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Saban to the rescue in Miami; and some Ricky stuff too
Williams still shows plenty of talentBy Len Pasquarelli
Archive Related Video:
Williams apologizes to anyone who was hurt when he retired last year
DAVIE, Fla. -- Here are five observations on the Miami Dolphins, based on the July 26-27 practices:
1. Against our better judgment, and because we know the hot-button topic is the guy with the dreadlocks and not the coach with the dreaded stare, we'll address first the prodigal tailback instead of the man who will really determine the direction of the Miami Dolphins' future. Truth be told, maybe it's better to get the topic of Ricky Williams out of the way first, in case he lapses back into reefer madness and bolts again. Our guess is Nick Saban, even now that he knows the enormity of the task in front of him, isn't about to run off to a third-world country. He may retreat into Georgia's mountains, but not some lean-to in say, Nepal.
So here's the straight talk on a guy who hasn't always been able to walk the straight line: Grudgingly, we concede that Williams actually looks pretty good. He isn't back up to his normal playing weight of 225-230 pounds yet, has not taken a really tough lick and hasn't been asked to run with power. But there is little doubt the guy, at least in the first few days of camp, exudes raw talent. He is quick, has not lost the great vision that all successful backs must have, and doesn't seem to be toting around nearly as much rust as most pundits had expected after his year spent trying to discover himself.
Williams was never the classic "downhill" runner, but he did deliver a lot of power, and whether he can do that again following his self-imposed exile remains to be seen. Just a few days into his reincarnation, though, it's not blowing smoke (pun intended) to concede that, yeah, he looks like an NFL player. He seems a little more fluid now, caught the ball well in the first two days, showed some willingness to block, and didn't make mental errors.
But Williams doesn't like being overworked -- just ask the man he helped get fired, former Miami coach Dave Wannstedt, how many times His Weirdness asked to be taken out of the third-down package because he felt he was playing too many snaps -- and the Saban camp is all about work and discipline. So stay tuned on that front. Time will tell just how much his coaches and teammates -- and trust us, skeptics remain in both those groups -- come to trust him.
A month ago, when we visited with Jason Taylor at mini-camp, the Dolphins' star defensive end insisted what he wanted most when Williams reported was to be able to look into the tailback's eyes and see the same kind of commitment he expects from all his teammates. So has Taylor seen it yet? "Not yet, but I don't need to see it right now," Williams said. "I need to see it in September or October, or whenever it is that he plays. We've talked. He knows where I'm coming from, and I guess I understand, maybe, a little bit more about his situation. We'll see. For now, I guess we're cool." It won't be until Oct. 16 at Tampa Bay that Williams, who must serve four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, can get in a game that actually counts.
Ricky Williams rushed for 1,372 yards and nine TDs in 2003.One thing that is still the same about Williams is he's definitely different. The guy walks everywhere without shoes. Around the complex. In the dining room. In the team hotel. The way the league has bent over backwards to let him come back, you half-expect Paul Tagliabue to issue a ban against spikes, just so Williams can go barefootin' on the field as well. Maybe Williams prefers to go sans shoes so that he has a really easy target, assuming he decides to shoot himself in the foot again.
One guy who has pretty good feet, even with cleats on, is Lamar Gordon, who looks like the best among a very deep running back corps at this point. The fourth-year veteran, acquired from St. Louis last year in a trade when the Dolphins tried to spackle the dike after Williams' abrupt departure, is a very, very solid back. Too bad an injury scuttled Gordon's 2004 season and limited him to only three games, because he might have allowed Miami to slam the door on Williams' face this spring when he asked to return. Gordon has deceptive power, and a little glide to him, and is bigger and stouter than he initially appears.
There's all kinds of speculation the Dolphins will trade Williams once he gets into shape and they showcase him in the preseason games. The bet here is the Dolphins will get more inquiries (possibly from Jacksonville) about Gordon.
2. OK, now on to the guy whose return to the NFL, as far as the Miami franchise is concerned, is far more significant than Williams' comeback. We're glad we visited the Dolphins, and huddled with Saban during their June mini-camp. Why? Because we were a month ahead of our national media buddies in figuring out just how good a coach Saban is going to be at the NFL level. Everyone else seemed genuinely surprised at the discipline, detail and design of the camp practices. But they shouldn't have been. This is, after all, how Saban runs things. There's a very palpable clockwork precision to his practices, a reason for everything, and every segment is seen as an excuse to do some old-fashioned teaching. Which is, Saban learned a long time ago, the essence of coaching.
Remember, Saban isn't just some college coach moving into the NFL ranks. The guy worked in the league as a defensive coordinator and he knows the ropes. He ran the Michigan State and LSU programs like NFL teams that just happened to be operating at the college level. If the devil is in the details, then Saban is Lucifer incarnate. Every drill starts right on time. There is no wasted effort. "You're never standing around just watching, getting bored, and with your attention wandering out there while the sun beats down on you," cornerback Sam Madison said. "There is a reason for everything he does."
This is not the most talented team around. But in the first couple days, it was anything but a sloppy team, that's for sure. There were not the kind of false-start and short-attention span penalties you typically expect from a bad team. Not a lot of botched plays or turnovers. Make no mistake, as we indicated in June, the guy can coach. And coach he does. Saban spends oodles of time working with the secondary, his old area of expertise, and he's not just a passive observer. He is hands-on all the way.
Hard to say how many victories this will translate to, but Saban definitely isn't allowing himself the luxury of buying into the notion it will take three seasons to fix what ails the Dolphins, and the guess here is that his presence and approach will make his team markedly more competitive than most pundits feel it can be in 2005.
3. About that $800,000 per year that Saban is reportedly paying offensive line coach Hudson Houck? The investment was worth every cent. Houck suggested in June that he is not a miracle worker. And maybe he isn't. But he's doing a damned fine imitation.
Quick, we dare you, name one starter on the Miami offensive line. Unless you are a died-in-wool Dolphins fan, you probably can't. Here's the kicker: By the end of the season, you might not be able to identify one, either. But by that time, too, the Miami line will be a pretty good one, if early camp results are any indicator. There remains plenty of work to be done, and we'd be lying if we tried to pretend there weren't some rough spots during the practices we saw, but Houck is again well into the process of transforming a pile of chicken feathers into something approximating chicken salad.
"It's been pretty encouraging," Saban conceded. "I think we've got maybe seven guys there who can line up and play." Houck is famous for salvage jobs and the one he's undertaken this summer -- turning last year's first-rounder, Vernon Carey, into more than just another misguided pick by deposed general manager Rick Spielman -- is certainly daunting. But Carey has the temperament, it seems, to be a good player and could be the starter at left tackle. Free-agent addition Stockar McDougle, a former Detroit starter, seems to have reduced the mental errors that plagued him during his Lions tenure.
Let's face it, given the question mark at the quarterback position, the Dolphins figure to run the ball a lot in 2005. And they should, since that seems to be a strength, which means the offensive line will get a chance to fire off the ball and do some old-fashioned road grading. Truth be told, the unit didn't exactly carve out gaping holes in the early workouts. But there is progress nearly every time on the field, and Houck, whether he wants the miracle worker mantle or not, looks to be fashioning a respectable unit.
4. Not since 1997 has the Miami defense ranked statistically outside of the league's top 10 units. In the past seven seasons, in fact, the defense's average ranking was No. 6, and the unit was in the top five in four of those campaigns. To hold to that standard, though, the Miami defense is going to have to get a big season out of a group of veterans who are beginning to show some age. The six highest-profile players on the defense -- Madison, linemen Taylor, Kevin Carter and Vonnie Holliday, and linebackers Zach Thomas and Junior Seau -- average 31.7 years of age and 5.7 seasons of NFL tenure.
It doesn't seem possible, but the defense's most critical player, Taylor, will turn 31 before the regular season opens. Not an age when you want to have to learn a new position, but Taylor, who has always lined up at right end, will be a hybrid-type guy in '05, as the coaches move him around to try to create mismatches and give him even more sack opportunities. Taylor looked excellent in the dual role in mini-camp, but the staff didn't unleash him much the first two days of camp, and he suddenly seemed a bit more wary about the switch than he did a month ago.
None of this is to suggest the Dolphins' old-timers can't summon solid outings in 2005. If they don't, this team will be in deep trouble. But Saban understands his best defensive players are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginnings, and Miami has to begin to develop younger players to soon take over. Toward that end, two rookies, cornerback Travis Daniels and linebacker Channing Crowder, stuck out in the early practices.
Daniels, a fourth-round pick, seems a lock to start at the corner spot vacated by Patrick Surtain, who was traded to Kansas City. That's in part because, as a former LSU star, he knows the defense better than anyone else. And although he doesn't have great stopwatch speed, Daniels is usually around the ball and has an uncanny ability to create big plays. Crowder has been working at two linebackers spots (middle and strong-side), and Saban has to get him onto the field, even if it means taking snaps away from Seau. If Crowder's creaky knees can hold up, he'll be a player.
In general, it will be interesting to see if the Miami defense can play up to the lofty standards it has established in the last seven seasons. And interesting, as well, to see if young players get increased playing time, to prepare them for the future if the season goes south early on. With such a suspect group of tackles, the Dolphins might really struggle to stop the run, an area in which they statistically ranked next-to-last in the NFL in '04.
5. The alleged quarterback "competition" between journeyman Gus Frerotte and A.J. Feeley is a sham. (Actually, it's a shame, too, that this is the best the Dolphins can do at the position, but so be it.) It makes for good copy, and manufactures an interest level, but it will be a monumental upset if Frerotte isn't the opening day starter.
For one thing, he simply has a better grasp of the Scott Linehan design, having played for the offensive coordinator in Minnesota. For another, he's just better. Not great, just better, and far less mistake-prone. That will mean a lot to Saban, who abhors turnovers, and is going to try to keep games close by running the ball and playing tight defense. Saban swears he hasn't made up his mind on the quarterbacks, that both will get a shot to win the job in preseason, that he doesn't want to cheat his team out of having the best guy on the field. But the best guy, it says here (and, we're betting, they're probably saying it in the coaches' evaluation sessions), is Frerotte. Word is coaches regularly groan when they watch the daily video of some of Feeley's efforts.