James McKnight wouldn't let go. Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay
Fiedler could wiggle and plead that he wasn't woozy, but
McKnight, a Miami wide receiver, would have none of it. He had
just watched Oakland Raiders linebacker William Thomas and
safety Johnnie Harris smack Fiedler at the end of a six-yard
scramble, and the picture wasn't pretty. After Fiedler struggled
to get to his feet, McKnight wrapped his arms around the
quarterback's chest and motioned toward the sideline for help.
Fiedler tried to break free, but then he settled into McKnight's
embrace and scowled. He drew a deep breath, exhaled and, as he
admitted later, "got very pissed off." The Dolphins had a
third-and-four on their own 26, trailing 15-10, and when
Fiedler's next pass fell incomplete with 2:32 left, some in the
crowd of 73,404 at Pro Player Stadium began filing toward the
exits. Fiedler, however, wasn't ready to throw in the towel. "I
was trying to protect Jay," McKnight said. "And he was about to
show us that he's a warrior."
When the Dolphins got the ball back at their 20 with 1:41
remaining and no timeouts, Fiedler directed a frantic 10-play
drive, capping it with a two-yard scramble into the end zone with
five seconds to go to give Miami an 18-15 victory. The drive was
especially impressive in light of Fiedler's erratic play over the
preceding 58 minutes. He had floated passes into double coverage
(and when he had been on target, his receivers had dropped
several of those balls). Before that last possession Fiedler had
misfired on his previous seven attempts, one an interception that
safety Anthony Dorsett had returned 26 yards for the touchdown
that had put the Raiders ahead by five points.
Fiedler had made a similar mistake early in Miami's 27-0 AFC
divisional playoff loss to Oakland last January, throwing an
interception that Raiders cornerback Tory James returned 90 yards
for a touchdown, which set the tone for a long afternoon. This
day, though, would be different. Fiedler started the final drive
with four consecutive completions, each to a different receiver.
On fourth-and-three from the Oakland 18, he was flushed out of
the pocket but hooked up with wideout Dedric Ward for a nine-yard
gain. On the following play Fiedler ran seven yards on a
quarterback draw, and after rolling right on a bootleg two plays
later, he dived into the end zone a split second before three
defenders could get to him.
"The game got away from us, but I had confidence in what we were
doing," said Fiedler, who completed 16 of 34 passes for 217 yards
with two interceptions and ran for a two-yard score late in the
first half. "We've been down before and come back--last year we
did it twice--and we knew we could find a way to win this thing."
Miami's passing game is far more sophisticated than it was in
2000, with Fiedler's having gotten comfortable in his second
year as a starter. A key reason for Fiedler's newfound
confidence is the five days a week he spent during the
off-season watching film with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey.
The two discussed routes they wanted specific receivers to run
and plays they wanted to try in certain situations. Those
sessions helped convince Fiedler that the Dolphins believed in
him, even after the club had pondered trading for Matt
Hasselbeck (a Green Bay Packer at the time), showed interest in
free agent Gus Frerotte, signed restricted free agent Ray Lucas
of the New York Jets and considered drafting Purdue's Drew
Brees. "I'm not thinking so much when I go out there," Fiedler
says. "Last year I spent half the season in a feeling-out
process. Now I know what I'm comfortable with doing."
Says wide receiver Oronde Gadsden, "I think Jay feels that if he
throws an incomplete pass now, he won't get pulled. We all feel
more confident in the passing game."
Miami's new wideouts have also made life easier for Fiedler.
McKnight and Ward, free-agent acquisitions who each have only
one full season as a starter, have brought much-needed speed to
the position. But rookie Chris Chambers, a second-round draft
pick from Wisconsin, is the jewel. Another burner, he sits in
the middle of the front row during position meetings, takes
copious notes and has a knack for delivering big plays, like his
27-yard reception on the game-winning drive against Oakland.
The addition of that trio makes it difficult for teams to
double-cover Gadsden, the Dolphins' best possession receiver.
The three also give Gailey confidence to call passes against
cornerbacks as talented as Oakland's Charles Woodson and Eric
Allen. Although the Raiders' corners permitted only one
reception to Chiefs wide receivers in the Raiders'
season-opening victory over Kansas City, Fiedler wasn't afraid
to go after them. All told, Miami wideouts caught 12 passes for
183 yards. "Those guys did something with the ball when they
caught it," said Oakland linebacker Elijah Alexander. "They took
five-yard passes and turned them into 15-yard gains."
The Raiders should have seen that coming. In the Dolphins'
season-opening upset of the Titans in Tennessee, Fiedler
completed 12 of 20 passes, three for at least 30 yards. The
Titans didn't have a sack, and the Raiders got only one. Miami's
win on Sunday wasn't a thing of beauty, but coach Dave Wannstedt
is perfectly willing to play that way. The defense dominated
(limiting Oakland to 216 yards and two third-down conversions in
12 attempts), running back Lamar Smith gained 92 yards, and
Fiedler made plays when he had to.
"We're more balanced on offense, but we're not changing our
philosophy," Wannstedt says. "We still want to win with the
running game and defense, but we won't be stupid. We can make
plays in the passing game when we have to."
The plays Fiedler made are usually the specialty of Raiders
quarterback Rich Gannon, the king of improvisation. The two
chatted in the parking lot before Gannon, his stone-serious
expression suggesting how difficult this defeat had been, walked
slowly toward the Oakland team bus, leaving Fiedler to savor the
notion that he had been asked to win a game rather than told not
to lose one. "Give Fiedler credit," said Oakland safety Marquez
Pope. "He did what a good quarterback is supposed to do. He made
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ELIOT SCHECHTER FOR ALLSPORT COVER Coming Back Amid cheers and tears, football and baseball return to action Jay Fiedler rallies Miami to a last-second win over Oakland
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO OVER THE TOP Miami linebacker Zach Thomas went airborne to stop running back Charlie Garner.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO RISING STAR The oft-erratic Fiedler came through with 217 passing yards, including 70 on the game-winning drive.
"Last year I spent half the season in a feeling-out process,"
says Fiedler. "Now I know what I'm comfortable with doing."