Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Miami Dolphins 2011 Awards: Bright Spots in a Disappointing Year (Again?)

Last year, my Miami Dolphins team awards post was entitled "Miami Dolphins 2010 Awards: Bright Spots in a Disappointing Year." That same title can certainly apply to the 2011 season as well, as the 6-10 Dolphins started 0-7 before finishing 6-3. And despite the lack of a winning record or playoffs berth, the team did have its share of good games and individual performances.

That is the purpose of this article: to recognize the good that was the Miami Dolphins' 2011 season.

Best Acquisition: Reggie Bush (via trade)

Rather than break the bank for a free agent like Ahmad Bradshaw or force rookie Daniel Thomas to carry the entire load, the Dolphins traded an undisclosed draft pick and safety/special-teamer Jonathon Amaya to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for Bush.

The former second overall pick failed to show he could stay healthy during his Saints' career and was unable to secure a feature back role in five seasons. Despite some high points in the return game and a reliable role as a receiver out of the backfield, it was fair to wonder just how Bush would do in Miami given that Sean Payton and the Saints' high-powered offense found him to be a disappointment.

Bush went on to prove everyone (myself included) wrong in 2011, starting a career-high 15 games as the Dolphins' starting tailback and running hard and physical the entire time. He amassed 1,086 yards on the ground and tied his career-high in rushing touchdowns with six, all the while averaging five yards per carry—highest among all 14 thousand-yard rushers in 2011.

Amaya was a quality special-teamer with Miami and the draft pick the Dolphins gave up remains undiclosed, although it fortunately will not change based on Bush's 2011 performance. However, I think it's safe to say the Dolphins did a great job making this trade and that Bush was much better than any of us could have hoped for in 2011.

Best Game: Dolphins' 31-3 win over Chiefs in Week 9

Entering their Week 9 matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs, the only week the Dolphins hadn't lost was their Week 5 bye. The 0-7 Dolphins were understandably underdogs on the road and were down 3-0 after a Ryan Succop field goal with 7:49 remaining in the first quarter.

From there, it was all Dolphins. Matt Moore hit Anthony Fasano on two touchdowns in the first half and Brandon Marshall in the third quarter. Reggie Bush scampered 28 yards for a score in the third as well, and Dan Carpenter drilled a 42-yard field goal to seal a dominant 31-3 victory.

In all, it was a completely dominant performance by the Dolphins in their first victory of the season. Moore was precise, careful with the football, and made good decisions as he completed 17 of 23 passes for 244 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers. Bush totaled 93 yards on just 12 carries, Marshall went for over 100 yards, and Fasano notched his first multiple-touchdown game since 2008 (coincidentally against the Chiefs).

On defense, the Dolphins totaled five sacks and a forced fumble, with inside linebacker Kevin Burnett leading the way with 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Karlos Dansby also notched double-digit tackles as the Chiefs' leading rusher totaled just 40 yards and Matt Cassel completed only 20 of 39 passing attempt.

It may not have come down to the wire or been the most exciting game of the Dolphins' season, but their first victory of the 2011 season proved they had the talent to be better than their 0-7 record leading up to it, and it was easily their most dominant and thorough win of the year.

Best Individual Performance in a Game: Reggie Bush's 203-yard rushing day vs. Bills in Week 15

I've already talked at length about Bush's breakout season with the Dolphins, but his Week 15 performance in the team's 30-23 victory over the Bills in Buffalo was probably his own personal highlight of the year.

On a season-high 25 carries, Bush simply shredded the Bills' defense as he rushed for a career-best 203 yards. Just as he had all season, Bush ran with a tough, physical demeanor and fought for every yard. However, some yards were easier than others, as he broke through the line practically untouched for a 76-yard touchdown run and slid through the end zone in celebration. (Video)

Bush proved he could be a feature back throughout the 2011 season, but this game and this performance more than any other showed just how true that was and just how effective he could be at the pro level when given the opportunity.

Best Individual Play: Brandon Marshall's strangled touchdown catch vs. Cowboys on Thanksgiving

Marshall certainly had his ups and downs this season with numerous drops at game-changing moments, but there is no question he still possesses the ability to be an elite receiver in the NFL.

A prime example of that came on Thanksgiving in a battle with the Cowboys. 35 yards out with about four minutes to go on the fourth quarter and down 10-3, Moore took the snap and looked downfield. The protection wasn't great and he didn't have much time, but he saw Marshall had toasted corner Terence Newman badly and heaved it up. The ball was slightly underthrown, forcing Marshall to slow up and allowing Newman to catch up. Panicked with the ball in the air, Newman decided pass interference was the best option and draped himself around Marshall, arms clasped around the receiver's neck.

But Marshall caught the ball anyway, scoring a touchdown and tying the game. It was a simply incredible play, highlighting what Marshall still has the ability to do and providing us with the best play of the Dolphins' season.

Best Coach: Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll

It might seem strange to give this award to a guy who ran the league's 22nd-ranked yardage offense and 20th-ranked scoring offense. Mike Nolan's defense wound up ranking sixth in the NFL in points allowed, and there are plenty of position coaches that could earn attention as well.

However, I felt like Daboll did a great job with what he had, especially when you consider that he had no offseason to implement his offense and lost his starting quarterback early on in the season. I thought Daboll did a good job being aggressive, which was nice change of pace from Dan Henning napping in the booth.

Daboll did a great job creating a veritcal passing game with Matt Moore and Brandon Marshall, and you have to give him credit for using Reggie Bush better than anyone ever had in the pros. Bush had a Pro Bowl-worthy season and proved so many doubters wrong, and Daboll had a big hand in that.

Considering the talent he had (and the talent he didn't) this season, and how well the Dolphins' offense performed much of the time during their 6-3 run to close out the 2011 season, I think Daboll did an excellent job in his first year as the team's offensive coordinator.

Special Teams Rookie of the Year: Jimmy Wilson

A seventh-round pick out of Montana, Wilson was an intriguing story from the start as he spent roughly two years in prison on a murder charge before an acquittal all before being drafted by the Dolphins last April. A strong preseason made him a fan favorite, and that carried over into the regular season as he showed up as a regular on special teams.

Wilson ranked sixth in the team with five special teams tackles, in particular doing a nice job on punts both in coverage and downing Brandon Fields' boots inside the 20.

Rookie receiver Clyde Gates could also receive consideration as he ranked fourth among rookies with 24.3 yards per kick return, but simply Wilson showed up more consistently.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jimmy Wilson

Okay, so this award is less because of performance and more due to lack of other options. Wilson was the only drafted rookie that played for the Dolphins' defense this season, as nose tackle Frank Kearse was plucked off the practice squad by the Panthers in September.

Realistically, Wilson didn't perform all that well when he was thrust into significant playing time early in the season. He fought hard and admirably but struggled regularly, allowing nine completions and three touchdowns on 16 targets during the season.

Wilson is a likeable player and he plays tough, but you can't really say he played well on defense this year and is really the default winner of this award.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Mike Pouncey

The Dolphins' first-round pick in 2011, Pouncey was entrenched at center right from the start and held up pretty well considering he started all 16 games and routinely faced some of the best nose tackles in all of football, including Vince Wilfork and Sione Pouha twice each.

While Pouncey's pass protection left something to be desired as his 15 quarterback pressured allowed tie for third-worst at his position, his run blocking was outstanding and Pro Football Focus graded him as the ninth-best player in that department, tied with Ryan Kalil and ahead of guys like Todd McClure, Jonathan Goodwin, Matt Birk, and his brother, Maurkice Pouncey.

Pouncey certainly wasn't the sexiest pick in the first round as many of us wanted a quarterback or other playmaker, but you can't say he didn't perform well during his rookie season and it's safe to say he shows a lot of promise for the future.

Breakout Player of the Year: Jared Odrick

There are certainly arguments for guys like Reggie Bush or Matt Moore here, but those guys have only had one season with the Dolphins and thus didn't have any previous blueprints to live up to in Miami. Odrick, on the other hand, was the team's first-round pick in 2010 and missed nearly all of his rookie season with a foot injury.

Despite the Dolphins having two quality defensive ends in Randy Starks and Kendall Langford, Odrick worked his way into a full rotation in 2011 and didn't disappoint. Starting seven of 16 games games played, Odrick totaled 22 tackles and an impressive six sacks, as well as a forced fumble and an interception on the season.

Odrick was a quality rusher from his 3-4 end position, ranking ninth in the NFL in quarterback pressures and tied with Starks despite playing 80 fewer snaps. Like Pouncey this season, Odrick was not a sexy pick last year but looks the part of a reliable starter.

Special Teams Player of the Year: Brandon Fields

Who else was it going to be? Dan Carpenter had another fine year, John Denney was mistake-free at long snapper, and a handful of guys did an excellent job covering kicks and punts. But Fields was in a league of his own this year and used the 2011 season to cement himself as one of the elite punters in the game.

With a booming leg that few in the NFL can match, Fields ranked third in the NFL with a 48.8 punting average. His net average of 41.4 yards was good for fourth in the league, while his 32 punts downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line tied for third. He can also brag that not one of his 78 punts was returned for a touchdown.

The ball simply sounds different coming off Fields' foot, and if his duty wasn't inherently a negative occurrence (meaning the offense has faltered), he'd be even more of a joy to watch than he already is.

Defensive Player of the Year: Cameron Wake

The Dolphins' defense once again wound up near the top of the league, but there were some bumps on the road and it wasn't always smooth sailing for the unit. Players like Karlos Dansby, Kevin Burnett and Vontae Davis all had tremendous second-halves, but failed to perform at a high level throughout the season.

In short, outside linebacker Cameron Wake was the one player on the Dolphins' defense that did his job and did it well throughout the season. The funny thing is, Wake's sack total of 8.5—just over have of his 14-sack mark from 2010—doesn't do his performance justice.

Wake ranked third in the NFL and first among 3-4 outside linebackers in quarterback pressures with 52. (DeMarcus Ware was second at the position with 44—eight behind Wake.)  In addition, Wake held his own against the run as Pro Football Focus' second-best 3-4 outside linebacker in that department.

Offensive Player of the Year: Matt Moore

The Dolphins' offense didn't have many standouts, aside from Reggie Bush and his career year in rushing. Brandon Marshall was too inconsistent to consider here, Anthony Fasano was good but not impactful enough, and team's best lineman—left tackle Jake Long—was not healthy enough to play at the elite level he had in the past.

Starting 12 games and appearing in 13 in place of an injured Chad Henne, Moore more than held his own as the Dolphins' starting quarterback and guided the team to all six of its victories during the 2011 season. Completing 60.5 percent of his passes, Moore totaled 2,497 yards and 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He was named AFC Player of the Week for his near-flawless performance in team's Week 9 route of the Chiefs.

He may not be the team's long-term starter, but he proved to be more than capable of being a stopgap option for the next year or so until the Dolphins find a franchise quarterback through the draft. If the front office can patch some of the team's other holes, Moore seems capable of guiding them to a .500 record and potentially even a playoff berth if all goes right.

Most Valuable Player: Cameron Wake

There were some other guys to consider here. In particular, Matt Moore and Reggie Bush for their impressive and key performances to the offense, and guys like Randy Starks, Karlos Dansby, and Kevin Burnett for pretty excellent play during some or all of the season. However, I just found Wake to be the overall best performer and most important piece to his unit.

I already discussed his statistical performance in the Defensive Player of the Year section above, so I won't go over that again. But I will say that his signifcant contributions to the pass rush and the running game go basically unmatched. Not only did Wake rack up 8.5 sacks and 52 pressures while playing good run defense, but he did so without anyone else getting to the quarterback.

Without Wake, the Dolphins' defense isn't nearly what it is. Without him, the Dolphins don't have a true pass rusher, they don't stop the run as well, and guys in the secondary like Vontae Davis find their jobs infinitely more difficult.

My choice for Dolphins' defensive MVP two years running and my team MVP of 2011, Wake is entering the final year of the three-year, $4.9 million contract he signed out of the CFL back in 2009. Based on his performance, let's hope the Dolphins wise up and give him a well-deserved contract extension and pay increase in the offseason.

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