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NEWS ANALYSIS

Miami can shake retirement shock

Something to keep in mind before declaring the Dolphins' AFC East chances dead in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of Sunday's news that Ricky Williams is retiring from professional football at age 27:

Miami made the playoffs each year from 1997 to 2001 with Karim Abdul-Jabbar, J.J. Johnson, and Lamar Smith leading the team in rushing. Yet despite Williams's 775 carries and 3,225 yards, the Dolphins have missed the postseason each of the past two seasons.

The point? There was life in Miami, good life, in fact, before Williams -- the Dolphins, not the Raiders, have been the real "Team of the Decades," posting just two losing seasons since 1970 and none since `88 -- and there most certainly will be life after him, just as there was after legends Don Shula and Dan Marino.

"It's a team game," Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt accurately pointed out Sunday, likening Williams's unexpected departure to a season-ending injury. "Every great team needs challenges. Every great team has to overcome obstacles. We've got people in positions that will do that. I believe that with my whole heart and soul."

No doubt, Williams was the heart and soul of the Dolphins' offense; only Baltimore and Houston attempted fewer passes last year than Miami's 450. Thanks to the attention the bruising running back commanded from defenses (no offensive player in the division scared the Patriots more) teams were forced to play the Dolphins' receivers one on one.

The Dolphins were, at best, an average passing team with Williams, so it's logical to assume they won't improve without him. First, though, Wannstedt has to settle on a quarterback between incumbent Jay Fiedler and former Eagles third stringer A.J. Feeley, for whom Miami dealt a second-round pick. And will Fiedler/Feeley be throwing to David Boston of 2001 or Boston of 2003? Whoever is at quarterback will be playing behind a retooled offensive line that will need time to develop cohesion.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins have an aging defense. Junior Seau is so over the hill he's working his way up a second one. Sam Madison is in decline. Zach Thomas is hurting. One of Miami's young stars, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, is threatening to hold out if he doesn't get a fat contract.

Yes, questions abound as the Dolphins prepare to begin training camp Saturday. That makes them not unlike 31 other teams. Fans of the one favored to claim this division and the Super Bowl again this season need look no further than the Patriots of two years ago to be reminded that counting the Dolphins out in July would be as unwise as counting one's chickens before they've hatched. In other words, don't do it.

New England endured a forgettable offseason in 2001 and a rough beginning (1-3) to the regular season. Quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein died that summer. Terry Glenn did his best to be a distraction, and outside of one game did very little that year. Drew Bledsoe suffered life-threatening internal injuries in the season's second game. Bill Belichick, like Wannstedt, was on the hot seat. The team adopted an "us-against-the-world" attitude and shocked the world by winning the Super Bowl. Losing Williams lowers expectations for a team that annually fails to meet them. His abandoning them and the world doubting them will be the Dolphins' inspiration. Just watch. Now whether that inspiration transfers from the locker room remains to be seen.

Travis Minor is the starter, unless the Dolphins upgrade through free agency or a trade. Miami will look to Leonard Henry, Sammy Morris, Fred Russell, and Renaldo Works for contributions. As you laugh, ask yourself how names such as Antowain Smith, Kevin Faulk, Marc Edwards, J.R. Redmond, and Patrick Pass sounded three years ago at this time?

Williams's timing could have been better, but it also could have been worse. He didn't walk out halfway through two-a-days or two days before the regular season. At least this way the Dolphins can get somebody in the fold and begin adjusting their offense to suit their personnel. They have an entire camp to figure out what they're good at offensively. And, with Williams gone, perhaps the ultra-conservative Wannstedt will allow his experienced offensive staff, one that includes coordinator Chris Foerster, assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach Marc Trestman, the former Raiders offensive coordinator, and receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, to help him discover what those things are. Maybe the Dolphins won't go to the well as much now that their go-to guy is off to see the world, including a reported stop in Martha's Vineyard.

Still in Miami are Chris Chambers and Randy McMichael, just a big-play receiver and big-time tight end. They, along with Boston, likely will see more two-deep coverage without Williams. Opponents can expect to see more short, safe passing from Miami. "We have a lot of ideas about what we can do," said Wannstedt, who has another weapon in kicker Olindo Mare. "The thing we have to do is focus on making intelligent changes within what we do."

New England has proved that you can do some things without a star running back. Williams, though still one of the league's best, showed signs of slowing down last year, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. "He isn't the back he was two or three years ago," said an AFC defensive coordinator whose unit held Williams in check last year. It shouldn't be too much to ask a guy or group of guys to give Miami 3.5.

The group that makes up Miami's defense consistently is one of the league's best, and consistently boasts multiple Pro Bowl performers. The question is, how good will it be without a clock-controlling offense? Madison and Patrick Surtain can get away with their aggressive, gambling styles when they're defending 30 passes a game, but not 50. "Every single year they play well in that area," said an AFC East assistant coach. "Until you see different . . ."

Expect the AFC East to be its usual competitive, unpredictable self. This could be the beginning of the end for Dolphins as we know them. Or it could be the beginning of a great story. 

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