. "We want to win our division this year. We're not going to wait.

"Why not us?"

Wilford's question was rhetorical. An answer came anyway:

The New England Patriots, for one.

"Why not us?" Wilford said again, this time more firmly. "The Patriots are just another team to me.

"No fear. Don't live in fear."

Key questions

1. Can football operations boss Bill Parcells work his turnaround magic again without coaching?

The players might not admit they're in a massive rebuilding phase, but Parcells doesn't take over established teams. He's enamored by reclamation projects. And he has a track record of seeing them through -- even if he doesn't stick around long afterward.

"They have a plan," Holliday said a couple of days after making comments that criticized the logic of trading Taylor. "You just gotta believe in those guys upstairs. Parcells has done it before. I have to believe that he knows what he's doing."

Parcells assumed control of a reeling New England Patriots franchise and guided it to the Super Bowl. He took over a 1-15 Jets team and went to the AFC title game. After the Cowboys went 5-11 in three straight seasons, he put them in the playoffs immediately.

But Parcells isn't coaching. This time he's pulling the strings from an office. Declaring it's a young man's game, he brought in a pair of acolytes from his Dallas Cowboys days -- general manager Jeff Ireland and head coach Tony Sparano -- to do his bidding.

2. Will a newfound commitment and all that time away help Ricky Williams turn back the clock a few years?

Of the many adjectives applicable to Williams, "dependable" hasn't been one of them. So far, however, the former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL rushing king has been the definition of responsible.

The front office and coaches have raved about his offseason dedication. Parcells has taken a particular shine to him because of Williams' commitment to the conditioning program. Williams has been explosive and focused in open workouts.

He hasn't rushed for 1,000 yards since 2003, but he looks as though he could do it again. He's 31 years old with low mileage, having carried only 283 times (more than a third of those in the CFL) over the past five years.

3. Will John Beck or Chad Henne emerge as the quarterback of the future?

The Dolphins have been searching for their franchise quarterback since Dan Marino retired in 1999. They'll need to keep looking at least a little while longer until Beck or Henne emerges as more than backup-quality.

Veteran Josh McCown was brought in to hold down the fort until that time.

The safe bet is that the eventual QB will be Henne, who was carefully scouted and chosen by the current administration with the 57th overall draft pick. Beck was somebody else's 40th overall pick.

4. Can outside linebacker Joey Porter rebound from a confounding season to lead the defense now that Zach Thomas and Taylor are gone?

There's a lot of slack for Porter to gather, and some of it will be his own. The Dolphins made the three-time Pro Bowler their marquee free-agent acquisition last year, giving him a five-year contract worth $32 million, including $20 million guaranteed.

Former defensive coordinator Dom Capers couldn't decide how to use him in mishmash schemes (six sacks, two interceptions), but in Paul Pasqualoni's 3-4 alignment, Porter's role will be clear.

Market watch

Charlie Anderson looked like nothing more than a depth player when the Dolphins signed the free-agent outside linebacker. He started five games in his four-season career with the Houston Texans. He had 39 tackles, three sacks and zero interceptions.

The front office sought him out because it thought he could be a contributor, significant enough to play the position Taylor owned for 11 years.

"When he left," Anderson said of Taylor's July 20 trade to the Washington Redskins, "I went from a special teamer to possibly a starter. It affected me in a big way."

But the Dolphins thought of Anderson as a starter all along, a career backup ready for his big shot.

"One of the things with Charlie is just being hungry for the opportunity," Sparano said. "But more importantly, it comes down to more than that.

"I see explosiveness. I see him use his hands really well. … Every day he does something that stands out, that impresses us."

Newcomer to watch

[+] EnlargeJake Long
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireNo. 1 pick Jake Long is making big money, but he's kept a low profile at Dolphins camp.
Jake Long was the club's first No. 1 selection since its AFL conception in 1966. The former University of Michigan tackle also became the NFL's highest-paid lineman (five years, $57.75 million) before he played a down -- the poster boy for commissioner Roger Goodell's burgeoning crusade for a rookie salary cap.

Other than that, the 6-foot-7 freak of stature has kept a low profile.

The Dolphins could have taken anybody in the country, possible franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, defensive monster Chris Long and potent running back Darren McFadden included.

But they loved Jake Long most of all, and these are the types of decisions that make or break a club's future.

Observation deck

The most striking difference in Sparano's camp is the sense of purpose that was lacking under first-year head coach Cam Cameron. The booming voices, popping pads and palpable urgency are a stark contrast to last year. … Undrafted rookie Davone Bess -- Colt Brennan's top target at Hawaii -- has made an early impression, catching whatever's thrown near him. … Another undrafted receiver, converted Georgia Southern quarterback Jayson Foster, has crazy speed and might have too much skill to cut. … Cameron was reluctant to unleash last year's first-round pick, Ted Ginn. But in early practices, the Dolphins have worked on screens to spring the former Ohio State stud. … The fullback battle between roughnecks Boomer Grigsby and Reagan Mauia could come down to an American Gladiators competition. Grigsby lives in Las Vegas and trains at UFC star Randy Couture's gym. Mauia, known as "The Juggernaut," gained fame with a YouTube clip of him running through a wall while a senior at Hawaii.

Tim Graham covers the NFL for ESPN.com.