Hours after a June minicamp practice had ended, Jimmy Johnson
was sitting in his office at the Dolphins' training facility
when he glanced out the window and did a double take. There on
the football field, all by himself, was starting halfback Karim
Abdul-Jabbar, sprinting from goal line to goal line, slashing
90-degree cuts along the way. Johnson waved some of his
assistants over to the window. "Look at this," he said in a
stunned voice, pointing to the fleet Abdul-Jabbar, silhouetted
against the late-afternoon sun.
It seems that during the off-season Abdul-Jabbar has been
willing to do anything and everything to impress his coach.
That's because last preseason Johnson acted as if the
23-year-old running back owed him a pound of flesh for holding
out during the first two days of training camp. Johnson demoted
Abdul-Jabbar to the fifth string and threw a barrage of verbal
darts at him. But Abdul-Jabbar worked his way back into
Johnson's good graces by running for 1,116 yards last season,
becoming Miami's first 1,000-yard rusher since Delvin Williams
in 1978. And at the June minicamp, Abdul-Jabbar--who even worked
with an ophthalmologist to improve his peripheral vision--was
the one Dolphin who repeatedly caught Johnson's eye.
"Karim is the guy who's really standing out," said Johnson. "He
looks comfortable with everything we're doing, much more so than
at anytime last year, even though he rushed for over 1,000 yards."
Johnson needs Abdul-Jabbar's talent to bloom fully if the
second-year coach is to meet his oft-stated goal of getting the
Dolphins to the 1999 Super Bowl. The main tenet of Johnson's
offensive philosophy has always been to establish a rushing game
at all costs. Even when the run gets stuffed, as it often did
last season, Johnson will keep handing the ball to Abdul-Jabbar,
who had 307 carries, a single-season Miami record. This explains
why 36-year-old quarterback Dan Marino attempted fewer passes
per game in 1996 than in any season since 1983, his rookie year.
Another part of Johnson's strategy is to infuse the team with
fresh blood. Twenty-eight new players were on last season's
final roster, including nine rookies; the average age of a
Dolphins starter was 25.7, the youngest in the NFL. This year
the team will be even greener, with Johnson predicting that nine
or 10 rookies will make the squad. "We were the youngest team in
the league when we won my first Super Bowl in Dallas," Johnson
says. "I like young players. They stay healthy longer and get
better as the year goes on."
Nowhere is this youth movement more apparent than in the
defensive front seven. Tackles Daryl Gardener and Tim Bowens,
both 24, are a step away from the Pro Bowl. Undersized but
overachieving middle linebacker Zach Thomas was named the team's
MVP at the tender age of 23 last year after finishing fifth in
the NFL in tackles. Outside linebacker Anthony Harris, another
24-year-old, was an undrafted free agent who, because his motor
never stops, became a Johnson favorite in '96. And outside
linebacker Derrick Rodgers, a third-round draft choice out of
Arizona State, will contribute immediately.
Miami's pass defense, ranked 24th in the NFL last season, will
be bolstered by second-round choice Sam Madison, a cornerback
out of Louisville who was one of the top man-to-man defenders in
the draft. Safeties George Teague and Corey Harris, both signed
as free agents in the off-season, are merely stopgaps, not
long-term solutions for the Dolphins' weak defensive backfield.
The offense has a few more gray hairs than the D, but it's still
a relatively young group. The line, led by the left tackle-guard
tandem of Richmond Webb, 30, and Keith Sims, 30, was
inconsistent last season, but Webb still made the Pro Bowl.
Marino signed a one-year contract extension in June, so he's now
locked up through 1999. Whether or not he'll last that long is
anybody's guess--Marino has missed 16 games over the last four
years because of a variety of injuries. Whoever throws the ball
(Craig Erickson is the backup) will have talented targets in
veteran wideouts O.J. McDuffie, 27, Fred Barnett, 31, and rookie
Yatil Green, a first-round draft pick from the University of
Miami who Johnson feels can be a faster version of Michael Irvin.
"I like what I see," Johnson says. "I'm excited about this
team--not just hopeful, but excited." They're at least a year
away from a title, but Johnson has good reason for his
COLOR PHOTO INSET [REGIONAL] Dan Marino: Feeling Super?
COLOR PHOTO: JOE TRAVER Abdul-Jabbar has worked overtime to impress Johnson again this year. [Karim Abdul-Jabbar]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 8-8 (fourth in AFC East)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 101.4 (19) 221.4 (11) 322.8 (14)
DEFENSE 96.0 (7) 228.4 (24) 324.4 (17)
Last year Stanley Pritchett and Zach Thomas became the first
Miami rookies since 1990 to start every game. (Rookie cornerback
Sam Madison has a shot at doing it this year.) In Don Shula's 26
seasons with the Dolphins, only 10 players started every game of
their rookie season; three of them did it in 1970, Shula's first
season in Miami.
Dolphins Rookies Who Started Every Game in a Season (Since 1970)
Year Player, Position Miami career
1970 Curtis Johnson, CB 1970-78
1970 Mike Kolen, OLB 1970-77
1970 Jake Scott, FS 1970-75
1976 Larry Gordon, OLB 1976-82
1977 Bob Baumhower, DT 1977-86
1977 A.J. Duhe, DE 1977-84
1977 Kim Bokamper, OLB 1977-85
1983 Dan Johnson, TE 1983-87
1988 Jarvis Williams, FS 1988-93
1990 Richmond Webb, T 1990-present
1996 Stanley Pritchett, FB 1996-present[A]
1996 Zach Thomas, MLB 1996-present[A]
PLAYER TO WATCH
Players like second-year linebacker Anthony Harris reinforce
Miami coach Jimmy Johnson's reputation for finding diamonds
where other coaches see only lumps of coal. An undrafted free
agent out of Auburn, Harris cracked the lineup and started the
last three games of the '96 season. During the off-season he
added 20 pounds of muscle to his 6'1" frame, the perfect
complement to his 4.5 40 speed and excellent pass-coverage
skills. Now Harris appears to be on the verge of a breakthrough
year. "Anthony has improved tremendously," says Johnson. "He
will be a big part of our football team."
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Jimmy Johnson
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Dan Marino 20[*] 373 att. 221 comp. 59.2%
2,795 yds. 17 TDs 9 int.
RB Karim Abdul-Jabbar 24[*] 307 att. 1,116 yds. 3.6 avg.
23 rec. 139 yds. 6.0 avg. 11 TDs
FB Stanley Pritchett 162[*] 7 att. 27 yds. 3.9 avg. 33 rec.
354 yds. 10.7 avg. 2 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR O.J. McDuffie 87[*] 74 rec. 918 yds. 8 TDs
WR Yatil Green(R)[A] 201[*] 42 rec. 669 yds. 3 TDs
WR Fred Barnett 141[*] 36 rec. 562 yds. 3 TDs
TE Troy Drayton 231[*] 28 rec. 331 yds. 0 TDs
PK Joe Nedney 355[*] 35/36 XPs 18/29 FGs 89 pts.
KR Irving Spikes 216[*] 28 ret. 24.3 avg. 0 TDs
PR O.J. McDuffie 87[*] 22 ret. 9.6 avg. 0 TDs
LT Richmond Webb 6'6" 303 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Keith Sims 6'3" 309 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
C Tim Ruddy 6'3" 290 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Chris Gray 6'4" 296 lbs. 11 games 11 starts
RT James Brown 6'6" 329 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Daniel Stubbs 35 tackles 9 sacks
LT Daryl Gardener 33 tackles 1 sack
RT Tim Bowens 48 tackles 3 sacks
RE Trace Armstrong 33 tackles 12 sacks
OLB Dwight Hollier 55 tackles 1 sack
MLB Zach Thomas 154 tackles 3 int.
OLB Anthony Harris 19 tackles 0 sacks
CB Terrell Buckley 53 tackles 6 int.
SS Corey Harris[A] 75 tackles 1 int.
FS George Teague[A] 57 tackles 4 int.
CB Sam Madison (R)[A] 52 tackles 6 int.
P John Kidd 78 punts 46.3 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)