Unified for finale, Dolphins prepare to split for good

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They knew that soon they would be split apart.

So yesterday, the survivors of the Miami Dolphins' 2004 season literally came together.

"We held hands right before the game as a group," defensive end David Bowens said. "That was the first time we had done that."

It would be the last time for many of these players as Dolphins.

Their interim coach, Jim Bates, will gather them again this morning, and then many will go their separate ways for good.

"That's the hard thing in football," said Bates, who also is unlikely to stay on staff if he sees a head coaching opportunity elsewhere. "When you go different directions, you can't keep the relationships with all the people."

Players recognize coach Nick Saban's arrival after leaving Louisiana State could mean the end of their long relationships with the Dolphins. Among the vulnerable is cornerback Patrick Surtain, who has not received a contract extension and could be traded or cut with fewer salary-cap ramifications than the other established stars.

"When you've got that many big-time players, there's going to be a business side of it sooner or later, especially when guys are making plays and getting recognition and going to Pro Bowls," Bowens said. "You can't afford to keep everybody. The market's hot, especially on defensive players. It's going to be interesting to see who stays and who goes, but I wish everybody the best. I love these guys like brothers."

Surtain was asked if he thought about this having been the last time he and Sam Madison played together. They have been a starting cornerback tandem since 1999 and are close friends off the field.

"It's hard to think about right now," Surtain said. "It's like being an institution around here for the last seven, eight years. Man, it's just been a crazy season all the way around, and you never know what is going to happen after the season. Hopefully, they can retain everybody. But, you know, that's highly unlikely. I'm just playing it by ear."

Surtain expects it to clear up fairly quickly after Saban officially settles in.

"Sometimes change can be good in the NFL," Surtain said. "But I've been a Dolphin the last seven years. I've made a lot of plays for this team, a couple Pro Bowls, been a great player in this league for a long time. And if they see fit that they don't need me anymore, change can be good. All options are open."

Most players were just glad the 4-12 season had come to a close.

"It was ridiculous," linebacker Zach Thomas said. "Even in the offseason, before we played a game, there were so many distractions. The Ricky [Williams] thing. ... It was just that type of year last year. I'm just so happy for 2005, because 2004 was pretty ugly."

Thomas, who has disputed the perception that he won't fit as well in Saban's style of defense, admitted to curiosity about what new things the coach would try.

"Change is inevitable," defensive end Jason Taylor said. "Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's not. You can't sit here right now and evaluate if the change is good, it's too early for that. You kind of hope for the best and expect the worst and we'll see what happens."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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