Dolphins ensure time not on their side again

October, 25, 2009
10/25/09
11:55
PM ET
 
 Doug Benc/Getty Images
 Dolphins coach Tony Sparano called the timeout that helped the Saints get back into the game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

MIAMI -- Everything was going right for the Miami Dolphins. Almost everything. Enough of everything to be in total command over the New Orleans Saints.

The Dolphins were forcing turnovers, ripping off untouchable runs, wringing the league's best quarterback and most powerful offense Sunday in Land Shark Stadium.

The Dolphins were working over the mighty Saints, up by 21 points heading toward halftime.

"It was ours," Dolphins running back Ricky Williams said of the momentum, a surge he helped create with touchdown runs of 4 and 68 yards on back-to-back carries in the first quarter.

Then the Saints hit one play. Drew Brees threw deep down the seam to Marques Colston for a 20-yard gain. The play was ruled a touchdown on the field. The replay booth reviewed it, and found Colston was down at the 6-inch line with five ticks left. The Saints had no timeouts. The clock would start running as soon as the ball was set. Kicker John Carney and holder Mark Brunell were taking their marks.

But the Dolphins called a timeout. What a break for the Saints. Brees and the rest of the offense charged off the sideline like a scene out of "Braveheart." Brees crashed into the end zone -- not for a field goal, but a touchdown -- with two seconds left on the clock.

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A game-changing touchdown. The type of touchdown that boomerangs momentum. The type of touchdown that was worth so much more than four bonus points.

"It was a turning point," Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell said. "They got seven points instead of three. That hurts, too. I don't really know what happened in that situation, but it happened.

"It ended up turning out pretty bad for us in the second half."

New Orleans dominated, crumpling up Miami's hopes like a candy wrapper.

Thirty-six points later, the Saints finished well ahead of the Dolphins, 46-34.

"It just seemed like they took off," Bell said.

Dolfans will look at each result that makes up their team's 2-4 record and justify they should be 4-2, with a pair of victories over otherwise undefeated opponents. The Saints (6-0) and the Indianapolis Colts are among the elite this year, and the Dolphins should have beaten them both.

Yet they did not. As Dolphins football operations boss Bill Parcells once famously said, "You are what your record says you are."

The Dolphins choked away those games on their home field. Both defeats were epic in how they unraveled.

No team this year has blown a 21-point cushion and lost. The last time a team led by at least 21 points but lost by at least a dozen was 22 years ago, when the Saints beat the San Diego Chargers 41-24 after trailing 24-3.

The Colts loss was historic. They failed to win despite holding the ball for 45:07, the greatest time of possession for a loser since the stat became official in 1977.

Maybe the Dolphins are the NFL's best 2-4 club. They certainly were the best 0-3 team when they stumbled out of the gate.

The Dolphins have shown flashes of playoff-caliber football. They'll compete all season long, but if they think they're good enough to give away points and make the playoffs, they need a reality check.

They self-destruct. They miss way too many tackles (look up footage of safety Gibril Wilson) and drop way too many passes (Ted Ginn at the top of the list). They get eaten alive by tight ends. Young quarterback Chad Henne won't always play like an All-Pro (two interceptions returned for touchdowns Sunday). The Wildcat isn't unstoppable (Ronnie Brown: 16 carries for 48 yards). They commit too many silly penalties. Their injury list is growing. Top cornerback Will Allen left the game with a knee injury and reportedly will miss the rest of the season.

And on Sunday their coach made a rare gaffe that might have cost them the game.

Tony Sparano called the timeout that helped the Saints get back into the game.

"We played pretty well in the first half except for the last drive and kind of gave away some momentum there, allowed them to get a touchdown," Dolphins outside linebacker Jason Taylor said. "They should have had only a chance for a field goal there."

The Saints won much more comfortably than by the four points the Dolphins allotted them two seconds before halftime. But Sparano's decision to call a timeout and allow the Saints' potent offense back on the field was significant.

"If you could've been in here at halftime," Brees said of the Saints locker room, "it was 'Hey, we have them right where we want them.' To get to the six-inch line and come out of with a field goal would have been disappointing."

Saints coach Sean Payton said he intended to kick the field goal. Carney and Brunell were on the field for what they hoped would be an extra point, but when the replay spotted the ball outside the goal line and referee John Parry announced the clock would run as soon as the whistle blew, nobody in a black jersey flinched.

But Sparano did. He was emphatic in ordering linebacker Channing Crowder to call a timeout because "we wanted to be in the right personnel, and we called a time out to bring in the right personnel," Sparano said, even though he should have waited to see if Brees would sprint off the sideline to stop the clock. Brees wouldn't have.

"We were getting lined up," Carney said.

Brees claimed they were going to run it all along, but that comes off as wishful lobbying on his part. Besides, with the ball on the goal line and players on the sidelines not permitted to stand beyond the 35-yard line, all of the Saints offensive players would have needed to be world-class sprinters to get on the field, in formation and set for a second to either run a play or stop the clock.

"If no one calls timeout," Payton said, "they're going to whistle it ready for play and it's got to be snap, hold, kick. ... We were prepared to kick it initially. Obviously, we had enough time after the timeout was called to give some thought to that and change our minds."

Given the final score, would 24-6 at halftime been any safer for the Dolphins than 24-10? Does the second half fall apart the way it did if the Saints don't find a spark? There was an evident flicker after Brees plunged into the end zone. He reacted as though he were auditioning for the WWE.

"That is how they get hot," Dolphins nose tackle Jason Ferguson said. "So that's what they did."

There's no guarantee Carney even makes the field goal. He missed an extra point later in the game.

But the touchdown happened. Both sides believed it swung momentum and transformed the game.

"We can't give a team that chance, and this is our second time getting a learning experience from that," Ferguson said. "I am sure it's in our heads, but we have to fix it."

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