Senior Writer

Dolphins hoping to go from check down to downtown


Survivors Chad Henne and Tony Sparano both spent lots of offseason time on the Miami hotseat. (Getty Images)  
Survivors Chad Henne and Tony Sparano both spent lots of offseason time on the Miami hotseat. (Getty Images)  

DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins offense the past couple of years has been boring, predictable, safe, outdated and, quite frankly, smelled worse than washed-up fish on Miami Beach.

So as you evaluate the Dolphins heading into the 2011 season, don't focus so much on what they've added but rather what they've lost: offensive coordinator Dan Henning.

Henning and his reputation for being a run-centric, tight-formation offense retired as offensive coordinator, leaving behind the wrath of the fans and the carnage that was the Dolphins offense. Brian Daboll, who comes over from the Cleveland Browns, replaces Henning. At least he comes with imagination.

"I think we will take a lot more chances down the field," quarterback Chad Henne said. "The opportunities for big plays will be there."

The Dolphins finished the 2010 season ranked 30th in scoring, averaging just over 17 points per game. The passing game was a short one, with leading receivers Brandon Marshall (11.8 per catch) and Davone Bess (10.4) rarely getting down the field. Miami had four pass plays of 40 yards or more, which was among the worst in the league. For comparison sake, the Chargers led the league with 14.

That led to catcalls that Henne was "Check-down Chad." Critics said he wouldn't take the needed chances, preferring instead to play it safe. But when you're asked to throw on third-and-long all the time, or asked to make plays with just two receivers in the route in maximum-protection mode, how can a quarterback succeed?

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"I know what they're saying about me," Henne said. "But I can't worry about that. It's in the past now. We have a new system and we're excited about it."

The Dolphins flirted with replacing Henne, nearly making a deal for Denver's Kyle Orton, but in the end Henne was the one left running the show. It is his chance to prove that he can succeed, if he's given just a little freedom.

Daboll's offense in Cleveland didn't have great success, but he will take chances. The Browns were in four-receiver sets nearly twice as much as the Dolphins were last season.

"I think with Brian we're a little more open," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "Brian's a little more open with his nature. And it's rubbing off at the quarterback position. The ball's traveling down the field. It's the most the ball has been down the field in practice since I've been here."

The name Dan Marino makes not seeing the ball down the field sickening for Dolphins fans. Since Marino walked away 12 years ago, the Dolphins have tried everything to amp up a passing game that hasn't come close to changing with the times.

They've hired new coaches, new coordinators and started a long list of quarterbacks, but it's been the trouble spot for this team much of the past 12 years. Since Marino retired after the 1999 season, the Dolphins have finished the season ranked in the top-10 in scoring just once, that coming in 2001. In Sparano's three seasons, the highest they've been ranked is 15th. It's been so bad they unveiled the dreaded Wildcat to help offset it.

Grind it out, play ball control and use the clock is as outdated a style of football as you can find. Yet the Dolphins held on to that under Henning, who did have success with that style in the 1980s. It was former team president Bill Parcells who urged Sparano to hire Henning. The link: Parcells and Henning are good friends who worked together on the same staff at Florida State in the 1970s.

Indications are that Sparano wanted to hire Chris Palmer, whom he played under at the University of New Haven, but Henning was pushed onto his staff. Palmer is now the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, and is considered a top quarterback coach.

Daboll doesn't come with superior credits on his resume. The Browns finished 2010 ranked 31st in scoring, one spot behind the Dolphins. But at least they were creative. A lack of talent hurt Daboll and the Browns as much as anything.

I would love to have talked to Daboll, but the team won't make him available until the regular season. Others raved about his offense and what it might mean to the passing game.

"We can pound if we want, but we will have chances in the passing game," running back Reggie Bush said. "We can do both."

Bush is the X-factor. He came to the Dolphins in a trade from the New Orleans Saints, where he was a third-down specialist and a big part of their passing game. Bush, who had more receptions than any other back in the league the past five seasons with 294, showed off that ability last week for the Dolphins in the preseason victory against Carolina when he had 81 yards on 10 touches, including three plays over 15 yards.

The difference with Bush is that a check-down to him can be a big play. If that happens, nobody will be questioning Henne about those decisions much anymore.

"Chad put the ball right where it needed to be on those plays," Bush said. "He threw some perfect passes. I think he has all the tools, and I'm not just saying that because I am on this team. I mean it."

Bush will help open up things down the field for Marshall, who has seen his fair share of doubles since coming to Miami two years ago.

Said Sparano: "If he gets a little space, he's dangerous. As far as doubles, you have to pick your poison with us right now."

Henne was booed at a scrimmage earlier this summer. He has this year to prove he can be the long-term guy. If he fails, the Dolphins will have the chance to draft a quarterback next spring in what should be a deep-quarterback class.

During the lockout, Henne took over as more of a leader. He organized workouts and the players seemed to respond to him. For now, this is his team. Even Marshall, who never backed him last season, seems to be in Henne's corner. The two spent much of last week's game talking on the sidelines, something they didn't do much last season.

"I love the way Chad took over the offense," Marshall said after the game.

Henne did miss a couple of deep throws, but at least they were called and he took the shots. You can't hit them if you don't try them.

Twenty minutes or so after most of the Dolphins players exited the team's indoor facility following a long practice Monday, Bush and Henne came walking out behind them. Those two stayed behind the rest of the class for extra-credit work, throwing route after route.

"One inch this way or the other could be the difference between 10 yards," Bush said. "We're just fine-tuning some things. It's what I'm used to. If we're going to get better, I have to be on the same wavelength as Chad."

What really needs to happen is the offense needs to get with the times.

Boring. Stodgy. Predictable.

If those words apply, Henne and Sparano will both be looking for work in 2012.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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