On draft day new Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson gambled in the first round on a lazy underachiever, Baylor defensive tackle Daryl Gardener. "If you play it safe," Johnson said that April night, "you stagnate in this league. Maybe he'll be a bust, but if we hit it, we'll hit it big."
After Miami's first preseason game, Johnson waived middle linebacker Jack Del Rio, an 11-year veteran he had signed as a free agent only two months earlier. As the anchor of his defense, Johnson installed fifth-round draft pick Zach Thomas, all 5'11", 230 pounds of him. "Zach's better," Johnson said bluntly. "He'll start."
When veteran running back Irving Spikes popped his right hamstring two days before Sunday's season opener against the New England Patriots at Pro Player Park, Johnson figured he would rely on three middle-round rookies—halfback Karim Abdul-Jabbar, fullback Stanley Pritchett and third-down back Jerrif McPhail—in the backfield behind quarterback Dan Marino. "We'll be limited because of their inexperience," Johnson said, "but they're all going to play eventually. Why not now?"
In the days leading up to the game Johnson told his players four things: They would establish a running game and not use Marino as the Hall of Fame crutch he has been too many times during his 14 years in Miami. They would have fewer turnovers than New England. They would sack Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe. And they would frustrate running back Curtis Martin.
Johnson must have tarot cards hidden in his lacquered hair, because he couldn't have been more prescient. In the Dolphins' 24-10 victory on Sunday, Gardener and Thomas each sacked Bledsoe once, and Thomas finished with a game-high nine tackles. All told, Miami sacked Bledsoe four times and held Martin to 23 yards on 11 carries. Abdul-Jabbar, who was so anonymous before Sunday that the Dolphins' outfitters spelled the name ADBUL-JABBAR on his jersey, rushed for 115 yards, and the rookie backfield trio combined for nine receptions good for 100 yards. Turnovers? Miami won that battle 4-1. All things considered, the Dolphins' first game under a coach other than Don Shula since the Nixon Administration might have been their best performance in the 1990s. No less a figure than Marino, the stat king who threw for only 176 yards, noticed. After Johnson finished his postgame remarks in the locker room, Marino tossed a game ball in his direction. "This was a team win," Marino said. "Here's to the guy who helped put it together."
It was the culmination of an anxious three days for Johnson, who was returning to the sidelines after a two-year hiatus. "I don't know that I've ever been so excited for a game," he said last Saturday. A day earlier he showed that he hadn't lost much off his psychological curveball from his Super Bowl days with the Dallas Cowboys. For the second time in three days, practice at the Dolphins' training facility in Davie, Fla., hadn't gone well. Whereas during Wednesday's practice Johnson thought the Dolphins had been lackadaisical and careless, now he saw a team trying too hard, with mistakes flowing from effort. He gathered the Dolphins for a quick talk. It would be one of the last times he would address his team before Sunday's game, so he knew it had to be right. "Guys, it seems like everybody was pressing so hard out here today," Johnson said. "Everybody was straining, trying extra hard. Now, if I laid a two-by-four on the ground and told you to walk across it, you'd all be fine. But if I took that same board and put it 10 feet up in the air, you'd all be scared. You'd be saying, 'Oh, no, I'm gonna fall!' What I'm trying to tell you is, don't be afraid to fall. You had to be a great player to get to this level, and so I know you can do it. Just go out there Sunday and get after their ass. You'll be fine.
"You know, a few years ago I was going through a bad time. I had a bunch of things going on in my life that just made me miserable. And so my girlfriend, Rhonda, got exasperated with me and tried to snap me out of it. She said, 'Jimmy, relax! They can kill you, but they can't eat you!' "
The players roared.
"And to this day, I have no idea what she meant!"
Everyone roared again.