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Miami Dolphins 2003 season preview

FAST START, SLOW FINISH:There is a reason why the Dolphins finished last season at 9-7 and didn't make the playoffs, and it had nothing to do with a lack of talent. Last year, the Dolphins had six Pro Bowlers, which included the NFL's leading rusher in Ricky Williams and Jason Taylor, who led the NFL in sacks.

             The Dolphins' problem is late-season execution. In 2002, they
             won five of their first six games. Unfortunately, their momentum
             abated and they lost three of their last five games to the
             Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings and the New England Patriots,
             who all missed the playoffs.
             With a chance to decide their fate in the last week of the
             season, the Dolphins blew an 11-point lead to the Patriots in
             the last five minutes of the game to miss out on the playoffs.
             The loss was a microcosm of their season. Dolphins linebacker
             Zach Thomas summed it up best.
             "This team does not have a killer instinct," Thomas
             said to *The* *Associated Press* after the defeat.
             "You can say all you want about how we should have won, but
             I'm sick and tired of hearing how good we are. We can't win a
             big game."
             To ensure that they don't have another meltdown around week 14,
             the Dolphins made several key offseason additions. On the
             defensive side of the ball, 11-time Pro Bowler Junior Seau will
             boost the linebacking corps. Offensively, former Broncos
             quarterback Brian Griese will fight for playing time once he
             returns from a preseason injury.
             **ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT:** In one of the Dolphins' biggest
             additions in recent history, Williams arrived in Miami last
             season after three turbulent seasons with the New Orleans Saints
             and he subsequently led the NFL in rushing with 1,853 rushing
             yards. He also was the team's second-leading receiver with 47
             receptions, and he scored 17 touchdowns. As a direct result of
             Williams, the Dolphins finished second in the league in rushing
             offense last year.
             The Dolphins passing attack was not quite as successful as their
             offensive counterpart. Quarterback Jay Fiedler had an
             inconsistent season as starter, throwing 14 touchdowns and nine
             interceptions. His performance as well as his questionable arm
             strength drove the Dolphins to acquire Griese from the Broncos.
             Fiedler will begin the season as the starter partly due to
             Griese's injured toe on his left foot. The quarterback battle 

is far from over, though.

             The Dolphins receivers are solid, but not spectacular. Chris
             Chambers is a talented deep threat with a lot of potential, but
             hasn't shown all of his downfield capabilities because Fiedler
             does not throw too many passes past 30 yards. Tight end Randy
             McMichael surprised everyone last year as a rookie when he had
             39 catches for 485 yards and four touchdowns. He should be even
             better in his second season.
             **ATTACK MODE:** Dolphins head coach Dave Wannstedt is widely
             recognized as a defensive genius. Wannstedt's teams can always
             be counted on to have a strong, stifling defense that puts a lot
             of pressure on opposing offenses. The Dolphins defense is no
             exception. In 2002, the Dolphins had 47 sacks and 21
             Entering 2003, the Dolphins defense should be even better than
             last year's third-ranked defense. All five Pro Bowlers return,
             including Taylor, who amassed 18.5 sacks last season. Also, Seau
             has arrived from San Diego and Sammy Knight will take over
             duties as strong safety after six successful seasons leading the
             Saints defense.
             Thomas is the leader of the defense. He notched 101 tackles last
             season and consistently proved that his 5-11 size is no
             impediment. With big defensive tackles Tim Bowens and Larry
             Chester taking up space on the inside, Thomas and Seau will be
             able to roam free and attack. 
             In the secondary, cornerbacks Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain
             are still in the prime of their careers. Free safety Brock
             Marion also returns after a Pro-Bowl season last year. Together,
             they share six Pro Bowls. With Knight, the Dolphins have one of
             the most complete secondaries in the NFL.  
             **JUST ALRIGHT:** Kicker Olindo Mare had a mediocre 2002
             season by NFL standards. He ranked sixth in the AFC in scoring,
             making 24 of 31 field goals (77.4 percent) and 42 of 43 extra
             points. However, his past success and the timing of his misses
             made it seem as though he did even worse.

The previous two seasons, Mare missed a total of five field goals and his kicking percentage was above 90 percent. Moreover, he was partly to blame for the Dolphins season-ending loss at New England when one of his kickoffs sailed out of bounds and he missed a key field goal as well.

             Four-year veteran Charlie Rogers will handle kickoff and punt
             return duties for the Dolphins. He averaged 12.4 yards per punt 

return and 20.3 yards per kickoff return during the 2003 preseason. Mark Royals returns as the Dolphins punter.

             **READY FOR ACTION:**The Dolphins 2003 schedule does not
             appear to be too difficult on paper, but a lot can change
             throughout the course of a season. There are no easy wins in the
             AFC East.
             Just six of their 16 games are against 2002 playoff teams.
             Together, the Eagles, Titans, Giants, Jets, and Colts finished
             52-28 last year. The rest of their 2003 schedule finished a
             combined 54-74 in 2002. 
             With an early bye in week three, avoiding late-season injuries
             and fatigue will be important if the Dolphins want to avoid
             another disappointing end to a season.
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