Dolphins Roundup 8/29/04

Compiled from a variety of sources throughout the day

- A.J. Feeley lost his helmet before taking the field in Saturday night's 17-10 exhibition loss to host Tampa Bay, but he now finds himself potentially poised to become the Dolphins' starting quarterback.

Feeley made significant strides toward supplanting incumbent Jay Fiedler by leading the Dolphins (1-2) on two scoring drives, including the first touchdown of the preseason by either the first- or second-team offense.

Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt said he probably won't announce his starting quarterback until just before the Sept. 12 regular-season opener against visiting Tennessee. But Wannstedt did have praise for Feeley, who completed eight of 14 passes for 83 yards.

"I think it gives A.J. confidence and his teammates confidence when you see him making plays and putting the ball in the end zone," Wannstedt said.

Tampa Bay linebacker Ryan Nece intercepted a Sage Rosenfels pass and returned it 56 yards for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter for the game's deciding score. But the main focus for Wannstedt in Saturday's game was getting an assessment of first- and second-string players, especially at quarterback, in the team's third exhibition game.

Feeley entered midway through the second quarter after the Dolphins were forced to punt on their first two series under Fiedler. Feeley, though, almost didn't make it into the game on time after misplacing his helmet on the sideline.

"It was pretty frustrating," said Feeley, who ran on and off the field twice because of his helmet problems. "I didn't want it to stop me from getting into the game."

To his credit, Feeley didn't lose his head while leading the Dolphins on a 15-play drive that ended with a 28-yard Olindo Mare field goal. Feeley thought he had thrown a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Randy McMichael but a holding penalty on left guard Jeno James nullified the score.

After ending the first half with a kneel-down, Feeley was able to get the Dolphins into the end zone on the Dolphins' initial third-quarter possession against Tampa Bay's second-team defense. Feeley connected on throws of 11 and 21 yards to wide receiver Chris Chambers and also drew a roughing the passer penalty on Buccaneers defensive end Reinard Wilson.

The drive came close to stalling when tailback Travis Minor was held to no gain on second- and third-down carries from Tampa Bay's 1-yard line. But Feeley managed to stick the football over the plane of the goal on an ugly-looking sneak to give the Dolphins a 10-3 lead.

"We checked his toughness on the sneak," Wannstedt said. "I really wanted to do that four times in a row."

Fiedler had his moments on the game's opening series, helping the Dolphins gain first downs on third-down throws to wide receivers Marty Booker (eight yards) and Chambers (19). Minor also had a 12-yard run, which almost equaled the 15 yards he gained on 13 attempts during the first two exhibition games.

But the Dolphins stalled after reaching Tampa Bay's 36-yard line when Minor was tackled for a two-yard loss and Fiedler threw two poor passes intended for Chambers and Booker.

Fiedler did complete four of five throws on the Dolphins' next series. But Minor lost six yards on one of them and gained only one yard on the next, putting the Dolphins in a third-and-15 situation that the offense couldn't convert.

Part of the blame for the failure of both drives stemmed from erratic play by the offensive line.

"We had some positive things," said Fiedler, who went 7-of-11 passing for 55 yards. "We just got stuck a couple of times in third and long situations, which is tough against [Tampa Bay's] defense."

Defensively for the Dolphins, the return of defensive tackle Tim Bowens and cornerbacks Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison to the starting lineup for the first time this preseason didn't pay immediate dividends.

The Dolphins surrendered 123 yards and seven first downs on Tampa Bay's first two series. The Dolphins particularly struggled to stop the run, with running backs Michael Pittman (12 yards), Charlie Garner (11) and Mike Alstott (11) registering long gains.

But Tampa Bay could generate just three points on those possessions, as Martin Gramatica made a 30-yard attempt but missed from 43 yards.

"Our expectations with those guys are so high that the first time anybody makes a first down it's easy to get bent out of shape," Wannstedt said of his defense. "But it was the first time all those guys are playing together.

"We gave up three points on defense. Overall, giving up 10 points a game defensively, you're going to win a lot of games."

- You're looking for separation, statistically or on the scoreboard. But there isn't any. Not enough, anyway. And that's been unfortunate, because this process has already taken too long. Jay Fiedler and A.J. Feeley have different snap cadences, complicating matters for a troubled offensive line. They throw different balls -- receivers say Feeley's hits them much faster, forcing adjustment. They have different personalities, and it's hard to assert yours when you're working with a different unit from one drive or drill to the next.

In the end, it may not matter who the Dolphins' quarterback is.

It starts up front or, for this team, too often stops there.

Still, it would be nice to have a quarterback at this point.

So it wouldn't have hurt to see someone assert himself as superior Saturday, so everyone can just get on with this, and at least have an ostensible leader of a unit that might struggle to follow Martin Luther King.

It would have been good to get some real separation.

And the Dolphins didn't get any.

Both quarterbacks were passable but not exceptional, showing you what you already knew. Feeley throws some balls Jay Fiedler can't. But he may be prone to throwing some bad ones that Fiedler, even with his occasional lapses, won't.

So this is where we are, two weeks before the season.


"I have no idea what's going on with that," Fiedler said of the competition.

But, of course, the coach does.

"I don't think either quarterback has an advantage right now," coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I'm not going to talk about it. I thought both guys played good. I don't have a decision yet and you may know on the opening kickoff on the first play from scrimmage is when you will know probably. Obviously I'll make up my mind before that. I don't think there will be an announcement."

That's his right.

But this doesn't seem like the right script.

Understand this: while Fiedler may be a Wannstedt favorite, the Dolphins in general have wanted Feeley to win this job. You don't need any inside information to recognize that. It's common sense. They know what they have in Fiedler -- toughness and resourcefulness and mobility but not enough consistency and velocity -- and had decided after four seasons it wasn't satisfactory for a starter on a potential champion.

They didn't see enough upside, so they wanted an upgrade. This wasn't about having an insurance policy, like Brian Griese, in case Fiedler got hurt again. It was about finding a fixture, someone worth a second-round choice and $3 million bonus, someone who would grab the job and not give it back, making the surprisingly returning Fiedler one of the league's best backups.

Feeley was very promising at times Saturday, working mostly against second-teamers. Think of a great throw, and you'll think of his two drives.

Fiedler? Some passes sailed again. But he had two slick connections with newcomer Marty Booker, and he moved the team against first-teamers with even less help from the running game.

A clear winner, through three games?

Not really.

There isn't even a consensus among fans. The Dolphins' quarterback selection has mirrored the presidential election. Even those who agree the incumbent must go haven't been sold on the challenger.

In the end, the choice may hinge less on which quarterback has played better, but what skill of the offensive line is worse.

Last season, I argued -- even after Griese's sparkling debut -- that the Dolphins' pass-blocking misadventures necessitated the re-insertion of the more mobile Fiedler. And, with Ricky Williams in the backfield, there always remained a chance the Dolphins could run, which meant getting some leads, and starting a quarterback who had proven he could protect them with his mobility and precision on short passes. That was Fiedler.

Now, though, Ricky's not coming back, until the Dolphins deed him the franchise and make Mack Brown the offensive coordinator. That makes it tougher to overcome this line's run-blocking. That will put the Dolphins in even more long yardage and catch-up situations, requiring far more pitch-and-catch. That may require a guy who can stretch the defense deeper. The guy with the bigger arm.

So I get the sense Wannstedt's gut feeling will be Feeley.

Which, considering the circumstances the new quarterback will encounter, might feel less like an honor than a punch in the gut.

- In what is becoming a training camp tradition for the Dolphins, the run defense struggled during Miami's 17-10 loss to Tampa Bay on Saturday night.

It wasn't exactly putrid, but it was bad enough that there will be alarmist talk on radio this week.

But the soft chuckle by linebacker Zach Thomas told the story. In short: Been there, done that.

''I'm glad to go out and get the reps and stuff, but it gets so much harder every single year [to be intense in exhibition games],'' Thomas said. ``You know it doesn't count and everybody is just trying to get through it. We'll get better, I promise that. But teams definitely will think they can run on us.''

Linebacker Junior Seau also broke into a wide grin when asked about the team's intensity at this time of year.

''We were really intense, could you tell?'' he said.

The Dolphins allowed 60 yards on 11 carries, including runs of longer than 10 yards by running backs Mike Alstott, Charlie Garner and Michael Pittman against the Dolphins first-string defense.

''Defensively, we need to do a better job against the run,'' coach Dave Wannstedt said. ``A couple of times, we lost containment and they got the ball on the edge on us.''

The Dolphins had similar problems in the 17-0 loss to Washington in the previous game, allowing 181 yards on 54 carries that night. The Dolphins let several runs get outside. In that game, the problem was that the Dolphins were getting upfield too fast on a lot of plays.


On Saturday night, the effort was a bit more concerning because the Buccaneers were able to get through the middle on several runs. That included a nice job of sealing off the right side of the Dolphins defense by blocking defensive end Jason Taylor and defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina on a run by Alstott.

Because the Dolphins are more of a undersized defense that depends on quickness, small mistakes can make a huge difference in run defense.

''If any person on our defense busts, things break open,'' Thomas said. ``It's good that it happened now 'cause we can clean it up. We have a couple of weeks that we can work on it before the season. We'll do some things, correct some things.''

All of that said, this is not the first time the Dolphins have had problems with run defense at some point in each of the past two exhibition seasons. Last year, for instance, the Dolphins allowed Tampa Bay to runs for 152 yards on 37 carries in the exhibition opener. They then allowed more than 100 yards in two of the next three exhibitions.


During the season, the Dolphins then allowed more than 100 yards rushing only once in the first six games. They finished the season ranked No. 5 in run defense in the NFL.

Taylor showed little concern for that.

''That's the first time we had our whole group out there,'' Taylor said. ``It's stuff we can correct. We'll be all right. We've had a bunch of guys who have been out, Tim [Bowens], Sam [Madison], Pat [Surtain]. They have to get out there and get a feel for playing again.''

Asked about Wannstedt's concern, Taylor shrugged.

''He can be concerned. He's the coach,'' Taylor said. ``We'll be fine.''

- Wannstedt had planned to rotate free safeties Antuan Edwards and Arturo Freeman after each quarter. But Edwards played the entire first half and appears to have the edge toward a starting spot.

- The Dolphins didn't wait long to stick Marty Booker into the starting lineup.

Despite participating in only two complete practices since being acquired from the Chicago Bears last week, Booker played with the first-team offense during Saturday's 17-10 exhibition loss to Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium.

"Coming into the game, I didn't think I'd be that comfortable," said Booker, who replaced Derrius Thompson in the starting offense. "I felt pretty good with the system, and it's just all about going out and playing football."

Booker showed his route-running prowess on the Dolphins' second series, juking Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber coming off the line of scrimmage to free himself for a 17-yard reception. Booker finished with two catches for 25 yards.

"[Friday] night, we went through and limited the plays he could run," said Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt, who earlier in the week claimed Booker wouldn't start. "I just felt like it was important for him to get on the field and play. Get in the huddle with the first group and be a part of it because I don't know how much he'll play next week [against New Orleans]."

Booker, who was sent by Chicago along with a 2005 third-round draft pick for defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, admits he felt strange taking the field for the first time with his new team.

"It felt funny when I was in the locker room putting on my stuff," said Booker, who spent the past five seasons with Chicago. "It's just good to get back out."

- While Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt dissects the videotape today in an effort to determine who his starting quarterback is going to be this season, he may find himself pondering another major decision.

Who will they be handing the ball off to? Travis Minor or Sammy Morris?

Minor, who inherited the starting role when Ricky Williams suddenly retired, is averaging 4.5 yards on an average of three carries per game the past three years in Miami.

But Minor, 25, has had a forgettable preseason so far, and his performance in Saturday's 17-10 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was no exception.

Although Morris gained 20 yards on eight carries, he hit the holes quicker than Minor and showed more elusiveness, particularly on his 360-degree spinning 10-yard gain to the Bucs' 11-yard line in the second quarter.

"That was something I drew up in the dirt when I was playing little league," said Morris, a sturdy 6-foot, 220-pounder, who didn't play last week because of a concussion suffered in practice on Aug. 17.

After gaining 16 yards on his first two carries, including a 12-yard burst up the middle, Minor finished with 11 yards on six attempts, including being stuffed on the goal line in the second quarter.

Minor (5-10, 205), who has to battle the perception that he is not durable enough to carry the ball 20 times a game, didn't play in the second half because of stomach problems.

"There's definitely a lot of carries for both of us," said Minor, who has gained 26 yards on 19 carries for a 1.4- yards average this preseason. "Look at Tampa. They've got veteran guys over there rolling in. It's just that with Ricky we didn't see a lot of that because he carried the ball so many times."

The Dolphins' overhauled offensive line still allowed too much penetration, which led to six negative running plays, but for the first time this preseason, there seemed to be openings for the runners.

For now, a running back-by-committee approach seems likely, but it's no secret that Dolphins General Manager Rick Spielman will be scouring the waiver wire (or seek a trade) to bolster the backfield.

"Sammy made a few cuts. ... With a couple of the inside running plays we ran, Sammy was bouncing them outside," Wannstedt said. "He's not going to be the kind of back who can bounce anything to the outside and run away from people. He's going to be a cutback, slasher inside."

Morris, who has been buried behind top-notch running backs (Travis Henry) and fullbacks (Larry Centers) during his first four years in Buffalo, is happy to be carrying the ball again.

"It's a safe bet we're going to do the committee thing, and we feel good that we have two unselfish guys who could do something like that," said Morris, who also had a reception for 4 yards. "We're focused on winning, and I've said from the start, I'll do anything it takes to help the team win."

- Defensive end Jason Taylor registered his first sack of the preseason in the first quarter, catching quarterback Brad Johnson from behind for a 4-yard loss. Reserve defensive tackle Tony Brown, who is making a strong push for a roster spot, sacked backup Chris Simms late in the first half.

- During the local telecast in the Tampa area, analyst Ron Jaworski alluded to his earlier comment that linebacker Junior Seau didn't have anything left in the tank after watching last year's Dolphins-Buccaneers exhibition game. Seau proceeded to finish second on the Dolphins in tackles last season with 133.

"He had a heck of a year," Jaworksi said. "I feel I motivated him."

- Punter Matt Turk, who had a net average of 47.3 yards on seven attempts, was praised by Wannstedt for doing a "fantastic job." Turk's first two punts went for touchbacks but easily could have gotten downed inside Tampa Bay's 5-yard line with better coverage.

"That may go unnoticed to most people, but that's big -- our defense starting at the 20-[yard line] or with them backed up," Wannstedt said.

- After missing the first two games, wide receiver Terrence Wilkins was given the chance to return punts. But Wilkins called for a fair catch on his first attempt and didn't have a chance for a return on the second as Tampa Bay's Josh Bidwell shanked a 27-yard effort.

The Buccaneers tried a fake punt on their third attempt but fullback Greg Comella was stopped short by Dolphins cornerback Eric Joyce after receiving a direct snap.

- The Dolphins must pare their active roster by 10 to 74 players by Tuesday's NFL-mandated deadline. The team received nine roster exemptions for players who spent this spring with NFL Europe.

- The Dolphins asked Tampa Bay to remove a spoof of tailback Ricky Williams from its Web site earlier this week.

The cartoon showed Wannstedt ringing a doorbell hoping to find Williams, who is instead sitting in a hammock on an island. The cartoon ends with Wannstedt still waiting outside Williams' door.

The Buccaneers regularly feature parodies of upcoming opponents on their Web site.

By The Source
Aug 29, 2004
© Copyright 2004-2005

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