Nothing Matt Roth had experienced in his football career prepared him for this.
The third-year Miami Dolphin defensive end wrapped a lifetime's worth of losing into a four months last season, as the once-proud franchise dropped its first 13 games before beating the Baltimore Ravens 22-16 in overtime on Dec. 16. After the win the Dolphins lost their last two games to finish a franchise-worst 1-15 on the year; the team was outscored 437 to 267.
University of Iowa. "It almost felt like we won the Super Bowl (beating the Ravens). There was a lot of relief and a lot of excitement."
"If I look back on it now, it's kind of embarrassing," Roth added. "To get that excited about one win -- it's kind of crazy. But it's not easy to get wins in the NFL and it had been a tough year."
Roth and his teammates actually came into the season feeling they had a realistic chance at a playoff run after starting 6-0 in 2006. Optimism reigned as the now-fired new head coach Cam Cameron installed an offensive system that he hoped would blend with a solid defensive core led by perennial Pro Bowlers like middle linebacker Zach Thomas and defensive end Jason Taylor.
But then the injury bug hit, with the most prominent victims being quarterback Trent Green (concussion), running back Ronnie Brown (knee) and Thomas (migraines), in addition to the trade of leading receiver Chris Chambers in October.
Roth wasn't immune to the bad karma. He suffered a Grade-2 strain of his groin as training camp was winding down and the ailment affected him throughout the season.
"The first three or four weeks (after being hurt), I could barely walk," said Roth. "I always thought hurting a groin wasn't really an injury but I wasn't near 100 percent all year. I've never had a setback like this and sitting on the sideline stinks."
Coming into the year, Roth was penciled in as the starter at left defensive end, opposite Taylor. Despite the injury, Roth still started nine games and only missed three, finishing with a career-high 44 tackles and three sacks, third on the squad.
Roth had felt he was poised to make an impact in 2007 after playing a more secondary role in his first two seasons, when he combined for 59 stops and 4.5 sacks playing as a reserve in all 32 games.
"The first year I didn't play very much but in my second year I felt I started coming into my own a little bit," said Roth. "I felt pretty good coming into this year, like I could make a name for myself. But nothing seemed to go right."
With wholesale personnel moves already reshaping the team's front office, including the hiring of Bill Parcells as head of football operations and Jeff Ireland as General Manager and the firing of previous GM Randy Mueller and Cameron, Roth knows he's not immune to the scrutiny every player on the roster is sure to be exposed to this off-season.
He arrived in south Florida as a second-round draft pick (46th overall), which puts him a notch below the hefty expectations a first-round choice faces but under more pressure than a low-round pick or free agent. He was a first-team all-Big 10 pick his last two years at Iowa and a second-team all-American as a senior in 2004, and the Dolphins must have been hoping for more production than they've seen so far.
After being drafted, Roth signed a five-year contract, which gave him a fair measure of financial and job security. But players being released with years and money left on their deals is commonplace in the NFL.
"It's inevitable in this league that you're going to have to pick up and move at some point," said Roth. "There are 32 teams and every game is an audition."
As challenging as 2007 was, Roth understands that hopefully lessons were learned. And despite what confronted the Dolphins this year, he's proud that he and his teammates stuck together.
"We did a good job of not letting it get ugly and we never played the blame game," said Roth of the locker room demeanor. "A team has a lot of different egos and we went through this as a team. And it can't get any worse."
Several local products recently wrapped up their NFL seasons, among them two-fifths of the Philadelphia Eagles' wide receiving corps. Second-year man Jason Avant (Carver) finished 2007 with the fourth-most receptions on the team, catching 23 balls for 267 yards and two touchdowns. He was a fourth-round pick of the Eagles coming out of Michigan in 2006; last season as a rookie, he had seven catches for 68 yards and a TD.
Also playing in Philadelphia is Rich South graduate Greg Lewis, who recently finished his fifth year with the club. Coming into this season, Lewis had 95 catches for 1,187 yards and three touchdowns; this season he had 13 grabs for 265 yards and three scores. Lewis originally joined the Eagles as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Illinois.