Publish date:

2 MIAMI DOLPHINS

This is the second year in Jimmy Johnson's three-year plan to
get the Dolphins into the 1999 Super Bowl, which will be played
in...Miami, naturally. The first year? Johnson finished 8-8
despite losing Dan Marino for three games and most of a fourth,
and despite inheriting a team that had overspent on signing
bonuses and had almost no room to maneuver under the salary cap.

Johnson loaded up on draft choices, which has always been his
style. "I like young players," he says. "They stay healthy, and
they only get better as the year goes on." Half a dozen of his
12 draft picks became starters in '96. Some achieved surprising
success. Middle linebacker Zach Thomas was voted team MVP, only
the second time in the past 14 years that Marino didn't win the
honor. The tailback, fullback and third-down back were all
rookies, and Karim Abdul-Jabbar became the first Dolphin to run
for 1,000 yards in a season since Delvin Williams did it in '78.

Going into Year 2, Johnson knew his secondary needed help. Last
season Miami ranked 24th against the pass; Dallas burned the
Dolphins for 359 yards in the air, and New England for 409. So
the big-money, free-agent pickup was former Seahawks cornerback
Corey Harris, and for insurance, Johnson grabbed a former
Cowboy, free safety George Teague. The rest of the defense?
Youth and speed would take care of that.

Then there's Marino. "The reality of it is I'm 35," he says.
"There's a chance I can play until I'm 40, there's a chance this
may be my last year." So far there's no sign that he's about to
hit the wall, but who knows when or how the end will come? It
came for Jim Kelly in Buffalo last year, leaving only Marino and
John Elway from the Great Quarterback Class of '83. A sturdy
running game will prolong Marino's career. So will a big-league
line, and Miami's is above average. Of course you can't have too
many good receivers, either. Fred Barnett appears to be back
from a knee injury that sidelined him for the first six games
last year. O.J. McDuffie is one of the NFL's unsung clutch
receivers; 50 of his team-leading 74 catches went for first
downs, and 23 of those came on third-down plays. (Only
Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith had more.)

In the first round of the draft, Johnson selected Yatil Green,
who looked like the most serious long-ball threat since the
Duper-Clayton era. But in the first week of training camp, Green
tore ligaments in his knee and was lost for the year. That
seemed to start an injury epidemic. Kirby Dar Dar, the "flier"
on the punt- and kick-coverage units, was lost with a torn knee
ligament on July 14. Four days later Larry Izzo, the wedge
buster, tore his Achilles tendon. Then in the second preseason
game, Thomas went down with a cracked left fibula while covering
a kickoff; he is questionable for the opener.

That's the bad news. The good news is that Johnson continues to
fill out his roster with youth. Two draft-day trades increased
Miami's haul to 14 picks, including sleepers such as Stanford
wideout Brian Manning, a sixth-round pick who looked terrific in
camp. All told, 13 rookies and first-year players made the
53-man roster. You can't question Johnson's record of finding
and developing green talent.

Youthful exuberance abounds, plus, of course, a fair share of
wackos. Tight end Ed Perry, a sixth-rounder from James Madison,
collects rubber bands. His goal is to own his own barber shop.
He gives teammates haircuts for eight dollars. Linebacker Mike
Crawford, a sixth-rounder from Nevada, is a skydiver. During
camp he announced that he would be tough to get rid of. "If they
cut me, I'll stay on as a janitor," he says. "I ain't leaving
this place."

As much as Johnson likes a roster loaded with youth and fire,
even he admits that there are limits. "One guy had a real low
test score," he once said, "so we decided to go back and check
the interviews. In one of them he said he was raised by wolves."

Yes, the AFC East is loaded with wild animals. But Johnson's
crew should have no problem holding its own.

--P.Z.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS McDuffie has a nose for the first-down marker and plays a key role in Johnson's three-year plan. [O.J. McDuffie in game]

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)

Fresh Fish

Last year Stanley Pritchett and Zach Thomas became the first
Dolphins rookies since 1990 to start every game. In Don Shula's
26 seasons with the organization, 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

Year Player, Position Miami career

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
1996 Zach Thomas, MLB 1996-present

SCHEDULE SKINNY

The Dolphins' 1997 opponents went 121-135 in '96, and there's
only one potential cold-weather game on tap: at New England on
Nov. 23. But that game against the Patriots comes on the heels
of a Monday nighter at home against Buffalo and will be followed
by a trip to Oakland. In the final game of the regular season,
the division title could be on the line when the Patriots visit
Pro Player Stadium for another Monday night date.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE

NFL rank: 25 (tie)
Opponents' 1996 winning percentage: .473
Games against playoff teams: 7

The Lineup With 1996 Statistics

Coach: Jimmy Johnson

Offensive Backs

QB Dan Marino 373 att. 221 comp. 59.2% 2,795 yds.
17 TDs 9 int. 87.8 rtg.
RB Karim Abdul-Jabbar 307 att. 1,116 yds. 3.6 avg. 23 rec.
139 yds. 6.0 avg. 11 TDs
FB Stanley Pritchett 7 att. 27 yds. 3.9 avg. 33 rec.
354 yds. 10.7 avg. 2 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen

WR O.J. McDuffie 74 rec. 918 yds. 8 TDs
WR Fred Barnett 36 rec. 562 yds. 3 TDs
WR Charles Jordan 7 rec. 152 yds. 0 TDs
TE Troy Drayton 28 rec. 331 yds. 0 TDs
PK Olindo Mare[*] 0/0 PATs 0/0 FGs 0 pts.
KR Irving Spikes 28 ret. 24.3 avg. 0 TDs
PR Charles Jordan 0 ret. Avg. N.A. 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 Everett McIver 6'5" 318 lbs. 7 games 5 starts
RT James Brown 6'6" 329 lbs. 16 games 16 starts

Defense

LE Trace Armstrong 33 tackles 12 sacks
LT Tim Bowens 48 tackles 3 sacks
RT Daryl Gardener 33 tackles 1 sack
RE Daniel Stubbs 35 tackles 9 sacks
OLB Anthony Harris 19 tackles 0 sacks
MLB Zach Thomas 154 tackles 3 int.
OLB Dwight Hollier 55 tackles 1 sack
CB Terrell Buckley 53 tackles 6 int.
SS Shawn Wooden 54 tackles 2 int.
FS Corey Harris[*] 75 tackles 1 int.
CB Calvin Jackson 52 tackles 3 int.
P John Kidd 78 punts 46.3

[*]New acquisition
Rookie statistics for final college year