The Pro Bowl berths, the assured niches in NFL history, the swollen statistics and the division titles—none of those are balm for their hearts anymore. The Miami Dolphins are tired of making excuses. Fed up with having to make allowances for injuries. Sick of starting each season with talk about going to the Super Bowl, only to flame out by year's end.
After a flurry of bold off-season changes, the buzz is that the Dolphins are looking like the team to beat in the AFC. Not so fast, say several Miami veterans who have learned that talk is cheap. It is lingering hurt and disappointment, not just runaway optimism, that pulled nearly all the Dolphins back to voluntary workouts this March and kept them coming back to their training complex in April and May, through the steadily building heat of June and into the suffocating humidity of early July. "Some days we'll be out there working," says eighth-year defensive end Jeff Cross, "and the heat makes you think you're going to die." But by 7:30 or 8 the following morning, scores of Dolphins are trudging back onto the practice field anyway.
"Fed up with talking? We should be," cornerback Troy Vincent says after another crowded workout. It's a sweltering 95° day in late June, and training camp is still weeks away. "The attitude here is changing—you can feel it," says nosetackle Chuck Klingbeil. Weights clang in the background as he talks. Rock music is blaring from the weight-room stereo.
"You can do more, you can always do more," quarterback Dan Marino says. He frowns. Marino has been among the regulars at the off-season workouts. He can still see Pete Stoyanovich's 48-yard field goal attempt drifting right...drifting right...drifting forever wide right in the dying seconds of the Dolphins' 22-21 playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers in January.
For that, Marino blames himself. "Even now I'll be driving in my car somewhere, and all of a sudden I'll just start thinking about it," he says. "I had [three] touchdown passes in that game, but the thing that sticks out was what I could have done differently at the end. We had 32 seconds. We moved the ball. Then I had two downs to put Pete at least 10 yards closer. And I threw two incompletions."
His eyebrows spike down. His disgust is still fresh. "These things are harder for me to take than they were years ago," he says.
Marino will be 34 in September. This will be his 13th season as a Dolphin. But he is still without a Super Bowl title, and time is running out on his partnership with coach Don Shula. It was Shula, though, who had critics baying outside his window by the end of the 1992 season and again after the Dolphins' late-season slides of '93 and '94. Shula will be 67 when his contract expires after the '96 season, and none of his tormentors allow him to forget that for the past 15 months former Dallas Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson has been biding his time in the nearby Florida Keys, waiting for the "right opportunity"—hint, hint—to lure him back to coaching in the NFL.
Whether he is feeling the pressure or not, Shula took an already good Dolphin team and made it better during an off-season of wheeling and dealing. He lavished a six-year, $12 million contract on free-agent tight end Eric Green, traded for Chicago Bear defensive end Trace Armstrong and Green Bay Packer cornerback Terrell Buckley, and signed free-agent wideouts Gary Clark and Randal Hill. Tight end Keith Jackson and wideout Mark Ingram were traded, but the Dolphins will get back their starting backfield of Terry Kirby and Keith Byars. Both were lost to season-ending knee injuries in 1994.
"We control our own destiny here," Vincent says. "It's time to line up and play some real football. We can't say we don't have this on the offensive line or that on the defensive line or in the secondary—it's all here. Now. The players are here. The coaches are here. Most everyone is injury-free. No more excuses this time around."
If it's Super Bowl or bust for the Dolphin players, for Shula it will be another season of enduring the critics crying Super Bowl or else. Shula is too proud to admit it, but the constant remarks about Johnson's availability irk him considerably. The irritation shows in Shula's occasionally curt answers and in the way his famous jutting jaw clenches when the subject of his future is broached. It pops up in the droll stories Shula sometimes tells—like the one about the second-guessers who confronted him outside the Dolphins' draft room in 1983 and asked, "Why did you draft Dan Marino in the first round when you already have David Woodley at quarterback?"