Saban, Dolphins Set Sights on Overtaking Pats

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006; 12:51 PM

Offseason Roundup: Miami Dolphins

Those people in the league who knew Nick Saban said when he became the Miami Dolphins' coach on Christmas Day 2004 that it wouldn't be anything like Steve Spurrier attempting to make the jump from college football to the NFL. Saban, they said, had been a pro coach working in college. He wouldn't be, like Spurrier, a college coach trying to make it in the pro ranks.

They were right.

Saban, the former assistant to Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns who coached LSU to a collegiate national title, led the Dolphins to a record of 9-7 last season in his rookie year as an NFL head coach. He had success with a team that had gone 4-12 the season before his arrival, and with a club that got sub-NFL-caliber play at quarterback.

Belichick had better be careful this coming season, or his New England Patriots will be overtaken in the AFC East by a club coached by one of his former pupils. And there's little chance that team will be the New York Jets, who hired Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini as their coach this offseason. Saban has the look of being a big-time NFL coach, and it won't be long before he has the Dolphins in Super Bowl contention. It probably won't be this season. But maybe, just maybe, it will be.

Saban boldly upgraded his coaching staff early in the offseason by hiring two just-ousted NFL head coaches, the Buffalo Bills' Mike Mularkey and the Houston Texans' Dom Capers. Mularkey, in particular, seemed overmatched as a head coach. But now he's back in his element overseeing an offense, and Capers is a top defensive schemer. With the defections from Belichick's staff over the past two offseasons, the Dolphins now have the best and deepest coaching staff in the division. Saban has a reputation for being difficult to work for, but he's sufficiently confident and secure that he doesn't mind having assistants who have been head coaches -- and might be head coaches again -- on his staff.

Then Saban addressed his team's most glaring need by trading a second-round draft choice to the Minnesota Vikings for quarterback Daunte Culpepper. The Dolphins were negotiating with free agent Drew Brees, and probably could have signed him if they'd wanted him. But they apparently had concerns about Brees's surgically repaired throwing shoulder as well as his salary demands, so they chose to trade for Culpepper instead. Brees signed with the New Orleans Saints.

The Dolphins were willing to add Culpepper even though he was coming back from a serious knee injury and was facing misdemeanor charges stemming from the boat cruise last October that produced allegations of lewd behavior by several Vikings players. The charges against Culpepper subsequently were dismissed, and now the Dolphins must cross their fingers that Culpepper is healthy in time for the season. They gave themselves a viable backup by waiting out the Detroit Lions and trading a sixth-round draft pick next spring for Detroit's former starter, Joey Harrington. That gives the Dolphins two quarterbacks better than any they had last season. They released Gus Frerotte and allowed Sage Rosenfels to sign with the Texans as a free agent.

The major offseason setback for the Dolphins came when tailback Ricky Williams was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2006 season for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy. Saban had repaired the organization's relationship with Williams, welcoming him back after Williams had sat out the 2004 season in an abrupt, temporary retirement. Williams had to serve a four-game suspension at the outset of last season but was productive when he returned, splitting playing time and carries with prized rookie Ronnie Brown. Now Brown must operate with far less help.

Saban was busy in free agency addressing needs in the secondary and on the offensive line. The Dolphins, in effect, swapped cornerbacks with the New York Giants by releasing Sam Madison, who signed with the Giants, and signing Will Allen, formerly of the Giants. The Dolphins also released Reggie Howard and lost Kiwaukee Thomas in free agency but signed fellow cornerbacks Andre Goodman and Renaldo Hill. At safety, the club released Tebucky Jones but signed Deke Cooper as a free agent and used its first-round draft choice on Tennessee's Jason Allen.

Saban gave himself some possibilities along the offensive line by signing tackles L.J. Shelton and Mike Pearson as free agents, and re-signing center Seth McKinney and tackle Damion McIntosh. The Dolphins still are one top wide receiver short on offense but Saban used a third-round draft pick on Arizona State's Derek Hagan.

Can the disciple beat the master? Saban had the Dolphins closer to Belichick and the Patriots than anyone could have guessed last season. The Patriots had a rough time in free agency but fortified themselves on draft day. If the Dolphins hadn't lost Williams, it wouldn't have been farfetched to regard them as the AFC East favorite entering the season. Without Williams, they aren't that. They have some holes and some question marks. But, thanks to Saban, the division now looks like a two-team race instead of a one-team show.

Around the NFL

The Kansas City Chiefs withdrew their bid to host the 2015 Super Bowl.

The league had awarded the game to the Chiefs contingent upon the addition of a roof to Arrowhead Stadium.

The Chiefs had hoped to have a "rolling" roof built that would be shared by Arrowhead Stadium and Kauffman Stadium, the adjacent home of baseball's Kansas City Royals. But county officials this week withdrew a resolution that would have put the proposal on the ballot this summer, and Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt announced Thursday that renovations to Arrowhead would proceed without a roof.

He added, however, that the renovations will be done in a way that a roof could be built in the future if funding is approved.

"We tried our very best but found that the combination of a lack of consensus from the various political interests, the business community and the Royals, as well as the need for promptness on the beginning of construction at Arrowhead, would not permit us to pursue the rolling roof at this time," Hunt said in a written statement released by the Chiefs . . .

Saints rookie tailback Reggie Bush is to wear No. 25 this season after his request to have league rules changed to enable him to wear No. 5 was denied by the NFL's competition committee.

Bush obtained the number from teammate Fred McAfee. Bush previously had pledged to give 25 percent of his income from sales of his jersey to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Now he will give half of that money to a charity of McAfee's choosing.

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