Monday, January 21, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Miami Dolphins

Even as the 2007 Patriots are doing their best impersonation of the 1972 Dolphins, the 2007 Dolphins did a slightly worse impression of the 1972 Patriots, who went 3-11 in what was then a 14-game season. (The crown for futility went to the Houston Oilers, now the Titans, who went 1-13). Following this season's 1-15 showing, head coach Cam Cameron was relieved of his job in favor of former Cowboys assistant coach Tony Sparano, and Wayne Huizenga, the same guy who completely dismantled the 1997 Marlins World Championship team, hired Bill Parcells as director of football operations -- he of Giants, Patriots, Jets, and Cowboys guru-fame. The Dolphins are a team that has holes all over the place, which the Tuna hopes to fix, but is QB one of them? Let's take a look.

Miami Dolphins (1-15): Cleo Lemon

First off, you have to feel sorry for Dolphins fans, who got so excited over their one lonesome win this year (in overtime, for that matter, after the Ravens missed a chip-shot field goal that should have given them the game) that you'd think they'd just won the Super Bowl. I know how hard it is to live and die with your team on a daily basis, and imagine suffering through 17 weeks of mind-boggling incompetence and another dreary L at the end of it -- I expect you get used to it, or start laughing at yourself for caring so much, or rip up your jersey and become a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan -- whatever works. Basically, the Dolphins would like to forget this year and work on improving for the next one. Aside from the Patriots, there aren't any particularly formidable teams in their division -- both the Bills and the Jets have plenty of flaws. With Parcells, who is appropriately nicknamed the Big Tuna, at the helm, the Fins have a chance to get back to competency, if not outright success, next year. Let's just put it this way -- could they do much worse?

Cleo Lemon is a 28-year-old product of Arkansas State who went undrafted out of college and was finally signed by the Baltimore Ravens in 2002. That went nowhere, he never even saw a snap, and ended up on the Chargers in 2003, where he spent several years on practice squads and third-string on the quarterback depth chart. In other words, he's the football equivalent of baseball's minor-league drudges, who faithfully serve their time without real hope of seeing the Show, and you have to admire guys like that, who keep going just because they love the game -- God knows they're not making much money at it. But in 2005, Lemon was traded to the Dolphins in exchange for A.J. Feeley (who is now in Philadelphia backing up, and spasmodically being called on to replace, Donovan McNabb. At least until he has another four-INT game, but that's a different story). Backing up then-starter Joey Harrington (now in Atlanta while Michael Vick sits in jail) Lemon finally got his first start on December 31, 2006, against the Indianapolis Colts; he played reasonably well but the Fins lost, 27-22.

Lemon didn't break camp the next year (2007) as the confirmed starting quarterback; he was again second behind veteran Trent Green, who was starting his fourteenth year as signal-caller. But Green was injured in Week 5, and Lemon did his best for the next six before Cameron, displaying some of the indecision that later got him canned, decided to try out first-year Brigham Young product John Beck in Week 11 -- recall, the Dolphins didn't beat the Ravens until Week 15, so a non-win season was still possible and nobody had put their stamp on the job. Coincidentally, Lemon got the starting job back just prior to Week 15 and turned in his best performance in his team's lone win -- 23/39, 315 yards, 1 TD pass, and no interceptions. The TD came at the best time imaginable -- his 64-yard game-winning bomb to Greg Camarillo set off celebrations in Miami and saved the Dolphins the ignominy of not getting a win in the year that their predecessors were outdone.

But although Lemon turned in decent service, the team still has plenty of flaws. Due to the Fins' porous O-line, being in the pocket for them is dangerous -- Lemon got sacked 15 times in his last four games, including seven by the Patriots). Cleo finished the year with 6 TDs, 6 INTs, 1,773 yards, and a 71.0 passer rating. The Dolphins ranked 26th in points scored with 16.7, 28th in yards per game with 287.5, 24th in pass yards with 189.4, and 23rd in rush yards with 98.1. The offense has problems, as you expect from a 1-15 team -- a lot of bad breaks fell their way, but they were generally inept as well. They converted only 81 of 218 third downs, a 37% success rate, while allowing their opponent to convert almost half of theirs -- 98 of 208, or 47%. The team scored 29 TDs -- Tom Brady threw for 50, which is conveniently the number that the Dolphins D yielded.

What's the outlook for next year? Parcells has to work his football-guru genius, the team has to make smart selections in the draft (they have a history of not doing this) and take advantage of the fact that at least their terrible season set them up for priority choice from a talented emerging class. Sparano has to translate successful coaching strategies from the Cowboys to Miami, in a different system with less talent, in his first assignment as head. As for Lemon himself, I wouldn't assume anything, much less that he'll go into next season as starter. A 1-15 team needs to be open to all options, and if the Tuna or Sparano think that Beck can do better than Lemon, I doubt they'd hesitate to yank him. Better luck next year, fellas. Oh, and reinstate Ricky Williams, we can all use the laughs.

No comments: