The 2009 Miami Dolphins regular season is history, so now it's time to play professor, and dole out grades for the year just passed:
Offensive line -- B: The $155 million men proved to be just the tonic for the Dolphins running game, which ranked as high as first in the league, and even with injuries to Ronnie Brown and Patrick Cobbs, ended up fourth in the league. The ground game also suffered from injuries to starting center Jake Grove and guard Justin Smiley. The only knock was finishing in the middle of the pack with 34 sacks allowed.
Running backs -- B+: The best position group on the team this year. The Dolphins led the league in rushing until Brown's injury, but Ricky Williams picked up the slack, finishing 10th in the league with 1,121 yards and a 4.7-yard average per carry. Brown ran for 648 yards and eight TDs in only 10 games.
Quarterback -- C: Chad Henne had an up-and-down season following the season-ending injury to Chad Pennington. Henne did complete over 60 percent of his passes, but he threw 14 interceptions (against only 12 TDs) and had a quarterback rating of only 75.2. He had games where he showed promise, including the 335-yard effort in a comeback win over New England, but too often he threw a costly interception that killed the Dolphins' chances. Pennington didn't play that well in his first 2 1/2 games either, throwing for just one TD and three interceptions. Pat White was a bust in his first season, failing to complete a single pass in five tries. Tyler Thigpen had a so-so game against Pittsburgh, with his two TD passes offset by two crucial picks that ultimately cost Miami a chance at victory.
Wide receivers -- D: Davone Bess actually ranked 15th in the NFL this season with 76 catches -- but for only 758 yards and just two TDs. His season was a microcosm of the Dolphins': Few big plays, needing to string together a bunch of small ones just to score points. The fact that Ted Ginn (38 rec., 454 yds., 1 TD) did not flourish in his third season was a major step back for this unit. Only rookie Brian Hartline ( 31 rec., 506 yds., 3 TDs) showed any playmaking ability. Tight end Anthony Fasano had a terrible season, totaling just 31 catches for 331 yards and 2 TDs, and often was absent for long stretches.
Defensive line -- C: This unit suffered greatly when Jason Ferguson went down with a season-ending injury. Up until that point, Miami ranked in the top five in run defense; by season's end they slipped all the way to 18th. Paul Soliai was not the answer as Ferguson's backup, and the former New York Jet turns 36 next season, so this may have been his last in a Dolphins uniform. Kendall Langford had his moments, but only tallied two sacks, the same number as Philip Merling, who regressed in his second season. If not for Randy Starks and his seven sacks, this unit the grade would have been lower.
Linebackers -- C: The pass coverage by this unit was atrocious, even more so when Channing Crowder missed most of the last two games of the season. The Dolphins simply must upgrade this unit. Akin Ayodele and Reggie Torbor both failed to cover tight ends and running backs, and opposing teams feasted on them for big plays. Joey Porter again led the team in sacks with nine, but he was largely inconsistent. Jason Taylor contributed seven sacks, but also seemed to be missing for large chunks of action -- particularly in the second half, when the Dolphins defense always seemed to let down. Cameron Wake made the most of limited duty with five sacks, though the coaches said he needed to hold up better against the run and in pass coverage to see more action next year. Also, Wake turns 30, so he's not exactly a long-term solution.
Defensive backs -- C: Vontae Davis and Sean Smith made great strides as rookie players. Though Smith did not make an interception this year, he proved to be Miami's shutdown corner, with few teams beating him for big plays. Davis struggled at times in pass coverage, but he was a presence in run defense, and occasionally made the big play himself, leading the Dolphins with four interceptions. It speaks to the problems this defense had when safeties Yeremiah Bell (114 tackles) and Gibril Wilson (91) led the team in that category. Bell had three interceptions, but he too struggled in pass coverage. However, his play paled in comparison to Wilson, who turned into a free agent bust with his inability to cover anyone in the secondary and penchant for not making big plays (no INTs). A major reason why the Dolphins fell to 28th in the league in pass defense.
Special teams -- C-: Punter Brandon Fields and kicker Dan Carpenter ranked in the upper half of the league statistically, with Fields tying for 12th with 25 kicks downed inside the 20-yardline. Carpenter only missed three field goals in 28 attempts, but only ranked 20th in kickoffs with just seven touchbacks. The Dolphins return unit allowed two TDs, and was 11th in average allowed per punt. The return game struggled, as Ginn was the only Dolphin to score a TD, and Bess ranked 44th in punt returns. In fact, Ginn ranked just 30th in average per return despite his two TDs, as he too often looked for the sidelines rather than taking the ball up the middle.
Coaching -- B: It's a testament to Sparano's motivational skills that the Dolphins were able to finish 7-9, given the litany of losses at key positions. The Dolphins were in every game they played all season, losing just three times by double digits. Furthermore, how did this team contend after losing Pennington, Allen, Ferguson and Brown, arguably four of their top 10 players? Sparano does get a minus for his game management skills, such as calling a timeout that allowed the New Orleans Saints to regroup and score a TD before halftime that was a springboard for their comeback. And while Dan Henning did a fine job with the offense, there were still the occasional questionable calls that cost the Dolphins points (like running the ball on a 3rd-and-4 against Indianapolis and settling for a field goal when a TD would have made things more difficult for Peyton Manning). Paul Pasqualoni never could solve the riddle of pass defense in his two seasons here, and despite the injuries, that probably played a part in his demise. Otherwise though, the staff gets high marks for literally wringing as much as they could out of one of the more talentless teams in the NFL.
Time now to make my playoff picks, just two hours before gametime.
The Saints and Cardinals should stage another shootout in the vein of last week's heart-stopper in Arizona. I know the game is in the dome, and the Saints have been a scoring machine, but I didn't like the way they ended their season with three straight losses. In particular, the offense was not operating at the level it had been during the first 13 games. The fact this game is at home makes this a tough call, but I think Arizona, and Kurt Warner, have the hot hand, and will torch the Saints defense. And I have more faith in the Cards' defense than I do in the Saints', last week's meltdown notwithstanding. Cards 35, Saints 27.
The Colts and Ravens meet in a rematch of a game Baltimore should have won back in Week 11. The Colts have a history of not doing well with first round byes (0-3 since 2005), and the Ravens have the formula to beat them: Run the ball, keep Manning off the field, play tough defense. Manning will make his usual 3-4 big plays, but I think there will be heartache in Indy once again. Ravens 24, Colts 21.
The Vikings and Cowboys play in one of the most anticipated games of the season Sunday. Like the Saints and Colts, the Vikes did not end the season strongly, losing three of their final five games. If there's one sure way to beat them, it's to pressure Brett Favre constantly, which the Cowboys, with Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, should be able to do. Dallas can also run the football, and exploit Minnesota's main weakness in the secondary with Miles Austin and Jason Witten. Look for the Dallas train to continue to roll. Cowboys 27, Vikings 24.
Finally, we come to the Jets and Chargers. San Digeo has won 11 straight games, while the Jets dominated Cincinnati two straight weeks. New York has the combination to beat the Chargers: a strong running game and a good defense. But I think Philip Rivers and company will make enough big plays to beat the Jets, and they will force the game into the hands of Mark Sanchez, who still hasn't proven he can make big plays when his team is behind. Chargers 21, Jets 16.