Monday, September 12, 2005

A Reformed Saints Fan: Peace Be Upon Them

I was watching the New Orleans Saints before I could walk. Die-Hard to the core.

Then, I grew old enough to understand that real competition sat at the college level. This is where student athletes are still fighting for the next best thing.

OK. I was and am still an LSU fan, and deep down inside I have a special place for The Saints. Not for their recent troubles, especially since they will never play in New Orleans again, but because I will never forget when the Saints thought it a good move to have the kicker and the punter be the same player. Historically stupid, but you just have to love them....I digress.

Nick Saban is the real deal. As I watched LSU struggle Saturday night all I could think of was 'Where is Coach Saban?' Dolphin fans are in for a nice long run. Nick Saban is about as professional as you are going to get. There will be times when you are miffed by his responses. He will tire of the media long before the media tires of him, and at some point in this story you may even want to boo his efforts...for which he will chide you also.

The long and short of this story is that should you care to watch what you will see is the most comprehensive and well managed rebuilding of a professional football organization in history.

'Where's Coach Saban?'

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Relative to Saban

While not long removed from the college sidelines, it is interesting to read the day to day musings of the writers who cover LSU football and what the players there say of Nick Saban.

It is perhaps the mark of lasting impact when almost everything said is said relative to Saban. It is important note that almost everyone in Baton Rouge notes in some muted tones how tough Saban was and how business-like the Athletic Department, especially the football program, had become when he was there. No one is complaining.

If you want to get a glimpse into the future of Dolphin's football and what the program will become, spend some a little time reading what the LSU players say and how they speak of their program even when simply commenting on the most benign topics like installing a new defense scheme or making adjustments to coaching styles.

Saban turned LSU football into a professional organization. They speak and act as though they the next thing out of their mouths should be some discussions of a pending trade or playoff birth.

Borrowing perhaps what is Coach Saban's favorite preamble;

Relative to LSU, Miami has some great times ahead of them.

TGT

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Secondary a primary issue in Miami's preseason defeat

Miscommunication and failed execution marred the Dolphins' exhibition opener, which caused the team to bring in safety Eric Brown for a visit.

BY JASON COLE
jcole@herald.com

In the wake of missed tackles and missed assignments, the Dolphins continued to look for ways to tweak their secondary Tuesday by bringing in veteran safety Eric Brown for a visit. Brown, who is considered an excellent run stopper but somewhat suspect in coverage, visited the team in the afternoon. Later, coach Nick Saban said he was concerned with some of the mistakes both the cornerbacks and safeties made in the 27-24 loss to Chicago on Monday night in the exhibition opener.

''We obviously gave up too many big plays in this game,'' said Saban, who has talked constantly about the impact of big plays on games since taking over the Dolphins in December. ``One was a missed tackle, we ran right by the guy. We also had some situations where we could have played a little better in terms of awareness and position. That's something that's correctable and something that we have to do.

``As I have said before, defensive backs have to be able to play the ball in the deep part of the field. That's one of the critical factors in being able to make plays.'' Cornerback Reggie Howard, in particular, had a rough night as wide receivers got behind him on at least two occasions. Overall, the Bears finished with three plays of 30 yards or longer, including a 34-yard catch by wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad over Howard that set up a touchdown.

''[Muhammad] made a really good play, but there were other instances where we could have maintained a lot better position than we did,'' Saban said. Howard said he was beaten on one play on a double move, but that another play was from confusion over the call.

''The call came in late, and we didn't know what the coverage was,'' Howard said. Clearly, Howard said he had some work to do this week. ''You can't have that stuff happen,'' he said. That's the polite way of putting it. But there are those in and around the team who are quite suspect over the secondary as a whole. With Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Surtain traded to Kansas City, the Dolphins have struggled to find a successor between Howard, a free agent signed in 2004 by former general manager Rick Spielman, and rookie Travis Daniels.

While Brown, a seven-year veteran who was the first pick of the second round by Denver in 1998 and helped the Broncos win a Super Bowl before playing with Houston the past three seasons, is not an answer to the cornerback situation, the Dolphins also appear to have issues at strong safety. Tebucky Jones, who is also suspect in coverage, is nursing a sore hamstring.
He didn't start Monday, but played in limited situations.

Travares Tillman played instead, but Tillman had his ups and downs in coverage. As for cornerbacks, the Dolphins lost out to the Jets on Ty Law and might have to search for other answers. Lawrence Temple, the agent for Bobby Taylor, said he has called the team several times but hasn't gotten an answer. He even said the 31-year-old Taylor, who missed part of last season with a knee injury, would workout for the Dolphins if need be.

WALTERS HURT
The most significant injury Monday was a shoulder strain for defensive end Matt Walters, who left the dressing room in a sling. Saban said the injury will keep Walters, a former University of Miami standout, out for some time but that Walters should be able to return later in training camp. Among the other players, Saban said all should be back for the game Saturday at Jacksonville. Quarterback A.J. Feeley and defensive end David Bowens had ankle injuries. Return man Wes Welker and wide receiver Derrius Thompson both had knee injuries. Safety Chris Akins, cornerback Mario Edwards and wide receivers Josh Davis and Kendall Newson all had muscle strains.

THIS AND THAT
• Saban said part of the problem with the blocking for the running game was the high use of eight-man fronts and blitzes by Chicago. The tactics by the Bears were somewhat odd for an exhibition game, but not something that couldn't have been handled with some normal preparation typical of the regular season.

• Center Seth McKinney said after the game that he was told that he would start the game at Jacksonville after Rex Hadnot started against the Bears. Saban said no final decisions had been made.

• Dolphins fans attending practice must now park at the Sherman Library at Nova Southeastern University which is just east of the Dolphins training facility. The school will charge fans $1 per hour to park. The fees can be applied to a purchase at the Dolphins Pro Shop.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Saban Sweet Spot: Dolphins Defensive Backs

Nick Saban's constant work with the secondary has been in sharp contrast to his Dolphins predecessors.

BY JASON COLE
jcole@herald.com

How would you feel if your boss was watching you every moment, whenever you tapped on the keyboard at the office or lifted a box in the warehouse?

Welcome to the world of the Dolphins' defensive backs, where players not only can see coach Nick Saban at every turn, but they can probably tell if he has changed aftershave from day to day. Saban's constant presence with the secondary is a good reason why cornerback Randall Gay, a product of Saban's at LSU, was so helpful as a rookie in New England last season and why rookie corner Travis Daniels, another Saban pupil with the Tigers, is right there for a starting spot with the Dolphins this year.

When the boss is around, you better be on top of your game. It might also explain why, during one of their many offseason chalk-talk sessions, Patriots coach Bill Belichick marveled at one of Saban's coverage schemes at LSU and said, ``We don't even do this in the NFL.'' During the Dolphins minicamp in June and so far during the first week of training camp, Saban's constant work with the defensive backs has been in sharp contrast to predecessors Dave Wannstedt, Jimmy Johnson and Don Shula. They would occasionally help with drills. ''I love coaching players,'' Saban said this week. ``I coached in the secondary for 30 years. For me not to do it now is difficult from a habit standpoint.''

Boy, does he ever. Where most head coaches tend to serve as supervisors of the entire team, Saban gravitates to the secondary on an almost daily basis. There are some additional reasons right now, such as trying to teach his system not just to the players, but also to his coaches. Longtime Dolphins assistant Mel Phillips is considered one of the best secondary coaches in the NFL, but even he has learning to do this season.

A CONTRIBUTION

''It's probably where I can contribute the most technically with what we are doing right now, especially with some coaches on the staff that are not familiar with the system,'' Saban said. `Mel Phillips is a great secondary coach [who] contributes largely with the techniques that we use and what we do. We are trying to work together so that he gets a good comfortable feeling with what we are doing.'' Even so, Saban's attention is almost completely on the players themselves. He watches every detail. On Thursday, for instance, after the players broke from team stretching to individual position work, Saban worked with the defensive backs as they started off practicing their hand work against the tackling dummy. Drill after drill, Saban was right there, working closely with Sam Madison, Reggie Howard, Travis Daniels and Alphonso Roundtree. It should be no surprise that Madison, Howard and Daniels are the team's top three cornerbacks right now. Roundtree has made significant progress since the start of training camp as he recovers from a broken leg sustained last season.

DOSE OF ANXIETY

Top that off with the fact that Saban sits in on most of the meetings for the secondary, and you have more than the usual anxiety that goes with a new head coach. ''At the beginning [it was intimidating],'' Howard said. ``But once you get a feeling for what type of guy he is, you know he's a competitor.'' Said safety Yeremiah Bell: ``It can be intimidating sometimes, but at the same time, you want to know what you do wrong and how to correct it. Coach Saban knows what he's talking about. Overall, I like it, but it can be critical sometimes.'' Said Howard: ``You have a chance to learn from a guy who has a lot of experience working with good defenses, making good defensive backs.''

Indeed, what Gay did last season in New England was stunning in helping the Patriots overcome the loss of Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law on the way to a third Super Bowl title in four years. In the early 1990s in Cleveland, Saban's hands-on tutoring of the late Eric Turner turned him into one of the best safeties in the league and a Pro Bowler. Now, Daniels is leading in the battle to replace traded Pro Bowler Patrick Surtain. While Daniels figures to be a ''good'' player in Saban's estimation and not necessarily special just yet, he is ahead of the curve for most rookies trying to play the left cornerback spot. ''You just get drilled and drilled by Coach Saban on how to do it right,'' Daniels said. ``He's a perfectionist and he gets that into your head that that's how you got to be.'' The other benefit is that Saban is something of a mad scientist when it comes to coverage schemes. There are ideas on top of ideas. ''It's going to be complicated,'' Howard said. `Last year, we weren't a blitzing team. This year, blitzes alone, you're talking 30-40 blitzes you have to learn. It's definitely different. We're going to be a defense that is able to attack you from every angle.''

MADISON'S JABS

The close contact is creating a certain comfort. Madison seems to be leading the team in giving Saban a little grief in return for all the close contact. ''He thinks he's a pretty good defensive back,'' Madison said with a slight grim. ``So we let him come over and try to teach us something. But we [are] really just teaching him things.'' Do you ever test his skills? ''Ain't no need to. He don't have the footwork. He just has the mind-set,'' said Madison, who was then asked if he'd heard about Saban's college career at Kent State. ``Oh, we already heard about all that. But like I told him, until I see the film, it's just a he said/she said thing.''

Yep, Saban seems to be fitting in just fine.

Friday, July 29, 2005

New Sheriff in Town!

Saban brings rookie Wright to tears
By Alex Marvez Staff Writer
July 27 2005

DAVIE -- The first full-pads practice of camp resulted in one Dolphin crying, but not because of any physical contact. Rookie defensive tackle Manny Wright left the field in tears Tuesday after he was chewed out by coach Nick Saban before the session had even begun.

Wright, who was wearing a red (no-contact) jersey because of a back injury, was confronted by Saban as others began pre-practice stretching. An animated Saban took off his hat and pointed to his head as trainer Kevin O'Neill approached. Wright began to weep as he returned to the locker room, wiping his face with his jersey. Wright returned to the practice 30 minutes later and spoke with Saban during a water break.

Wright, who was selected in the fifth round of the supplemental draft this month, received limited snaps the rest of the session. "He's probably not in as good of shape as he needs to be in," Saban said of the 6-foot-6, 329-pound Wright. "He is having some of the same issues and problems with soreness, tight back and those types of things, so we are trying to work him and manage him through it as best we can. "As you well know, young players need to develop the kind of mental toughness and attitude that they need to be professionals. So we are trying to help him with that, too. "Maybe we need to get on him a little bit at times. I got on him about what we wanted him to try to do at least today to work himself through it, and he responded well to it."

Wright was unavailable for comment, but agent Peter Schaffer said he spoke with him about the situation. "Manny said there was a misunderstanding and that Coach Saban went in after practice and said he was sorry he yelled," Schaffer said. "Manny said he was sorry, too, and they agreed to move forward. Coach Saban thinks he has a very bright future, and Manny will do anything to become a valuable part of this team. "People forget that Manny is 21 years old and this is his first training camp. He didn't get the benefit from having an offseason or minicamp [with the Dolphins]. He has a lot being thrown at him. I'm sure Manny isn't the first player to get yelled at in practice, and I'm sure he won't be the last."

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Opinion: Fickle Dolfans will boo, then forgive Ricky

GREG COTE
gcote@herald.com

Now that Ricky Williams is poised to be a Dolphin again and supposedly back in South Florida for good -- ''for good'' in this case presumes both productivity and duration -- it is time to address the controversial, polarizing aspect of his imminent return.

Human nature mandates that fans' response to Williams' unretirement will fall into two distinct categories. Many Dolfans will welcome Ricky back as a sort of wayward son who strayed from the family (globetrotting, smoking dope, living in hostels . . . did we mention smoking dope?) but has returned to the fold after finding maturity and humility in the course of ``finding himself.''
These conciliatory fans will be about evenly split between those who are just naturally benevolent and forgiving, and those driven pragmatically, those whose embarrassment over a 4-12 season is so profound they would welcome Michael Jackson onto the roster if his 40 time were right.

However, many other Dolfans -- most? -- will mark Ricky's return by booing loudly, burning No. 34 jerseys in effigy, waving torches and pitchforks, circulating petitions, and misspelling traitor with an ''e'' on handmade signs to be confiscated by stadium personnel. This passionate, principled vitriol toward Williams surely will last for as long as he plays in Miami, or until he does something really great like bust a 43-yard TD run, whichever comes first. Williams will outrun the booing at precisely the same speed he outruns defenders. You'll boo Ricky at first, because it feels right -- because he deserves that aural blast of punishment for running out on the team and your hopes. For putting the Fish in selfish. But then you'll cheer him, because it feels good. And you know it.

Sports fans may be the most fickle subset of human beings on Earth, and it will be amusing to see that in action when Ricky Redux unfolds next month. Same with his teammates. Any lingering ill will against Williams will dissipate if his renewed commitment is evident, his yards pile up and the team wins. (In the sports chemistry lab, winning is the formula that produces a happy vibe, not vice-versa. Similarly, losing has turned more locker rooms sour than any two-legged cancers). With Williams' comeback assured to be one of the bigger sporting soap operas in South Florida history, what a delightful circus the buildup to this 40th Dolphins season shall be! Not in memory, if ever, has Miami's coming NFL training camp yielded so much various intrigue.

The return of Williams alone would merit three rings, a clown and bears in tutus dancing to calliope, but that's just the start.

MANY SUBPLOTS

Add a highly anticipated new head coach in Nick Saban. Is he the pro game's next great genius leader? While we find out how, acknowledge that he arrives a heavyweight. He may flatline on charisma, but his assignment is to win, not grin. Add a quarterback controversy in journeyman Gus Frerotte vs. shaky incumbent A.J. Feeley. They're 1 and 1A, but is either better than C or C+? Feeley must prove he is worth that second-round pick. Frerotte must accomplish something so he's no longer best-known for being concussed banging his head on a wall to celebrate a TD.

Add the club's highest draft pick since birth-year 1966 in running back Ronnie Brown. Backs drafted No. 2 overall are supposed to be impact stars, right now. Is Brown that good? Good enough to make Williams' carnival return superfluous? Add the unusualness of a proud, winning franchise coming off the ignominy of a Bengalesque 4-12 season. The last worse Dolphin record was 3-10-1 in 1969. We were still in Vietnam when last the club was trying to claw up from this kind of depth. The Return of Ricky looms over all of it, of course.

After a year's odyssey in which Williams submarined the Dolphins, lived in a tent in Australia, studied holistic healing in California and learned yoga in India, among other soul-searching endeavors while the team he left behind crumbled . . . he's ba-aack. Resentment in and outside the locker room may be unavoidable, but there are ways to lessen it.

P.R. HELP FOR RICKY

What Ricky needs most right now is a public-relations makeover. We're here for you, Rick. Sit down, relax, and prepare to emerge with a whole new persona on today's episode of, Aqua Eye For the Traitor Guy. See, you thought Williams was being selfish to abandon the team and go smoke dope with the koala bears. No.

It was all an intricately orchestrated plan that may now be revealed. Williams knew his leaving would produce a year of losses and chaos so great the franchise would quake at its foundation, and that only then would broad healing begin. He was willing to make that sacrifice, risking his own reputation, shouldering every sling, bearing every arrow, for the larger good and future of the club. Brilliantly, Williams deduced that only a terrible season in his wake could end the torpor and eradicate the lethargic administration of unpopular coach Dave Wannstedt and general manager Rick Spielman. There was no other way to do it. Picture Williams in the remote Outback, nodding knowingly to himself, content he had succeeded in his calculated, one-man master plan.

Even as fans cursed his name, Ricky smiled serenely as, far away, the Dolphins were reaping the reward of his sacrifice, bagging a highly coveted new coach and then the highest draft pick in decades. Only then, only now, with the windfall of his ultimate selflessness in place, was the man free to rejoin the team whose revitalization he had bravely authored.

Ricky Williams, American hero.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Interim report: Saban Pleased...so far

DAVIE, Fla. (AP) -- Nick Saban went back in time last weekend, investigating his heritage during a quick vacation in Croatia. The proud Catholic attended Mass in an impoverished community, learned about the nation's history and relaxed along the pristine, clear-water splendor of the Dalmatian Coast. Yet he found no athletes who could help his Miami Dolphins. "Don't think I wasn't looking," the Dolphins' first-year coach said, grinning.

He's scheduled to leave Friday night for another family vacation, this one in Georgia, a few thousand miles closer than the republic that was once part of the former Yugoslavia. But once again, his mind probably won't be far from football and his first Dolphins training camp, now looming just one month away.

Over the last few months, during their allotment of "organized team activities" days, the Dolphins tried players at various positions, installed new offensive and defensive schemes, and began meshing several dozen players and a couple dozen new coaches and staff into some sort of cohesive unit.

Are the new-look Dolphins ready for the season? No. Have they satisfied Saban so far? Apparently, yes. "We have some guys that have made better progress than others in terms of their understanding and ability to execute with consistency and confidence and understanding so they can turn it loose and go get it," Saban said Thursday. "But if we had that accomplished right now, we wouldn't need 35-ought practices or whatever we have in training camp to get ready for the first game." Saban is leery to identify who any probable starters are at this point, insisting that tipping his hand now would be counterproductive; he wants people battling for jobs and trying to overachieve in camp, not pouting over being demoted to the second team.
And he would not reveal if he's had any new conversations with the apparently soon-to-be-unretired running back Ricky Williams, who is reportedly back in South Florida and still planning to be with the Dolphins for training camp late next month. But indications are that Saban and Williams have had some sort of dialogue; Saban said he was aware of Williams' travel schedule from California last week. "I knew exactly what he was doing, and he did exactly what he said he was going to do," Saban said, without elaborating.

The Williams situation and the pending battle between A.J. Feeley and Gus Frerotte for the starting quarterback job remain two of the most interesting issues hovering over the Dolphins these days. Feeley and Frerotte are both incumbents of sorts; Feeley started half the games during Miami's 4-12 season a year ago, Frerotte knows the offense better, having played two years in Minnesota in the same system currently being installed here by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. "I would bet -- if anybody wants to bet, not that I'm a gambling man -- that at some point in time, we're going to need both of those guys to play well during the season," Saban said. "So our focus is on them both developing to be the best possible players they can be ... even ongoing after we name a starter."

Notes: The Dolphins have scheduled visits with free-agent safety Lance Schulters, who was recently released by Tennessee in a salary-cap move, and Southern California defensive tackle Manuel Wright, who'll be at the Dolphins facility on Friday. Wright played behind All-American Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson, the Philadelphia Eagles' first-round pick. Wright has entered the league's supplemental draft, and the Dolphins want "to find out if he has the right stuff to be a consistent performer," Saban said.

Source: Ricky living in Miami Beach

BY DAVID J. NEAL
dneal@herald.com

Soon-to-be-unretired Dolphins running back Ricky Williams has taken up residence in Miami Beach, according to a source close to Williams. He was scheduled to arrive in Miami Beach from Boston on Tuesday.

Although Williams can go to the Dolphins facility in Davie to conduct off-the-field business, he can't work out with the team until he's officially reinstated by the NFL. That will be July 27 or 28, a few days into training camp. The date of his ''retirement'' officially is July 27, 2004. Once Williams returns this season, he will face a four-game suspension for failed drug tests and a four-week fine in addition to the suspension.

With his first chance, Saban sends message

BY DAVID J. NEAL
dneal@herald.com

Radar guns allegedly caught then-Dolphins safety Quintin Williams going 111 mph Thursday. The guns would've blown up measuring the speed of the message Dolphins coach Nick Saban sent Friday.

Behave, or be gone. Or, at least, be worried. If you're most players. Whether that's what Saban meant when he made Williams one of three cuts Friday is irrelevant. His preemptive disclaimer from Thursday -- ''Don't evaluate this situation based on who and how we punish people, because that would not be the right thing to do.'' -- might as well have been whispered into the wind after Friday.

In Dolphins offseason homes around South Florida and vacation spots around the world, you can bet Williams' release raised eyebrows accompanied by wordy analyses such as ``Dang.'' Smart players will assume the locker room bourgeoisie needs to follow the real world's rules just as if they were part of real world's bourgeoisie. Anybody below the established Dolphin royalty needs to keep his mug shot confined to the team program.

If the police report is accurate about the 111 mph, Williams' blood-alcohol level and racing another car, it still doesn't make Williams a bad person. Like too many of us too often, he committed a perilous act that endangered himself and others. Like not enough of us, he got caught.

So, for that moment, Williams was dumb and unlucky. Just as dumb as the person who does it and doesn't get busted. Not as unlucky as the person who does it and winds up getting busted because he or she maimed or killed someone or three. Unlucky enough to be a perfect sacrificial lamb.

Williams possessed enough persistence and talent to climb onto an NFL roster from practice squad purgatory. But he wasn't the second coming of Ronnie Lott. He wasn't even Mike Doss, the Colts' starting safety who touched the limits of obtuse by firing a gun into the air outside an Akron, Ohio, nightclub in May.

Doss got a two-game suspension from the NFL after pleading no contest to reduced charges.
Travares Tillman, a safety of starting rank, was riding shotgun with Williams. It was his car Williams used for what sounds like a Don Garlits-Shirley Muldowney reenactment on Interstate 595. But Tillman, who also allegedly had been drinking, had ceded control of the car.
Not only did that save Tillman from any charges, it saved Saban from a tough decision. Even Williams' cut might not be a clean chop.

Sometimes, juxtaposition screams. You're caught in somebody else's bed and your spouse leaves you the next day, and nobody figures Sweetums walked out over meddlesome relatives.
Article VIII, Section 4 of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement gives the player the right to file a non-injury grievance over club discipline. Section 3 says ``discipline will be imposed uniformly within a Club on all players for the same offense; however, the Club may specify the events which create an escalation of the discipline, provided the formula for escalation is uniform in its application.''

As the website profootballtalk.com pointed out Saturday, Williams might have grounds for a grievance.