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 interceptions
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.