Vincent, who supports Shula, says that an anti-Shula faction is evident in the locker room, with some players complaining that the coaches play favorites. "The whole atmosphere is negative," says one expensive free-agent acquisition. "The coaches are always on your ass, unless you're one of the chosen ones."
When Cox hears those comments, he looks poised to throw another tantrum. "Look, I don't give a damn if Jesus Christ were coaching this team, because we're not playing well. You could have Vince Lombardi, John Madden or any of those coaches, but you won't win if your players don't perform on game day."
Shula's greatest asset as a coach has always been his ability to prepare his players for all possibilities and to adjust to shifts in game situations. The man can still coach. If Shula loses his job, his downfall may be traced to miscalculations he has made as Miami's de facto general manager. Shula has not spent wisely. The Dolphins have shelled out $2.15 million in bonus money to kicker Pete Stoyanovich over the last two seasons. They paid $1,825 million in up-front money to Atkins before this season in a contract restructuring. Both players are overpaid, and the team is likely to be stuck with the disgruntled Atkins because of his fat contract. The Dolphins also allotted significant up-front money to three holdovers—tackle Richmond Webb ($2.8 million), Cross ($1,575 million) and linebacker Chris Singleton ($1.4 million)—but only Webb has fulfilled his promise.
During the off-season Shula pursued Green and defensive end Trace Armstrong, whom Miami acquired in a trade with the Chicago Bears. The Dolphins gave Armstrong a $1.4 million signing bonus. He has 3½ sacks to show for it. At the same time, Miami dropped out of the bidding for Deion Sanders and linebacker Bryce Paup, who was signed by the Buffalo Bills and leads the NFL in sacks, with 16. The Dolphins could have afforded Sanders had they not lavished those bonuses on Cross and Singleton.
After the 1993 season Miami failed to sign linebacker Ken Norton, a free agent at the time who had been a key player for two Cowboy Super Bowl teams and would play the same role for last season's champions, the San Francisco 49ers. "If you had to point a finger at this team," says Bokamper, "the major problem would be a misevaluation of talent in the football market."
Whatever the cause, Shula is trying to stem the growing tide of criticism from the locker room. Last Friday he gathered his players in a huddle and cautioned them to hold their tongues. "Usually Coach Shula has a good handle on how players talk to the media," Jensen says. "That's something he seems to be losing control of now."
A few extra inches on Sunday and Shula's life would have become a lot worse. With 2:27 remaining, the Falcons had a 20-15 lead and a second-and-one at the Miami 27-yard line. Passing up a 45-yard field goal attempt by Morten Andersen, three times they ran, and three times the Dolphin defense held.
Afterward Shula unwound like a ball of yarn in a cat kennel. He skipped joyously toward the west end zone, stopping to wave to his wife, Mary Anne, who was in her luxury-suite seat. "It was such a tough week on her," Shula said later. "I just wanted to share the happiness with her."
Shula stayed in his dressing room for a long while, recalling Marino's game-winning touchdown pass and glowing over the defensive players' decision to present Olivadotti with a game ball. Outside Mary Anne waited for the most-maligned man in town. "Boy, my coach is tough," she said beaming. "I tell you, that big old jaw just grew."