New attitude, leadership have Dolphins confident heading into playoffs

The Dolphins became the first team to win 11 games after winning only one the previous season. Joel Auerbach/US Presswire

DAVIE, Fla. -- Practice is over, and the lawn tractors are already humming over the Dolphins' fields on this sublime, sun-drenched Thursday afternoon. Ricky Williams hops lightly off a golf cart, strides easily into the interview room and offers a firm handshake and steady eye contact.

He's 31 years old now, the only player on the Miami roster who goes back to the 2002 season. Gone are the dreadlocks he wore when his fondness for cannabis forced him into Canadian Football League exile. Hey, is he a little thin on the top of that tight, razor-close cut?

Williams isn't the leading reason the Dolphins crafted the most improbable turnaround in the 89-year history of the NFL. No. Bill Parcells, Tony Sparano and Chad Pennington (in that order) have been widely credited with the transformation from a 1-15 joke into an 11-5 playoff team. But Williams, who ran the ball only six times last season after being reinstated, is as good a symbol as any for this Miracle in Miami.

"I think the fact that we don't think about it has really been the key," explained Williams, Miami's third-leading offensive producer after Pennington and running back Ronnie Brown. "I think one of the hardest things in football as well as in life is to put the past behind you and to move forward."

He was talking about the Dolphins, but it felt autobiographical.

Brett Favre, as usual, has drawn more than his share of headlines, but when the Dolphins beat the New York Jets 24-17 in Week 17, they won the AFC East title, something they hadn't done in eight years. Moreover, no NFL team had ever won 11 games after winning only one game the previous season.

How is it that the Dolphins come whistling into wild-card weekend and a Sunday date with the Baltimore Ravens with a stack of house money?

"It always starts at the top and then it trickles down," Pennington said Wednesday. "It starts at the top with a vision, with goals, then it goes down to coach Sparano with his goals and vision of how he wants his team to play and perform, how he wants his coaches to coach. As players, we have to take his vision and his goals and put it into action.

"I've been in this league for nine years and this has been a true team effort across the board. I think we're the epitome of what a team is all about."

Before he stepped off as owner of the Dolphins, Wayne Huizenga wanted desperately to give developer Stephen Ross -- who bought 50 percent of the team in February 2008 and soon will assume control of the Dolphins -- a reason to part with a billion dollars. Huizenga hired Parcells as his executive vice president of football operations in December 2007, and his impact was immediate.

"There are two games left and everyone is going hard because it's an audition," said offensive tackle Vernon Carey, the third-longest tenured Dolphins player. "At an audition, you put on your best suit and you go to work and you try to do your best."

Parcells' insistence on an empty trainer's room and emphasis on ball security have been well-documented, but his choice of Sparano was inspired. He was the Cowboys' offensive line and assistant head coach under Parcells, and the Dolphins players say he is very much his own man.

"If I am messing up, then shoot it to me straight just like you would a rook, you know what I mean?" said linebacker Joey Porter, who recorded 17½ sacks. "He will still jump on you if he feels like he isn't getting what he needs out of you, and that goes a long way."

When Pennington was released by the Jets to make room for Favre, Parcells -- who drafted Pennington as general manager of the Jets in 2000 -- signed him a day later. Leadership, which had been lacking on the offensive side, was now in place. Before an exhibition game in Jacksonville, Pennington called his own meeting with the offense and took it right up to the 11 p.m. curfew. He holds separate weekly meetings with the skill-position players and the offensive line.

"Say we had a bad practice and we had some dropped balls or a guy who was jumping offsides and we ran 10 plays and it was just a clutter mess," Carey said. "At the end of practice [Chad] would say, 'Let's get 10 perfect plays.' And we would run all those plays over until we get them right."

On Wednesday, Pennington was named the league's Comeback Player of the Year, an award he also won in 2006. He also collected the AFC Offensive Player of the Week nod for his mistake-free performance in the victory over the Jets and the quarterback who caused his departure from New York. Some folks in Miami made a case for Pennington as league MVP, and they're pretty sure the wrong quarterback made the Pro Bowl.

Pennington threw for more yards (3,653) than any Dolphins quarterback since Dan Marino in 1997, and there was quality within that quantity. Pennington finished the regular season with a 67.4 completion percentage, a franchise record, and four consecutive games with a passer rating over 100 -- matching a Marino achievement from his record-setting 1984 season.

Last year, the Dolphins nearly became the 2008 Detroit Lions. Only a 22-16 overtime win over the Ravens spared them from an 0-16 season. It wasn't much fun going to work.

"Disappointment, disgraceful," Carey said. "It was like 'Groundhog Day.' It was just terrible and you just wanted it to end. It was like a bad nightmare that you hope is a dream and you pinch yourself -- and it's real."

These Dolphins began the season losing four of their first six games; the sixth was a deflating 27-13 loss to the same Ravens they meet on Sunday. And then they won nine of their last 10 games.

These Dolphins are, understandably, confident.

"I think one of the things that people think is that swagger is something that you just put on, but what I have learned this year is that it's something that you earn," Williams said. "I think it's safe to say that we are the hardest-working team in the NFL."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com