dolphins-vs-jets_web.jpgEAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — To grasp the magnitude of what the Miami Dolphins accomplished this season, imagine this: The Detroit Lions in the playoffs next season.

That's how bad the Dolphins were last year, a missed 44-yard field goal by the ultra-reliable Matt Stover in overtime, followed by a 64-yard TD play to beat Baltimore and keep them from becoming the NFL's first 0-16 team. That was just a year and 12 days ago in a game the Dolphins entered 0-13, three games from ignominy.

Obviously, a lot can happen in a year.

For Miami, it started with the hiring of Bill Parcells to oversee the football operations. He then hired Jeff Ireland as general manager and Tony Sparano to coach, and a 1-15 team became an 11-5 team and AFC East champions.

“The biggest change is leadership. We made a lot of changes. We have leadership and we believe in one another as a team,” running back Ronnie Brown said after the 24-17 win over the New York Jets that wrapped up the division.

“We were able to change this around with a good coach who came in with pride and passion,” wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said. “We got a great quarterback and our D stepped up for us. That's all you could ask for.”

You could also ask for luck, the luckiest happening being the circumstances under which they got the quarterback, Chad Pennington.

That involved Brett Favre's retirement and unretirement from Green Bay and the ensuing soap opera that finally landed him with the Jets. To the
New York management and its fans, that was supposed to mean playoffs at worst, Super Bowl at best, especially after Tom Brady was injured in the opening game of the season, bringing New England back to the pack in the division.
But the Favre trade did more for Miami than anyone else.

Favre was obtained on Aug. 6. On Aug. 7, New York released Pennington, its quarterback of eight seasons, and on Aug. 8, the Dolphins signed him. Suddenly, they had an established NFL quarterback and leader.

The only negative? The shoulder trouble that had forced him to undergo surgery three years ago.

That was OK with Miami. It was better than going with John Beck, a second-year man who didn't have the confidence of Sparano or Parcells, or with Chad Henne, a second-round draft pick. Miami seemed ready to go with the impressive Henne if it couldn't get someone more experienced. Hey, the way Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan performed this season in getting the Ravens and Falcons to the playoffs, maybe Henne could have done the same thing?

But Pennington was a much safer bet.

“Tell me what other player could arrive one day and be voted a captain the next?” asked nose tackle Jason Ferguson, who spent the early part of Pennington's career as a Jets teammate. Well, Brett Favre for one, but that turned out to be a more disappointing story.

Pennington was revered by his new teammates, a combination of veterans such as Ferguson, Vonnie Holliday and Will Allen, and youngsters of varying degrees of promise like Ginn and Brown.

That was evident after Sunday's game as they trooped into the cramped visitors' locker room at Giants Stadium, donned the gray "division champions" hats handed to them, but remained somewhat subdued. They gathered inside the door in a circle, waiting for their quarterback, who stayed on the field a little longer, talking to ex-teammates and doing television interviews.

Pennington finally trotted down the corridor and through the door. Suddenly there were whoops and a few gray hats thrown into the air.
Celebrate before their leader got there? Not on your life.

Sparano clearly thought the same way.

“Chad did exactly what we thought he would do,” he said. “He was a tremendous professional the entire week. He prepared diligently,
Christmas Day, Christmas Eve, he was in there grinding pretty good. He did exactly what he's done for the last 15 weeks. He threw the ball well in here today. He guided this team.

“I know it feels special for Chad. More importantly, it's just about the team, especially the guys who were here last year.”

The guys who were here last year?

They were nearly the Detroit Lions.

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun. Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington throws a pass during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the New York Jets Sunday, Dec. 28 at the Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.