Monday, March 05, 2007

Mueller’s 'slash and burn' could make Dolphins more productive




If you're not a Dolphin fan, you may want to stop reading. But I am, and today was a rather significant day for the franchise. (Please note: the following essay assumes the reported release of Randy McMichael is a done deal.

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First it was Jeno James, Kevin Carter, Seth McKinney and Kevin Vickerson. Then it was Damian McIntosh and Sammy Morris. Now, the list of ex-Dolphins has expanded to include tight end Randy McMichael, wide receiver Wes Welker and quarterback Joey Harrington.

“The woods are burning,” as Willy Loman said so famously, and many Dolphin fans are smelling the smoke and pulling the nearest alarm. My first thought was to envision General Manager Randy Mueller as a reincarnated William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War general who burned everything in sight as he marched to the ocean. But the more research I’ve done, the more Mueller’s approach reminds me of the agricultural technique known as “slash and burn.” More on that in a moment.

First of all, let me say how good it feels to write about a general manager calling the shots for the Dolphins — and not a hybrid general manager/coach so desperate to prove he does one job well that he completely screws up the other. That’s not to say first-year Head Coach Cam Cameron won’t have some input in personnel, but his main job is to design an offense that will score points, and it is Mueller’s job to get him the components that fit that design.

Now, back to this business of slashing and burning. The idea (and this is grossly oversimplifying things) is to take old crops, bind them together, let them dry out, then burn them — thereby enriching the soil for more productive future crops. In fact, the very chemical nature of the solid changes as a result.

And this is what the Dolphins front office is trying to do: change the very chemistry of the team. Goodness knows the current team composition has only resulted in disappointment. And so, the offseason started with the somewhat expected and (mostly uncontroversial) releases of James, McKinney, Carter and Vickerson. Then, McIntosh and Morris got their walking papers, and a few sets of eyebrows went up. This is principally because there are no apparent replacements for these players in the wings ready to take over.

Then today, all hell broke loose. After searching unsuccessfully for a trade partner, the Dolphins released McMichael. Then the team traded fan favorite and poster boy for overachievement Wes Welker go to the hated Patriots for a second and a seventh round pick in the same draft. Harrington's release, though expected, was no less significant in terms of financial savings.

That clicking sound you’re hearing is a sizable chunk of the Dolphin fan base repeatedly mashing the panic button. As is the case with McIntosh and Morris, it doesn’t help that there are no immediate replacements coming in the revolving door as McMichael and Welker head out. Well, you could count oft-injured Green Bay tight end David Martin and former Tennessee Volunteer standout Kelley Washington. (Martin has actually been signed; Washington has not, as of press time.) Or not.

Assuming both transactions occur, fans would have some right to cry foul. After all, even though the offense was stagnant last year, McMichael and Welker were two of the bright spots, right? Why get rid of two of the few players who actually produced?

Resurrection vs. recreation

The answer lies in what one has to assume is Mueller’s goal for the offense, if not the whole team. It is apparent the unit has gone from merely needing a few holes plugged to requiring a total overhaul. To make an analogy with just as many holes: a rusted-out Lamborghini that happens to have some perfectly fine performance tires is still no good. Even if you resurrected the current incarnation of the Dolphins offense to perfect health, it would not get the job done.

That’s because ever since Dan Marino’s retirement, the Dolphins offense has been constructed with the goal of holding on to the ball long enough to keep the defense fresh enough to eventually win games. That’s why Jay Fiedler at his best managed a game rather than leading the offense. Even the wildly popular Wes Welker is known for picking up key first downs, not scoring touchdowns.

But the times, they are a-changin’. As Cam Cameron said during his introductory press conference, “You got to score. That's the oldest principle in this game … That's the way it works.” Randy Mueller seems committed to building a new Dolphins offense in Cam Cameron’s image, and that involves a complete overhaul. That’s why players like McMichael and Welker may be more valuable to the Dolphins for the resources they can yield, not the developed weapons they are.

But that’s also where the slash-and-burn technique is problematic. In the agricultural world, it takes several seasons to evaluate how successful a slash-and-burn approach has been. Mueller and Cameron may not have several seasons. In today’s NFL, especially last year’s ridiculously atypical turnaround of the New Orleans Saints, building Rome in a day seems completely reasonable. And while such a quick turnaround is possible for the Dolphins, it seems unlikely. Thus, the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth that goes up from South Florida as the woods burn.

I’m withholding judgment on the front office purge to see how the offseason plays out. I’ll admit once word broke as I wrote this column that McMichael would be released rather than traded, my optimism waned a bit. That said, it is still encouraging to see an aggressive course being charted. That the destination is obscured at the moment is troubling, but having offense as a priority is a refreshing change. Now, it’s just time to see what fresh crops are grown.
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