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‘Culture change’ for Miami
Miami’s about-face from the 1-15 embarrassment of 2007 to an 11-5 record and the AFC East title in 2008 was impressive. But the road to Sunday’s playoff opener against the visiting Baltimore Ravens (11-5) lasted much longer than a year.
One of the NFL’s elite franchises for three decades, Miami last played in the postseason on Jan. 13, 2002. The Dolphins’ last playoff victory came Dec. 30, 2000, when 32 members of their current roster hadn’t even reached college and only five were in the NFL.
Two of those veterans, quarterback Chad Pennington and linebacker Joey Porter, have been perhaps the most critical elements of Miami’s turnaround under first-year coach Tony Sparano, who had never previously even been a coordinator. Dolphins executive vice president Bill Parcells had chosen Pennington for the New York Jets in the first round of the 2000 draft. Pennington had been benched by the Jets for the second half of last season. And when the Jets cut him in August to make room for Brett Favre, Parcells pounced.
Pennington was soon voted offensive captain and went on to finish second in the league in QB rating and win comeback player of the year honors. His seven interceptions helped Miami finish first in the league with a plus-17 turnover ratio.
“Seeing the way [Chad] went about his business whenever you played against him, you kind of knew that this guy was very, very smart and really a heck of a professional,” Sparano said. “The guy’s leadership was tremendous. It was just what the doctor ordered for us because we’re such a young football team.”
Porter, one of just 10 holdover starters, led the AFC with a career-high 17.5 sacks, five more than he had had the previous two seasons combined.
“Everybody keeps asking me about Chad and how important he is to our success, but certainly Joey Porter is just as important on the other side of the football,” Sparano said. “In our [3-4] defense, if you don’t get that kind of production out of your outside linebacker, you’re going to be in trouble.”
The Dolphins certainly seemed in trouble when they headed to perennial AFC East kingpin New England in Week 3 having lost their home opener to the Jets and having “gotten hit in the mouth pretty good,” according to Sparano, in Week 2 at Arizona.
“There was a culture change that had to take place,” Sparano said. “It wasn’t just the players. It was everybody. We wanted to create an environment around here that the players can feel like we were going to have success.”
Thanks in part to the Wildcat formation - where the ball is directly snapped to running back Ronnie Brown - Miami stunned the Patriots 38-13. Brown became the first NFL player in 85 years to score four touchdowns and throw for one in the same game.
“It was a confidence-builder,” Pennington said. “We were just searching for answers. To be able to beat New England on their turf for our first win, that was an eye-opener for all of us, especially our younger players.”
The next week, the Dolphins beat San Diego. After slipping in a one-point loss at Houston and a 27-13 spanking by visiting Baltimore, Miami won nine of its final 10 games, losing only the rematch with the Patriots. The last victory could’ve been scripted by Hollywood: Pennington returned to the Meadowlands and outplayed Favre to win Miami’s first AFC East title since 2000.
“That’s only the way fate would have it - trying to get into the playoffs and trying to go through New York to do it,” Pennington said.
And now the Dolphins face the same opponent from their last playoff game, one of just two teams to beat them since Oct. 12.
“We have a huge challenge, playing probably the best defense in the league in my opinion, because they’re so aggressive,” Pennington said. “They have an offensive mentality when they play defense.”
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