With Dolphins, it's the same difference as Ravens

Afc Wild Card Ravens At Dolphins

January 03, 2009|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,rick.maese@baltsun.com

DAVIE, FLA. - The Easter egg colors left no doubt it was a different locker room. But that was the only telltale sign. If you closed your eyes - and forgot about the Florida reporters who can still wear golf shorts in January - you might as well have been in Owings Mills.

Here's what the linebacker said, "Before the first game started, it was only us 53 guys on this team who thought we could win, thought we could go to the playoffs, thought we could win a single game this season."

Ray Lewis?

No. Teal-clad Channing Crowder.

And here's what the coach said: "There was a culture change that had to take place here, just with everybody in the building, to be quite honest with you. It wasn't just the players. It was everybody."

John Harbaugh?

Nope. Miami Dolphins first-year head coach Tony Sparano.

This isn't to suggest the Ravens and Dolphins are identical. In fact, many glaring differences will be on display tomorrow when the two clash in the wild-card round of the playoffs. The back story, though, is quite similar. The 2007 futility is comparable, and the 2008 turnaround just as surprising. Both underwent enormous makeovers in what amounted to an NFL finger snap: new coach, new quarterback, new identity, new beginning.

But what's different between the two teams is the point of realization. Mill around the Ravens' locker room for just a couple of seconds, and you're bound to hear someone in purple brag he knew all along his team was special.

The Dolphins' clairvoyance apparently wasn't firing on all six cylinders. Their expectations were either muddled or modest.

"I think Coach Sparano made realistic goals," seventh-year defensive back Andre' Goodman said, "even though we were at the bottom looking up. That's what he always said. There's no light at the end of the tunnel. Don't search for a light, don't look for a light. Just put your head down and go to work."

Entering training camp, the Dolphins had two obstacles tempering expectations. Sparano tried his best, but the team's palm-tree-lined practice facility was still wearing the stain of last season's calamity.

"Guys who were already here were looking for answers," Crowder said. "One-and-15, you start questioning yourself, questioning everything. We were looking for answers and [club vice president Bill] Parcells and Sparano brought some answers to us. We really bought in easier because we didn't have anything to come off of last year."

They began the season with 13 new starters from Week 17 a year ago. But in August, there was still a giant question mark.

"Everybody goes to training camp with one goal in mind: to become champions. But we had a quarterback situation," defensive end Vonnie Holliday said. "We didn't know who was going to be quarterback. We had a young guy in [Chad] Henne, who showed a lot of promise. We had [John] Beck, who'd been kind of up and down. But then comes Chad Pennington, right into our lap. What a difference-maker he is."

Pennington signed with the team Aug. 8, after being released by the New York Jets to make room for Brett Favre. Even Pennington wasn't quite sure what he had signed up for.

"As far as the end result, I really didn't know," he said. "I don't think our team really knew. We were kind of surfing through this thing one week at a time and learning more and more about ourselves each day, as individuals as well as teammates."

Pennington went from being released to being named Comeback Player of the Year.

(It surely didn't hurt that the Dolphins won the AFC East playing the easiest schedule in the NFL. Eight of their 11 wins came against teams with losing records, and victories over the Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers were all by less than a touchdown.)

But when did they know Pennington was the missing piece? That they were playoff-bound? Most players agree it came after Week 3, when the 0-2 Dolphins walloped the Patriots, 38-13, on the road.

"We had a bye week, but everyone was still around, hanging out," wide receiver Brandon London said. "Guys got to really know each other. Just being out together, riding in the car, going to dinner, couple of girls or whatever, and talking about the season. That's when I remember really hearing for the first time, 'You know, we could really do this.' "

London knows what the feeling is like. This time last year, he was on the practice squad with the New York Giants. Forget the Ravens - he sees similarities between the Dolphins and his former team. The Giants began the season 0-2, had little business being in the playoffs and certainly weren't expected to last more than a week in the postseason. They ended up winning the Lombardi Trophy.

London hopes the Dolphins will, too.

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