Miami's backfield about diminishing returns

Ronnie Brown averaged 3.7 yards per carry last season, a career low. Mark Zerof/US Presswire

Quite recently, the Miami Dolphins' running game was considered vibrant, cutting-edge and borderline dominant.

The Wildcat unleashed all sorts of possibilities for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in 2008. They were an envied backfield tandem. Brown went to the Pro Bowl.

In 2009, with Brown battling injuries, Williams rushed for over 1,100 yards. The Dolphins tied for the NFL lead with 22 rushing touchdowns. They ranked fourth in run offense and eighth in average yards per carry.

Perceptions swung 180 degrees last year. The Dolphins went from a model of rushing excellence to anemic. They ranked 11th in carries, but 21st in yards. Their average carry plummeted 0.7 yards to a measly 3.7. Only the Cincinnati Bengals were worse.

What in the world happened?

A combination of inconsistent offensive line play, creeping age and lack of an offensive identity were to blame. Now, the two running backs many Dolfans thought could run for 1,000 yards apiece in the same season are free agents who might not be wanted anymore.

Before the draft, Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano told reporters at the NFL owners' meeting in New Orleans he thought Brown and Williams were fine last year.

"I honestly thought both players played well for us," Sparano said. "I really did. I said it during the season, I didn't have a problem with how either guy played."

Even with All-Pro left tackle Jake Long in place and the reliable Vernon Carey at right tackle, Sparano cited the offensive line's inability to bust holes into the defense's second level as a serious problem.

ESPN Stats & Information came up with data to back that sentiment. The Dolphins ranked fifth in runs up the middle with 247 attempts, but their average tied for 27th at 3.5 yards. Of their runs up the middle, they scored a touchdown on only 2 percent (tied for 24th) and gained a first down on only 18.6 percent (26th).

No wonder they drafted Florida center Mike Pouncey with the 15th overall pick. The Dolphins also traded up to make Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas their second-round pick, adding him to a depth chart that also includes Lex Hilliard and Kory Sheets, who's coming off an Achilles injury.

But back to the offensive line for a moment. The Dolphins have been plagued by Sparano's seemingly uncontrollable tinkering on the interior. Pouncey should become the Dolphins' fourth starting center in as many seasons. At guard, they've shuffled through draft picks, waiver claims and street free agents. Sparano, an old offensive line coach himself, fired his first O-line assistant after just one season.

That's a significant reason why Brown went from hip to a blip. He's now an NFL afterthought at 29 years old.

NFL.com senior analyst and former New York Jets executive Pat Kirwan recently rated Brown no higher than 31st among all running backs and trending down from there. Kirwan wrote: "Teams seeking a backup for 10 carries and a Wildcat role should value Brown."

ESPN.com's fantasy football crew rated Brown the 45th-best running back.

Williams, 34, has a worse outlook. Kirwan didn't list him at all. In fact, three other Williamses did make the chart, and one of them was Arizona Cardinals rookie Ryan Williams. On the fantasy rankings, Ricky Williams was the 53rd running back.

At the end of last season, Williams took a couple of swipes at Sparano's penchant for micromanaging. But on Wednesday, Williams tweeted "I'd love nothing more than to finish my career winning a Super Bowl with the Dolphins, but that's gonna take some cooperation from others."

"Cooperation," in this case, almost certainly is synonymous with "lovely contract."

Maybe Williams' change of heart has to do with Brian Daboll replacing Dan Henning as offensive coordinator. Daboll oversaw an impressive Cleveland Browns run game that featured Peyton Hillis.

Sparano has said Miami still will emphasize the run under Daboll.

"We're going to continue to run the football because that's my nature," Sparano said. "That might not be popular with everybody, but that's what I like to do. So we're going to continue to run the football."

And they will -- with or without Brown and Williams, running backs who were trendy a year ago, but aren't considered to be much of anything anymore.