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Brown gives the Dolphins plenty of options

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

Even by the sometimes-questionable standards of the Pro Bowl, Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown's statistics hardly stand out.

Brown's 916 yards rushing, 254 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns don't exactly wow the average fan. Even when you throw in the touchdown pass he threw against New England in Week 3, Brown's numbers come out to be about half of a good LaDainian Tomlinson season.

The problem is that this is where style of play collides with real ability; where the needs of the team trump the individual and where a player can't be judged by numbers.

Number of plays run by the 12 playoff teams
Rank Team Off. Def. Total
1. Eagles 1,056 994 2,050
2. Atlanta 1,011 998 2,009
3. Tennessee 973 1,022 1,995
4. Arizona 998 993 1,991
5. Pittsburgh 1,015 974 1,989
6. Baltimore 1,058 928 1,986
7. San Diego 924 1,041 1,965
8. Carolina 938 1,026 1,964
9. Minnesota 1,014 946 1,960
10 (tie). (tie) Giants 1,021 931 1,952
10 (tie). (tie) Colts 969 983 1,952
12. Miami 965 979 1,944

"Yeah, I heard some guys [in the NFC] were saying [the AFC running backs] don't compare," said Brown, who missed the final nine games of the 2007 season after tearing the ACL in his right knee. "That's fine because I don't care. We're winning and this feeling is so much better than anything else we've had around since I've been here."

Or just ask a couple of opposing coaches who have faced the Dolphins, a team that improbably went from 1-15 in '07 to 11-5 and hosting a wild-card game Sunday against Baltimore.

"The way the Dolphins use Brown is different," said one defensive assistant whose team faced Brown in the second half of the season. "It's not like you just hand it to him and see what he can do. They get it to him and he creates stuff for other people. So many times, the ball is going through Brown. It doesn't just stop with him.

"No, I'm not saying he's more important than [quarterback Chad] Pennington. That's not it. He's a different kind of player because he's a really good running back who knows the whole game. He forces mismatches and forces your defense to be really sound. He's kind of like a point guard in basketball. He makes people around him better."

Said the head coach of another team: "He fits perfectly with the way the Dolphins want to play right now. They want to play ugly football, slow, ponderous, grind-it-out kind of games. When you do that, you have to maximize the value of every play. When you have a guy who can do a lot of things well, he helps. A lot."

In other words, Brown might be more productive statistically on another team. He just wouldn't be more valuable. As the playoffs approach, the Dolphins are a team that doesn't stand out in any drastic way.

They finished 12th in the NFL in total yardage and 21st in scoring (worst among the 12 playoff teams). That ratio of 12th in yards to 21st in scoring is also, by far, the worst among the playoff teams.

The Dolphins finished with that odd combination for two reasons. First, they're not overwhelmingly talented. This is a roster with few stars and, for most of the season, only one wide receiver (Ted Ginn Jr.) who was even drafted.

The second reason, which is related to the first, is that the Dolphins play football's version of what is known in baseball as small ball. Among the playoff teams, the Dolphins combined to run the fewest plays on both offense and defense with 1,944 over the 16-game schedule. That included only 965 on offense, the second fewest to Carolina (938). In baseball, when teams don't have a lot of home run hitters, they bunt and steal to score and had better pitch well to win. In football, when you don't have players who can score, you have to milk the clock, play keep-away with your offense and keep the defense in good position.

Enter Brown and the Wildcat offense, which the Dolphins use to feature him and set up the few big plays that they can muster. The Wildcat is when the Dolphins line up Brown in the shotgun formation. On Sunday in the season finale against the Jets, the Dolphins ran the Wildcat 10 times.

"Originally, when we started this whole thing way back when in March, we had this file of plays that we thought would be part of this whole package," Dolphins first-year coach Tony Sparano said. "We weren't sure whether or not we could run the package because we didn't know if we had the people. I think as we got on in this, we started to learn a little bit more about our people. We learned a little bit more about Ronnie Brown and how he handles the football."

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Brown gets ready to throw a TD pass vs. the Pats in Week 3.
(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Although the Wildcat hasn't been as effective as when the Dolphins unveiled it against New England in the third game of the season (Brown rushed for four touchdowns and threw for another), it's a vital element to what they do.

That was evident on two plays that didn't work, but could have been game breakers against the Jets. In the first quarter, Brown took the snap on one Wildcat play, ran to the right and pitched to Pennington. With the defense focused on Brown, Ricky Williams had gotten open down the right sideline for a potential big play. Williams dropped the ball, squandering a possible score as the Dolphins eventually punted.

In the second quarter, Brown was again in the Wildcat. With the defense again focused on him, he missed tight end Joey Haynos, who was wide open and could have gotten into Jets territory. The Dolphins again punted.

Still, what plays like that provide for the Dolphins are threats on a roster that is otherwise mediocre. For a team that must play it so close to the vest, that threat is vital.

"I can tell you for a fact, we spent hours going over what they did in the Wildcat and it's not even their bread-and-butter stuff, the defensive coach said. "The rest of their offense is pretty easy to game plan for. There's nothing really exotic. But the stuff they do with Brown changes them. That's the reason they're able to function as well as they do."