DAVIE, Fla. -- A slick, new chapter of Miami Dolphins football begins this season.
And third-year Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who seems to enjoy shining a spotlight on his team, is letting his new pod of Dolphins know he wants to see immediate results, remarking last month, "I think in February we'll be playing in the Super Bowl."
That seems a bit optimistic considering Miami finished 7-9 a year ago and didn't make the playoffs.
|Stephen Ross (center) has raised his franchise's profile with stars like the Williams sisters. (US Presswire)|
And recall returning players such as running back Ronnie Brown, a dynamic Pro Bowl selection two years ago, who returns after missing much of last season with a foot injury; left tackle Jake Long, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who forms a one-man wall; and third-year quarterback Chad Henne, the strong-armed youngster who enters his first full season as a starter.
This should be the most diverse Dolphins offense in more than a decade if things go according to plan. And while the defense might not have multiple Pro Bowl selections as it did a decade ago with players such as defensive end Jason Taylor, linebacker Zach Thomas and safety Brock Marion, it figures to have game-changers that can turn fumbles and interceptions into touchdowns, such as Dansby and cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. Installation of the defense seemed to go well during offseason practices.
"We're starting to figure this whole defensive scheme out and you can see us playing a little faster," coach Tony Sparano said.
That would be a welcome change from a year ago when injuries and, quite honestly, a lack of skill conspired to rank the Dolphins 22nd in the 32-team NFL in total defense, and 24th in pass defense.
Veteran linebackers Taylor and Joey Porter, and wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. -- the disappointing ninth overall pick in 2007 -- are gone from a team that last year lost its first three games, then won seven of its next 10, raising slim playoff hopes before losing its final three contests.
This new group is a bit more lavish and versatile, similar to Ross, the Miami Beach native-turned-New York real estate developer. A year ago he put together a multi-cultural South Florida celebrity ownership group that includes tennis pros Venus and Serena Williams, entertainment moguls Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony and singer/businessman Jimmy Buffet.
Ross, who wants to bring a South Beach party attitude to the traditionally stoic Dolphins, also implemented an orange carpet for celebrities to walk as they enter the stadium, and created an invitation-only lounge where they can relax in peace. He started running buses to locations around South Florida to transport fans to and from home games. He got Miami-based artist Romero Britto to adorn the stadium with giant-sized art, and he improved the concession areas and overall fan experience with events such as pre-game concerts outside the stadium.
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Now, it's time for results on the field, including living up to that Super Bowl expectation; words, by the way, Miami players said they don't mind being voiced publicly.
"What's the point of not saying it?" said running back Ricky Williams, voted the team's MVP after rushing for 1,121 yards and establishing a league record for most years (six) between 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
"I don't want play on a team that doesn't think we can win the Super Bowl."
The Dolphins want Henne, the strong-armed youngster who passed for 2,878 yards, 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 13 starts last season, to develop a vertical passing threat with the electrifying Marshall, who has at least 1,100 receiving yards each of the last three seasons. Henne said after offseason workouts he can see his maturation.
"I'm definitely a lot more comfortable back there understanding our system, understanding where to go with the ball and trying to anticipate some of the routes and getting the ball out quicker," he said.
The passing game would aid a running game that features Brown, who contends he'll be 100 percent recovered from foot surgery by the start of training camp, and Williams, now one of the NFL's top backups.
But questions abound defensively. Miami needs to find pass rushers to make up for the pressure applied by Taylor and Porter. Sparano thinks he has the players.
He'd better, judging from Ross' expectations. For the record, Sparano said he's "happy that Mr. Ross has the confidence in us right now" to feel he's seen enough progress to make a Super Bowl statement.
Marshall, however, seems to love the Super Bowl challenge.
"It makes me work harder," Marshall said. "I love it. I think we need more owners like that ... You want to make plays for owners and front offices like that when they are saying things like that."