On draft day new Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson gambled in
the first round on a lazy underachiever, Baylor defensive tackle
Daryl Gardener. "If you play it safe," Johnson said that April
night, "you stagnate in this league. Maybe he'll be a bust, but
if we hit it, we'll hit it big."
After Miami's first preseason game, Johnson waived middle
linebacker Jack Del Rio, an 11-year veteran he had signed as a
free agent only two months earlier. As the anchor of his
defense, Johnson installed fifth-round draft pick Zach Thomas,
all 5'11", 230 pounds of him. "Zach's better," Johnson said
bluntly. "He'll start."
When veteran running back Irving Spikes popped his right
hamstring two days before Sunday's season opener against the New
England Patriots at Pro Player Park, Johnson figured he would
rely on three middle-round rookies--halfback Karim Abdul-Jabbar,
fullback Stanley Pritchett and third-down back Jerrif
McPhail--in the backfield behind quarterback Dan Marino. "We'll
be limited because of their inexperience," Johnson said, "but
they're all going to play eventually. Why not now?"
In the days leading up to the game Johnson told his players four
things: They would establish a running game and not use Marino
as the Hall of Fame crutch he has been too many times during his
14 years in Miami. They would have fewer turnovers than New
England. They would sack Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe. And
they would frustrate running back Curtis Martin.
September 8, 1996
Johnson must have tarot cards hidden in his lacquered hair,
because he couldn't have been more prescient. In the Dolphins'
24-10 victory on Sunday, Gardener and Thomas each sacked Bledsoe
once, and Thomas finished with a game-high nine tackles. All
told, Miami sacked Bledsoe four times and held Martin to 23
yards on 11 carries. Abdul-Jabbar, who was so anonymous before
Sunday that the Dolphins' outfitters spelled the name
ADBUL-JABBAR on his jersey, rushed for 115 yards, and the rookie
backfield trio combined for nine receptions good for 100 yards.
Turnovers? Miami won that battle 4-1. All things considered, the
Dolphins' first game under a coach other than Don Shula since
the Nixon Administration might have been their best performance
in the 1990s. No less a figure than Marino, the stat king who
threw for only 176 yards, noticed. After Johnson finished his
postgame remarks in the locker room, Marino tossed a game ball
in his direction. "This was a team win," Marino said. "Here's to
the guy who helped put it together."
It was the culmination of an anxious three days for Johnson, who
was returning to the sidelines after a two-year hiatus. "I don't
know that I've ever been so excited for a game," he said last
Saturday. A day earlier he showed that he hadn't lost much off
his psychological curveball from his Super Bowl days with the
Dallas Cowboys. For the second time in three days, practice at
the Dolphins' training facility in Davie, Fla., hadn't gone
well. Whereas during Wednesday's practice Johnson thought the
Dolphins had been lackadaisical and careless, now he saw a team
trying too hard, with mistakes flowing from effort. He gathered
the Dolphins for a quick talk. It would be one of the last times
he would address his team before Sunday's game, so he knew it
had to be right. "Guys, it seems like everybody was pressing so
hard out here today," Johnson said. "Everybody was straining,
trying extra hard. Now, if I laid a two-by-four on the ground
and told you to walk across it, you'd all be fine. But if I took
that same board and put it 10 feet up in the air, you'd all be
scared. You'd be saying, 'Oh, no, I'm gonna fall!' What I'm
trying to tell you is, don't be afraid to fall. You had to be a
great player to get to this level, and so I know you can do it.
Just go out there Sunday and get after their ass. You'll be fine.
"You know, a few years ago I was going through a bad time. I had
a bunch of things going on in my life that just made me
miserable. And so my girlfriend, Rhonda, got exasperated with me
and tried to snap me out of it. She said, 'Jimmy, relax! They
can kill you, but they can't eat you!'"
The players roared.
"And to this day, I have no idea what she meant!"
Everyone roared again.
Two hours later Johnson, clad in shorts and a T-shirt, walked
out of the complex for his daily three-mile jog. Alongside was
team trainer and Johnson confidant Kevin O'Neill. Funny thing,
this jog. It's often the only time during the day that Johnson
exposes himself to the outside world. The interaction can be
downright weird. Sometimes people drive by and yell, "Super
Bowl!" Sometimes they hold things out of car windows and ask for
an autograph, which never comes. One day a mom shoved her young
son out of the car, and the kid began jogging next to an annoyed
Johnson. The woman drove about 300 yards ahead, pulled over, got
out and snapped a picture.
On this day Johnson and O'Neill talked about the injury to
Spikes. They discussed the Cowboys. They talked excitedly about
the news they were trying to keep quiet until Monday--that
free-agent quarterback Craig Erickson had agreed to a two-year
deal, perhaps putting him in position to become Marino's heir.
About then, a passing car slowed. Some yahoo craned his neck out
of the window and yelled, "J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! They're going to
get you, Jimmy!"
Johnson did not look frightened at that threat, but he had
reason to be a little edgy about Sunday's game. Dolphins
media-relations director Harvey Greene served in the same
capacity under Shula for seven years. "But this game," Greene
said on Friday night as he dined in a Fort Lauderdale
restaurant, "has generated more interest than any game I've seen
here, including when Don was going to break George Halas's
record for career wins."
The maitre d' stopped by to weigh in with his observations.
"Every table I've visited tonight, they're talking about Jimmy
and the Dolphins," he said. "The anticipation for this game and
this season is tremendous.
"As much as Shula is revered, people didn't want to go through
the losing thing again. No one could understand why, with
Marino, a team drenched in Super Bowl history couldn't win."
Johnson believes he can win--doing it his way. He scoffs at the
notion that he has made the Dolphins too young too fast.
Salary-cap constraints made it easy to wave goodbye when
free-agent defensive stalwarts Marco Coleman, Bryan Cox and Troy
Vincent got $3-million-plus-a-year offers elsewhere; Miami's cap
was already stretched to the max. Johnson chose to keep 13
rookies and first-year players. These were personnel decisions
that may well be the right ones, long-term. But at some point
this season the Dolphins will pay for Johnson's devotion to
youth. This is a team facing massive growing pains.
No wonder Johnson sounded as if he were talking to a Pop Warner
team when he addressed his players again on Saturday night. "Be
prepared for momentum swings," he told them. "The crowd will be
loud, and you can get caught up in the emotion. The game's never
over, no matter how much you're ahead or behind. Half the games
in this league are decided by seven points or less."
Afterward, outside the meeting room at the resort hotel where
the Dolphins were spending Saturday night, Johnson was asked
what worried him most. "Oh, I'm just anxious," he said. "It
scares me a little that everyone's picking New England. I'm not
accustomed to that. I hope we can keep Martin in check. He's one
of the best backs in the league, and I think he's the key to
their offense. And I hope we don't have a lot of mental mistakes
with three rookies playing a lot on offense and two on defense.
"My heart will be beating a hundred miles an hour tomorrow.
Whatever happens, I'm doing what I want to do. With some jobs,
for whatever reason, you have to do it. It's been that way for
me at certain points in my life. But now the great thing is, I
don't have to do it. And I still want to do it."
Johnson laughed and turned to leave. Then free safety Gene
Atkins walked up. Johnson put Atkins in a bear hug and began
dressing him down for missing the team meal earlier in the
evening. On Johnson's Dolphins, missing a team meal costs you
"Coach," Atkins said, "I didn't know. I swear."
"Gene," Johnson said, smiling and hugging Atkins awkwardly, "52
people knew they had to be here for the team meal. Why are you
the only one who didn't?"
"Coach, I never heard about it. And I don't eat at night."
Johnson let go. He stared at Atkins, wondering if he should
believe him. "O.K.," Johnson said. "Half."
"No, Coach!" Atkins said. "Don't fine me. Let me make it up to
"Tell you what," Johnson said. "You make some great plays
tomorrow, and I'll think about it. Think about it, I said."
They both grinned. "O.K.," Atkins said. "You see that big grin
on your face? That's what you'll have on your face after you see
how I play. I'll make big plays. You'll see."
"They'd better be really big plays," Johnson said.
The Dolphins wouldn't need many big plays to win on Sunday. New
England was coming off a 3-1 preseason that Johnson, ever the
psychologist, publicly called the best summer showing in the
NFL, but early on the Patriots reverted to their 10-loss form of
1995. On New England's first possession Miami safety Louis
Oliver intercepted a Bledsoe pass and returned it 60 yards
before fumbling. Cornerback Sean Hill scooped up the loose ball
and ran the final 10 yards for a score. For the Patriots the
turnover would be a harbinger of things to come. Bledsoe looked
out of sync. Martin had nowhere to run. The pass rush was almost
nonexistent. "If that's our best effort," said Patriots coach
Bill Parcells afterward, "then we're in trouble."
The Dolphins had something to do with New England's
ineffectiveness. Thomas and Abdul-Jabbar, in particular,
justified Johnson's faith. Thomas made two early stops of Martin
near the goal line. He knocked wideout Shawn Jefferson
unconscious with a vicious tackle. And with the Patriots down by
14 early in the fourth quarter and facing a fourth-and-two at
the Miami 29, he pressured Bledsoe into an incompletion. "It's
been an incredible year," Thomas said later. "I didn't even
think I'd be drafted, but once I got here, I knew I had a
chance. Jimmy likes guys who work. That's me."
Abdul-Jabbar, a third-round pick, is a slasher. He has emerged
from Johnson's midsummer doghouse--Johnson thought Abdul-Jabbar
wasn't practicing through pain--to emerge as Miami's back of the
future. "I understand why Jimmy got on me," Abdul-Jabbar said
after the game. "I've learned that in pro football, nobody is
For now the Dolphins are as mentally healthy as they can be.
"Tell you what I liked about today," Johnson said as he sat in a
stadium office, sipping a beer in front of a TV showing the
Sunday-night game. "Last year our two safeties, Oliver and
Atkins [who in the fourth quarter deflected a pass that led to
an interception and wasn't fined], were fighting with each
other. Now they're teammates pulling for the same thing. Marino
throws seven passes in the first half, and he's happy as can be.
We've got everybody pulling for one thing now."