AFCE: Miami Works on Hidden Yardage Issue

This is the first in a series of nine Radar entries over the next five weeks detailing trends in the AFC East, downward tendencies each division team wants to correct for the coming season and upward strides that each team wants to continue into 2009:    

There weren't many things the Dolphins did ineffectively in their big turnaround season under new head coach Tony Sparano last season. But one of the things Sparano might have welcomed sooner was a turnaround by some of his special teams. In mid-November he had released a player from the unit and was focused on increased video study inside and an up-tempo outside.

"We have to give the players a chance," Sparano said at that juncture. "But when you're getting down the field and you have free access and you're gaining access via the scheme, you get there at the end of this and you don't finish the play, then as players we need to look ourselves in the mirror and say 'OK, how do we get this thing done.'

"We spent some time today, we did some different things out there in practice with cover drills and those type of things as I told you we would, but it all comes down to the game and whether or not we finish the play. We moved some players around, to answer your question, and at the same time we created a little bit more of a sense of urgency in practice today."

The Dolphins seemed to get it as their teams finished on a higher note down they stretch and they moved to 11-5 and into the playoffs. But for the season, one problem area stood out in how they were pressuring the other team's punter and how they were returning the ball after it was kicked to them.

That's what their 32nd and last ranking in opponents' gross punting average and 31st ranking in opponents' net say. In fact, there is always a little buzz among special teams geeks about a punter reaching a 40-yard net (in fact, two did it last year in Oakland's Shane Lechler and St. Louis' Donnie Jones).

But the Dolphins had that situation in reverse, providing their opponents with nearly 40 yards net on every punt (actually 39.7). And their opponents' gross punting average of 46.7 was the third-highest since 2000, which can mean they just happened to face the best punters in the NFL or that they weren't able to bring any pressure to bear on the punters they did face. Here are the five teams with the highest opponent grosses in the past nine seasons:

 Year Team Opp Punts Gross Avg Net Avg
 2007 St. Louis 66 47.7 39.8
 2001 Denver 77 47.0 38.1
 2008 Miami 61 46.7 39.7
 2007 Seattle 93 46.5 37.0
 2008 Denver 52 46.4 39.6

This is esoteric stuff, for sure, but to put it into perspective, high opponent punting figures translate into a Bill Parcells bugaboo, hidden yardage against your team. And you have to figure that with Parcells as Miami's executive vice president of football operations providing the direction from above and Sparano and ST coach John Bonamego spending good portions of this off-season looking for solutions, the hidden yardage in this area will tip back in the 'Fins' favor in 2009.

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