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ON THE NFL

Dolphins make quick U-turn

November 16, 2008|SAM FARMER | Farmer is a Times staff writer.

Everyone in the NFL is talking about the U of Miami.

No, not the school, but the U-turn of the Miami Dolphins.

The franchise that went 1-15 last season has now won three in a row and five of seven. If they beat the Oakland Raiders today, the Dolphins will pull within a game of the first-place New York Jets in the AFC East.

Few people could have predicted the Dolphins' turnaround would be this whiplash-fast.

Even Bill Parcells had to have his doubts when he took over the rudderless franchise as director of football operations last December. He brought in General Manager Jeff Ireland and Coach Tony Sparano -- both from the Dallas Cowboys -- and the three began reshaping the roster, which has nearly two dozen new players.

The Dolphins got a huge break in early August when the Jets traded for Brett Favre, then showed Chad Pennington the door. The Dolphins should be eternally grateful for that. Some people might have given up on Pennington as too brittle or too noodle-armed, but certainly not Parcells, Ireland and Sparano.

The quarterback was ostensibly brought in to compete for the starting job with Chad Henne and John Beck, but Pennington made sure it wasn't much of a competition. He has been a terrific game manager this season, not the type who can make every throw, but one who makes the right throws.

Pennington, who is probable for today's game with a foot injury, has made precious few mistakes this season. He has completed 66.5% of his passes for 2,200 yards, and has eight touchdowns and just five interceptions for a team that has yet to turn the ball over more than once in a game.

The knock on Pennington coming out of New York was he didn't have the arm strength to make the toughest throws, and he probably still doesn't. But he does go deep every so often, including a recent bomb to Ted Ginn Jr., and he makes a lot of frontal-lobe completions -- thinking-man's throws to open receivers.

"The one thing that the NFL is about is opportunity," Pennington told reporters this week. "When one door closes, a lot of time another one opens, and as long as you keep the right mind-set and stay confident in how you do things as a professional, I think you can really take advantage of the opportunities."

On several of the Dolphins' biggest plays this season, Pennington hasn't even touched the ball. Those have been the direct snaps to the running back -- Ronnie Brown, mostly -- and they have paid off handsomely. Miami scored four touchdowns against New England that way, ending the Patriots' 21-game home winning streak. Those direct snaps, nicknamed the Wildcat Offense, have inspired copycats all over the league.

"We're building confidence in ourselves and the ability to win," said Pennington, who in 2000 was drafted by Parcells to the Jets. "Instead of having a feeling of, 'Here we go again' when things don't go our way, we focus on switching the vibe and switching the momentum."

A lot of that confidence can be attributed to the teaching acumen of Sparano, previously the Cowboys' assistant head coach, who was hired in January.

He replaced Cam Cameron, who lasted only one season.

Sparano is extremely organized, disciplined and, well, eager. He showed up for his first Dolphins game five hours before kickoff, and had to sit in his car for half an hour outside the stadium while bomb-sniffing dogs completed their routine check of the venue. No one expected the coach that early.

Likewise, few expected the Dolphins to return to relevance this early. It might even have taken Parcells off guard.

Then again, the public can't be sure. Parcells has been a ghost to reporters this season. He doesn't return phone calls and regularly turns down interview requests. He does show up at practices, though, and was in the locker room after last Sunday's victory over Seattle.

Before leaving, he turned to a group of players and gave them some cryptic words of encouragement: "Let's do something."

The thing is, they already have.

--

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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