AFC East: Ikaika Alama-Francis

Worst officiating call in AFC East history?

April, 19, 2011
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The NBA admitted it made a mistake by not penalizing Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins for goaltending on the pivotal, go-ahead basket with 65 seconds to play in Sunday's postseason victory over the Denver Nuggets.

That's one of the hotter topics in sports lately.

So what's the most controversial call in AFC East history?

There are a number of candidates to choose from. The Tuck Rule comes to mind. While technically not a blown call, it sure didn't look right.

The Patriots had a magical bicentennial season in 1976, but it came to a screeching stop. Defensive lineman Ray Hamilton was called for a highly questionable late hit on Ken Stabler, allowing the Oakland Raiders to turn a fourth-and-18 into a touchdown five plays later and eventually eliminate the Patriots from the playoffs.

The Music City Miracle still resonates with Buffalo Bills fans certain Frank Wycheck made a forward lateral across the field to Kevin Dyson. The Bills haven't been to the playoffs in the 11 years since.

In 1998, Bills receiver Andre Reed claimed he overheard an official say "Just give it to them" after Patriots receiver Shawn Jefferson made a controversial sideline catch with six seconds left, setting up Drew Bledsoe's winning touchdown pass to Ben Coates.

New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde scored a phantom touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks in 1998 on a fourth-down plunge that didn't cross the goal line. The Jets went on to win the AFC East.

Last year, the Miami Dolphins lost a potentially season-changing game against the Pittsburgh Steelers when officials ruled the video replay couldn't determine Ikaika Alama-Francis recovered in the end zone. The Steelers kicked a field goal to win by a point.

Those are just a few that come to mind.

What call do you think is the AFC East's worst of all-time?

An AFC East take on Super Bowl matchup

January, 31, 2011
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Super Bowl week is upon us. Prepare to get bombarded with stats, analysis, anecdotes and obscure storylines about the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers.

I won't go out of my way to hammer folks over the head with Super Bowl angles all week, but there's a fitting way to look at ahead to Sunday's showdown in this space.

Regardless of what AFC East team you follow, your boys squared off against both Green Bay and Pittsburgh in the regular season. AFC East cross-divisional opponents for 2010 were the AFC North and NFC North. They played each other nine times.

The Steelers went 3-2 against the AFC East, including their AFC Championship Game victory over the New York Jets. The Packers went 2-2.

The New England Patriots were the only AFC East club to beat both Super Bowl entrants, but the Miami Dolphins came close.

Let's review the games to see if we can find a comfort zone for making a prediction for Super Sunday.

[+] EnlargeStevie Johnson
Karl Walter/Getty ImagesHad Stevie Johnson hauled in this pass, the Bills would have defeated the Steelers in overtime.
Pittsburgh Steelers

Results versus AFC East: Won at Dolphins 23-22; lost to Patriots 39-26; won at Buffalo 19-16 in overtime; lost to Jets 22-17; won over Jets in playoffs 24-19.

What we learned: There are no perfect teams, but the Steelers looked particularly flawed in their games against the AFC East. They Steelers easily could have been swept in the regular season and wouldn't have won the AFC North if not for two lucky breaks against the AFC East's non-playoff teams.

The sloppy Dolphins didn't deserve to win at home in Week 7, but they should have anyway. Ben Roethlisberger appeared to fumble into the end zone in the final minutes and Dolphins outside linebacker Ikaika Alama-Francis appeared to recover. But officials prematurely blew the play dead and didn't follow the fumble as they should have. Video evidence didn't help clarify the sequence, so the Steelers maintained possession and kicked a field goal for the victory.

The Steelers, conversely, didn't deserve to beat the Bills in Week 12 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Steelers were shaky and went into sudden death against one of the league's worst teams. In overtime, Bills receiver Steve Johnson infamously dropped a perfectly thrown Ryan Fitzpatrick bomb in the end zone. The Steelers survived to kick a field goal.

The Steelers lost both of their home games against the AFC East. The Patriots thumped them in Week 10, and the Jets pulled out of a potential nosedive with a Heinz Field victory in Week 15.

Of course, the Steelers rebounded in the playoffs to beat the Jets in the conference title game. The Jets sleepwalked through the first half, but outscored the Steelers 16-0 in the third and fourth quarters before falling short.

Green Bay Packers

Results versus AFC East: Won over Bills 34-7; lost to Dolphins 23-20 in overtime; won at Jets 9-0; lost at Patriots 31-27.

What we learned: Green Bay's games against the AFC East went a little more by the book, but not totally. And one of their losses was mitigated by Aaron Rodgers' absence.

Buffalo still had Trent Edwards at quarterback when Green Bay properly cruised in Week 2. The other game that went (mostly) as expected was a Week 15 loss in Gillette Stadium. Rodgers was out with a concussion against New England, but backup quarterback Matt Flynn still drove Green Bay within 15 yards of victory in the closing moments.

The Packers' other games were a tad peculiar. The Packers lost a thriller to the Dolphins at Lambeau Field in Week 6. Rodgers scored on a fourth-down run from the 1-yard line to send the game into overtime. Dan Carpenter's 44-yard field goal won it.

Two weeks later, the Packers went to the Meadowlands and blanked the Jets in one of the biggest head-scratchers of the year. Neither team scored a touchdown. The Jets' shutout was even worse considering they were coming off their bye week.

Prediction

I'm basing my prediction on what I witnessed throughout the season.

All in all, the Packers looked pretty solid against the AFC East and had a shot to beat the Patriots without Rodgers.

But what stands out even more for me is how wobbly the Steelers looked in all four regular-season games and the second half of the AFC Championship Game. Without two fortuitous bounces, the Steelers would have been swept in the regular season and wouldn't have had a first-round bye.

I can't get that out of my mind when I predict the Packers to win 27-20.

Marshall active for Dolphins versus Jets

December, 12, 2010
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall is back in the lineup Sunday and will play against the New York Jets. Here are the inactives at the Meadowlands:

Miami Dolphins
New York Jets

AFC East Week 7 decisive moment

October, 26, 2010
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


For the second straight weekend, the AFC East consisted of nothing but razor-close contests. In any of those games, we can find several instances where a single play would've altered the outcome.

Sunday's decisive moment, however, wasn't a play. It was a ruling.

Referee Gene Steratore and his crew denied the Miami Dolphins a miracle victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sun Life Stadium because video replay couldn't absolutely confirm what the crowd thought it saw.

We've all watched the replays and summations, but just in case: On third-and-goal from the 2 and with Miami up by two points and 2:37 to play, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger scrambled for the end zone; Miami safety Chris Clemons forced a fumble at the goal line; a touchdown was signaled; a video challenge showed the fumble, but not who recovered it, although Miami linebacker Ikaika Alama-Francis emerged with the ball.

That play isn't the reason why the Dolphins lost. Head coach Tony Sparano lamented a lack of red zone production, his two-minute offense, missed tackles and kickoff coverage.

But Sparano explained why his team has the right to feel robbed.

"From my end I feel like all the proper steps were taken in that scenario at the end of game," Sparano said. "One being, you ask your player to make a play, and our player goes in and puts his facemask right on the football just like you coach it -- legal hit, all the things that we talk about.

"It's not relevant how it got [to the 2-yard line] there or any of those things. That was the play in that situation. ... At the end of the day, you don't control the situation, just the proper steps were took. The [red challenge] flag was thrown. We reviewed the play. We win the challenge. I mean, it was a fumble."

One snap later, Jeff Reed kicked an 18-yard field goal. The Steelers won 23-22.

Columns as they see 'em: Dolphins loss

October, 25, 2010
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A rundown of opinionated coverage about the supposed lack of recoverage of Ben Roethlisberger's fumble in the Miami Dolphins' heartbreaking home loss Sunday:

Tough call was not reason Dolphins lost

October, 24, 2010
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Ben RoethlisbergerAP Photo/Alan DiazBen Roethlisberger's goal-line fumble may not have gone Miami's way, but it's not the reason the Dolphins lost the game, Tim Graham writes.
MIAMI -- The Miami Dolphins and their fans have every right to be upset over the late call that went against them Sunday afternoon.

To say that was the reason they couldn't close out the Pittsburgh Steelers, however, would be erroneous.

With the help of a fortuitous ruling on a Ben Roethlisberger fumble Miami appeared to recover, Pittsburgh escaped Sun Life Stadium with a 23-22 victory.

"We will take it and exit stage left," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

The Dolphins seemed to snatch the game with 2:28 to play. They were clinging to a two-point lead against the driving Steelers when safety Chris Clemons knocked the ball from Roethlisberger's grasp at the goal line. Dolphins linebacker Ikaika Alama-Francis appeared to recover in the end zone, but video replays were inconclusive to referee Gene Steratore, and the Steelers retained possession.

Jeff Reed kicked an 18-yard field goal to give the Steelers a one-point triumph.

A Dolphins win would have been gargantuan. Given the Steelers' profile as one of the NFL's handful of elite teams, the Dolphins would've been mentioned as legitimate contenders.

Instead, the Dolphins returned to .500 and remained winless through three home games.

But Steratore's ruling wasn't the reason.

"It was a big play in the game, but it shouldn't have come down to that play," Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano said. "We had plenty of opportunities to win, but we didn't."

Not awarding Miami the fumble recovery is a convenient way to overlook a few issues that allowed the game to be decided by one bad break:

  • Poor red zone offense.
  • Poor two-minute offense.
  • Poor third-down defense.

The Dolphins failed to score touchdowns despite starting their first possessions at the Steelers' 22- and 13-yard lines within the first 1:58 of the game.

Sparano bemoaned his offense's inability to get at least 10 points out of those glorious opportunities.

"We could be up 14-0 right off the bat," Dolphins left tackle Jake Long said. "But we didn't start fast enough. We've got to be better than that."

Each time, the Dolphins failed to convert a first down and didn't take any shots into the end zone. Ronnie Brown ran once for 1 yard. Ricky Williams ran three times for 0, 8 and 0 yards. Chad Henne threw two short incomplete passes.

"Field goals are great to have, but in this situation we needed touchdowns," Sparano said. "When you get down there with that many opportunities, you have to convert them into touchdowns. That's the bottom line."

Settling for a field goal would have been wonderful after Pittsburgh converted that controversial call into a late lead.

The Dolphins had 2:26 left to get Pro Bowl kicker Dan Carpenter within field-goal range, but gained 4 yards on four plays against an injury-ravaged defense.

Carpenter made five field goals in the game and has a robust leg. He has made field goals from 53 yards and 50 yards this year. The Dolphins' offense should have been able to move the ball, especially with outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley and defensive end Aaron Smith sidelined with injuries.

The Dolphins work on their two-minute offense every practice. Sparano usually puts them into situations with a minute less than they had Sunday.

The Dolphins were out of timeouts, but they had the two-minute warning, a strong-armed quarterback, star receiver Brandon Marshall and pair of quality running backs.

"We felt strongly in that situation we'd be able to get the ball down the field and have plenty of time on the clock," Sparano said.

In the rain, Brown ran up the middle for 2 yards on first down. Henne got off a snap right before the two-minute warning and threw a quick pass. But tight end Anthony Fasano dropped it to set up a tough third down while wasting a precious clock-stoppage.

On third-and-8, Henne tossed to fullback Lousaka Polite, who gained only 2 yards and was tackled inbounds. Amid a heavy Pittsburgh pass rush on fourth down, Henne frantically got the ball out of his hands, but the ugly pass hit the grass.

Miami's offense wasn't alone in its struggles.

Pittsburgh moved the chains on third-down plays of 16, 11 and 9 yards. On third-and-5 from Miami's 43-yard line on the decisive drive, Mewelde Moore gained 29 yards on a dump pass. One play later, Miami defensive lineman Tony McDaniel committed an unnecessary roughness penalty to give Pittsburgh first-and-goal from the 4.

Pittsburgh converted six of its 15 third downs.

Steratore had nothing to do with a lot of problems Miami had Sunday.

"If you lose, you lose," Dolphins inside linebacker Channing Crowder said. "You can make all the excuses, but our record's 3-3. There's not going to be an asterisk next to the third loss. Who cares? Good call, bad call, I don't know the rules. But we should've won. We never should have been in that situation. To put it in the ref's hands was our fault."

Dolphins must cope with controversial call

October, 24, 2010
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MIAMI -- In the Miami Dolphins' locker room, the measured reaction to not being awarded a fumble in the closing minutes of Sunday's heartbreaking 23-22 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers was to emphasize the game never should have come down to that.

Still, some Dolphins seethed about the call.

"We hit them in the mouth on both sides of the ball," Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "Y'all ain't never seen anybody handle Pittsburgh like we did today. They took that game from us. They took it from us, bottom line."

Miami defensive lineman Tony McDaniel said: "There should be a board that fines refs for making decisions like that."

Referee Gene Steratore won't be too popular in South Florida, but they're happy with him back home. Steratore is from Washington, Pa., about 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

Dolphins safety Chris Clemons forced a Ben Roethlisberger fumble at the goal line with a little more than two minutes left in the game, but video replays weren't conclusive enough to confirm the Dolphins made an apparent recovery in the end zone. Dolphins outside linebacker Ikaika Alama-Francis emerged with the ball and handed it to an official.

"I got it," Alama-Francis said. "It was mine, no doubt. It was really unfortunate. We all worked so hard. Chris Clemons made a great play to get the ball out, and I just don't understand the ruling. I mean, it has to be either a fumble or a touchdown, but they decided to make the call they made, and that's what it is."

The Steelers maintained possession at the 1-yard line and kicked an 18-yard field goal for the deciding points.

"That ball didn't bounce our way today," Dansby said. "Sad. Very sad.

"Well, it did bounce our way. They took it from us. Put it like that. We had our way with them up and down the field."

Dolphins recovery not definitive on replay

October, 24, 2010
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MIAMI -- Ikaika Alama-Francis thought he'd made the play of his life.

With 2:37 left in the game and the Miami Dolphins clinging to a two-point lead Sunday afternoon, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger scrambled for the end zone on third-and-goal from the 2.

Roethlisberger was met at the goal line by diving Dolphins safety Chris Clemons, who jarred the ball loose. Alama-Francis, the Dolphins' run-stopping outside linebacker, appeared to pounce on the ball to preserve a colossal victory.

"I know I had possession of the ball," Alama-Francis said. "I'm thinking 'I just made the play that won us the game.' "

That, however, is not what happened.

Officials ruled Roethlisberger had broken the plane and scored a touchdown. That call would be overturned by video replay after the Dolphins threw their red challenge flag.

But the recovery was not definitive enough to give the Dolphins the ball.

One play later, Jeff Reed kicked an 18-yard field goal. Pittsburgh won 23-22 in Sun Life Stadium.

"After review, it was confirmed in the replay the ball did come loose and it was a fumble prior to the ball breaking the goal line," referee Gene Steratore said. "That's where we go to the second aspect of that. In order to overturn this and give another team the football, I have to have clear video evidence of the team recovering the fumble. ... It is a pile of bodies in there, and you don't have a clear recovery."

Steratore went on to explain there was no need to make an on-the-field determination of which team recovered because the ruling on the field was a touchdown.

"When you have a challenge, naturally you are challenging the ruling on the field, which was a touchdown," Steratore said. "So when we go into replay, we find out, in fact, that it was, in fact, a fumble prior to the ball breaking the plane. But we have to continue with that aspect and find a clear recovery by the defense in order to reward them the ball."

Roethlisberger claimed he had the ball until the play was whistled dead. A pair of Steelers offensive linemen, Doug Legursky and Jonathan Scott, also claimed to have recovered the ball.

I asked Miami coach Tony Sparano if Steratore imparted any other information on the sideline.

"He told me that even though our guy came up with the football in the end zone and handed him the ball that he doesn't know who recovered it," Sparano said. "It was a scrum, and he couldn't see evidence of who recovered."

Jets at Dolphins inactives

September, 26, 2010
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MIAMI -- here are the inactives for Sunday night's game between the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins in Sun Life Stadium:

New York Jets
Miami Dolphins

Dolphins at Vikings inactives

September, 19, 2010
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Here are the inactive lists for Sunday's game between the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings in the Metrodome.

Most notable is that Minnesota receiver Percy Harvin (hip) doesn't appear, meaning he'll play. Chad Pennington is listed as Miami's third quarterback. Tyler Thigpen was in that role last week.

Miami Dolphins
Minnesota Vikings

Rapid Reaction: Dolphins 15, Bills 10

September, 12, 2010
9/12/10
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Miami Dolphins opened the season with a 15-10 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Here's a quick overview.

What it means: Both teams raised more questions than delivered answers. The Dolphins clearly were the better team, but their inability to pull away from an opponent that struggled all day should be disconcerting. The Dolphins dictated on defense for the most part, but on fourth-and-11 from their own 31-yard line, they yielded a 31-yard scoring strike from Trent Edwards to Roscoe Parrish with 5:13 left in the game.

What I liked: The Dolphins successfully played a ball-control game and were dominant on defense despite not having inside linebacker Channing Crowder (groin) and outside linebacker Ikaika Alama-Francis (illness). The Dolphins held the Bills to 166 total yards. The Dolphins had the ball nearly 14 minutes longer than the Bills did.

The Dolphins had a balanced offense. Ronnie Brown rushed for 65 yards. Ricky Williams rushed for 62 yards. Brandon Marshall had eight receptions for 53 yards. Davone Bess had six catches for 51 yards.

Parrish was a weapon for the Bills. Previous coach Dick Jauron rarely used Parrish in the offense and stripped him of return duties. Parrish finished with two receptions for 35 yards and a touchdown and had a 19-yard punt return.

What I didn't like: Bills coach Chan Gailey raved about his three running backs, but none of them cracked 20 yards against the swarming Dolphins' defense. Rookie C.J. Spiller ran six times for 7 yards. Edwards was third in rushing yards with 12 yards. The Bills were intent to throw, and that seemingly was just fine with the Dolphins.

The Dolphins, who have constantly tinkered with their offensive line, were shaky in pass protection against a team that overhauled its defense and was banged up. The Bills sacked Chad Henne three times.

Unsung hero: Brandon Fields dropped a punt on the Bills' 1-yard line with 1:48 to play and the Dolphins clinging to a 3-point lead.

Injuries of note: The Bills lost inside linebacker Paul Posluszny early in the third quarter to a knee injury. Despite missing four games last year, he led the Bills with 115 tackles. Posluszny has a checkered medical history. He played only three games his rookie season because of a broken forearm. He broke his arm again in last year's season opener. A prolonged recovery would be a crushing blow for Buffalo, who lost top backup inside linebacker Kawika Mitchell for the season to a foot injury.

What's next: The Dolphins begin a brutal stretch of games next week with the Minnesota Vikings in the Metrodome. That game is followed by five playoff opponents over the next six games, with the Pittsburgh Steelers the exception. The Bills play the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

Ikaika Alama-Francis a Fins name to watch

August, 30, 2010
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The Miami Dolphins head into their final preseason week not entirely settled at linebacker.

Tony Sparano is moving his players around in hopes of finding the right mix. Inside linebackers Channing Crowder and Tim Dobbins have been battling injuries. So Sparano is trying outside linebacker Charlie Anderson on the inside.

[+] EnlargeAlama-Francis
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIIkaika Alama-Francis is making a run at one of the starting outside linebacker spots.
An intriguing player to monitor is Ikaika Alama-Francis, a converted down lineman who didn't play high school football, has been mounting a summer drive to crack the starting lineup at outside linebacker.

After another solid preseason performance Friday night, Alama-Francis shared first-team reps with rookie Koa Misi at strongside outside linebacker in Sunday's practice. Misi still projects as the starter opposite Cameron Wake, but Alama-Francis has been a revelation.

"I love it, man," is what Alama-Francis told me at Dolphins camp three weeks ago.

Sparano has been steadily impressed with him at outside linebacker since training camp began. It's important for the Dolphins to find those types of players with Jason Taylor and Joey Porter signing elsewhere.

"He's a handful in the rush," Sparano said a week into camp. "He set the edge of the defense pretty well, strong guy and very, very smart."

When Sparano said that, Alama-Francis hadn't been an outside linebacker for long, just a handful of practices. But it wasn't the first time Alama-Francis had switched on a whim, and this change brought an opportunity to stick in the NFL after bombing out with the Detroit Lions.

Alama-Francis is the son of Joe Francis, who backed up Bart Starr for two seasons with the Green Bay Packers. But Alama-Francis didn't play organized football until his sophomore year at Hawaii. He was a basketball walk-on, but football coach June Jones convinced him to convert.

The Lions drafted Alama-Francis 58th overall in 2007. He played tackle and end under D-line specialist Rod Marinelli, but started only two games over two seasons. The Lions cut him at the end of last year's preseason. He remained unemployed until November, when the Dolphins signed him to play defensive end at 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds.

Then, with three offseason workouts to go before summer break, the Dolphins approached Alama-Francis about standing on two feet for the first time. No more springing out of a three-point stance. They wanted him to try outside linebacker.

Sparano and linebackers coach Bill Sheridan saw something in the way Alama-Francis moved for a player his size. Alama-Francis said he had "three good practices" to show he could handle the gig.

"That's not a lot," he said. "When they're throwing things at you to see how you'll react, you have to do the best you can with what's been given to you. But it was an opportunity, and I embraced it. I was thankful."

After those three OTA workouts, Sparano didn't view the move as experimental anymore. Alama-Francis is at about 275 pounds now.

"Moving from a different position, it's a total 180, dropping into coverage," Alama-Francis said. "When you're on the line, you're moving forward. When you're standing up, you see a lot more and you've got to be aware a lot more. Rushing the passer, coming off the edge and dropping into coverage, I'm excited about all that."

Hoop it up: an All-AFC East pickup game

August, 15, 2010
8/15/10
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You've probably heard Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall has hoop dreams.

In the event of a lockout next year, Marshall intends to play shooting guard for the Denver Nuggets. If not the Nuggets, he'll join Dwyane Wade and LeBron James with the Miami Heat.

The first thought that entered my mind was that Marshall has as much of a shot as Uncle Rico did of playing for the Dallas Cowboys.

Then I realized Marshall might not be the best basketball player on the Dolphins' roster.

With that in mind, I came up with a list of AFC East players with better basketball pedigrees than Marshall's.

But before you read the rundown, check out TrueHoop writer Kevin Arnovitz's scouting report from Marshall's glory days at Lake Howell High, including an attempt to swipe a can of Pepsi off the rim and take a swing before his feet touched down in a dunk contest.

Erik Ainge, 6-foot-5 Jets quarterback: Street & Smith's honorable mention All-American in high school. ... Father played basketball at Brigham Young. ... Uncle Danny played for the Boston Celtics and now runs the team.

Ikaika Alama-Francis, 6-foot-5 Dolphins outside linebacker: Was recruited by Division I programs, but stayed home to play basketball as a walk-on at the University of Hawaii.

Demetrius Bell, 6-foot-5 Bills tackle: Attended Northwestern State on a basketball scholarship and played three seasons. ... Son of NBA legend Karl Malone and half-brother of former WNBA star Cheryl Ford.

James Hardy, 6-foot-5 Bills receiver: Played in 23 games and started three as a freshman at Indiana University in 2004-05. ... Rated 78th best prep player in the country for Fort Wayne Elmhurst.

Joey Haynos, 6-foot-8 Dolphins tight end: Turned down scholarship offers from Coastal Carolina and Campbell to walk on the Maryland football team.

Quentin Moses, 6-foot-5 Dolphins outside linebacker: All-state hoopster in Georgia. Briefly played on the University of Georgia basketball team before focusing solely on football.

Randy Moss, 6-foot-4 Patriots receiver: A two-time West Virginia high school player of the year. He played briefly in the NBA's summer league in 2000 and the United States Basketball League in 2001.

Darrelle Revis, 5-foot-11 Jets cornerback: First-team all-state point guard for Aliquippa High in Pennsylvania. ... Recruited to play basketball for Pittsburgh, Western Kentucky, St. Bonaventure, Duquesne and others.

Jason Taylor, 6-foot-6 Jets outside linebacker: Played basketball as a sophomore at University of Akron. Started or was first man off the bench as a power forward, averaging eight points and 5.4 rebounds.

Camp Confidential: Miami Dolphins

August, 6, 2010
8/06/10
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 13

DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins might be the best NFL team people don't notice.

They're often overlooked in the AFC East. The New England Patriots have at least tied for the division's best record in nine straight seasons, and the big-talking New York Jets, coming off an appearance in the conference title game, are a fashionable Super Bowl pick.

Miami shouldn't be discounted.

Head coach Tony Sparano, who dropped 55 pounds in the offseason, wants his players to be hungry. The theme of training camp is "Feed the Wolf," a slogan he put on T-shirts in response to the Dolphins sliding from 11-5 and a division championship to a losing record last year.

"I had a meeting with the group and kind of got into them a little bit during practice about 7-9 not being good enough and how this football team shouldn’t be fat," Sparano explained. "They should be starving.

"One of the things that we talk about is feeding the wolf with little successes every day. ... We feed the wolf when we do something good, and that's what our guys understand. Small successes will lead to bigger successes down the way."

So when it comes to the AFC East race, dare we call Miami a sheep in wolf's silk-screened clothing?

THREE HOT ISSUES

Brandon Marshall
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireThe Dolphins hope the addition of Brandon Marshall can improve the passing game.
1. What will the Chad Henne-to-Brandon Marshall connection mean to the offense? The Dolphins have been all about the ground game since Bill Parcells and Sparano took over in 2008. Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, rugged offensive line, the Wildcat, possession receivers ... Run, run, run.

Last year, the Dolphins ranked fourth in run offense and 20th in pass offense. Henne threw the fewest touchdown passes of any quarterback with at least 400 attempts. Just five of those touchdowns went to wide receivers.

Marshall's arrival can change that dramatically. While the Dolphins will continue to rely on their ground game, Henne now has a go-to target on third-and-critical or in the red zone. Marshall's amazing talents are on display every day at camp. He has sensational hands, outleaps helpless defenders and can snatch any ball remotely in his area.

Don't expect Marshall to extend his streak to four seasons of at least 100 receptions, but his presence gives Henne the kind of target who opens up all sorts of possibilities the Dolphins haven't had in years.

2. Will unproven outside linebackers provide enough of a pass rush with Joey Porter and Jason Taylor out the door? The Dolphins' 44 sacks last season tied for third in the NFL. But four of their top six contributors, totaling 28 sacks, either are no longer on the team (Porter and Taylor), playing a new position (Randy Starks) or out for year (Phillip Merling).

The Dolphins are counting on Cameron Wake and rookie Koa Misi, a pair of tantalizing-but-unverified pass-rushers, to handle most of the workload. Starks has the most sacks of any returning player with seven. But he has been moved to nose tackle, a position where Pro Bowlers record one or two sacks a year.

Wake's 5.5 sacks were next on the list. By the looks of his performances in camp, he'll be a force on passing downs even if he can't stop the run as effectively as the Dolphins would prefer. Misi, a second-round draft choice, has handled first-team reps with aplomb.

Richie Incognito
Doug Murray/Icon SMIFree agent Richie Incognito is one of the players battling for a starting spot on the offensive line.
3. What will the interior offensive line look like? The Dolphins should have the makings of a nasty offensive line, but the inner three positions aren't solidified.

The Dolphins have had trouble settling on a center. Two years ago, they signed free agent Jake Grove and traded away Samson Satele. Now Grove is alternating first-team reps with Joe Berger for a spot that's up for grabs.

At guard, incumbent Donald Thomas, third-round draft choice John Jerry and free-agent signee Richie Incognito are fighting -- in Incognito's case, literally -- for jobs.

Sparano, an O-line aficionado at his core, wants his center and guards to be more than maulers in the run game. They must be better pass protectors.

"People think the left tackle's the only guy that [pass blocks on an island]," Sparano said. "But that's not true when you're turning the protection away from one of them. So to identify who can really handle those one-on-one battles is going to be important for us. That to me is what has to get better."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Ikaika Alama-Francis wasn't good enough to stick with the 0-16 Detroit Lions. He was their second-round draft choice in 2007, but they cut the young defensive end after two seasons. He was on the street for two months before the Dolphins signed him in November. Alama-Francis was a healthy scratch for all six games he was on the roster and an afterthought heading into the offseason.

But with three workouts left until the Dolphins broke for the summer, they switched him to outside linebacker. Alama-Francis weighed 290 when he joined the Dolphins in November. He's an explosive 275 now.

"He looks like a linebacker out there, moving around right now," Sparano said. "He's a handful in the rush. He sets the edge of the defense pretty well, strong guy and very, very smart. I like what he's done."

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Quarterback Pat White hasn't shown any obvious signs of development to contradict the general belief Miami wasted a second-round draft pick on him last year. White missed the first day of training camp because of unexplained personal reasons. One report, quoting a family member, suggested White wouldn't play this year. He arrived the next day, but he hasn't shown much.

White has gotten limited reps, buried behind Henne, Chad Pennington and Tyler Thigpen. When given the opportunity, White's passes are scattershot, albeit more accurate than last year.

Merling would have been the easy choice here had he made it to training camp. Before he could get there, he was charged with felony assault of his pregnant girlfriend and suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.

Patrick Turner
Steve Mitchell/US PresswirePatrick Turner has had his ups and downs during training camp.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • You can't comprehend the size of some players until you see them in person. Marshall and Karlos Dansby are two of those guys. We can lose perspective when we're inundated with athlete heights and weights that are often fudged, but Marshall (6-4, 230) and Dansby (6-4, 250) are monstrous for their positions.
  • Starks' transition from defensive end to nose tackle has been interesting. He's small for the job at 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, but his speed and athleticism have created problems for the Dolphins' O-line.
  • Second-year receiver Patrick Turner is having an erratic summer. When I first laid eyes on him at rookie camp in 2009, I immediately was struck with how great his hands were. Turner made catching a football seem so effortless. He has been plagued by drops throughout this training camp, and when he does make a catch his teammates sound overly encouraging -- "Way to go, Pat!" -- to keep his confidence up. Turner was inactive for 14 games last year because he has no special-teams value. If the Dolphins can't trust him as a receiver, he'll have a hard time getting on the field.
  • Free safety Chris Clemons, a fifth-round draft choice last year, has looked like he belongs. The position was viewed as a question mark when the Dolphins axed Gibril Wilson, but Clemons has had some bright moments.
  • I'd be shocked if any star has signed more autographs in training camp than Marshall. After every open session, he slowly walks along the fence and puts his signature on every piece of memorabilia or scrap of paper thrust in front of him. Maybe he's doing his penance for past misdeeds, but Dolfans have no reason but to love him so far.
  • Tough break for running back Kory Sheets, who suffered a season-ending right Achilles injury while returning a kickoff Wednesday. He had a nice shot to make the roster and made one of the most eye-popping plays I saw during my stay. On Monday night, he exploded through the offensive line and got into the second level with such speed, his teammates reflexively screamed "Whooooo!"
  • Veteran cornerback Will Allen, rebounding from a knee injury, has been the team's nickelback. The Dolphins want sophomores Vontae Davis and Sean Smith to stay on the field. Although Allen would be a quality contributor, his contract could put him on the bubble. He has two years left on his contract with base salaries that total $10.7 million.
  • Two years ago, Greg Camarillo was the Dolphins' best receiver. Now he looks like the fourth receiver behind Marshall, Brian Hartline and Davone Bess. That's a nice problem for Miami to have.
  • Like the Buffalo Bills, the Dolphins aren't fooling around with extra legs in camp. They know Dan Carpenter will be their kicker and Brandon Fields will be their punter and aren't bothering to push them.
  • Just talking out loud here because I realize frustrating receiver Ted Ginn had to go, but what if the Dolphins still had his speed to stretch the field with Marshall? That would have been a challenge for opposing defenses.

Greetings from Jacksonville

December, 13, 2009
12/13/09
12:03
PM ET
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The weather has broken here on the First Coast, allowing the Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars to stretch on the field without getting soaked.

The sun has popped out of the clouds and the temperature is in the upper 70s. Scattered thunder showers are in the forecast, but they aren't expected to arrive until the game is over.

Sunday's game has serious playoff implications. The Jaguars are 7-5 and are in the final wild-card slot. But the Dolphins are one of three 6-6 teams, and a victory could propel them deep into the mix with three games to play.

The Dolphins also still have an outside shot at the division title. They're a game behind the New England Patriots, who have an easier remaining schedule but are having as much success on the field as Rob Petrie had with ottomans.

The most notable news from the inactive list is that top Jaguars receiver Mike Sims-Walker isn't on it. He was listed as doubtful with calf and knee injuries.

Get a load of the complete inactive list:

Miami Dolphins

Jacksonville Jaguars

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