It was a classy act in garbage time. With 1:13 left in Sunday night's game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Miami Dolphins. Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer walked to the line of scrimmage, looked over at Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson and pointed down at the turf of Houlihan Stadium.
Tampa Bay, leading 31-21, had the ball on the Miami 14. By motioning toward the ground, Dilfer said later, he wasn't pointing out the direction in which the Dolphins are headed. "I was letting Jimmy know I was going to take a knee," Dilfer explained. "Those guys coached their butts off. We didn't need to run up the score."
So it has come to this: Dilfer taking pity on Johnson, the erstwhile sad-sack signal-caller going out of his way to preserve the dignity of the coach who had ripped him only 20 months earlier. Why not? The 4-0 Bucs are making the implausible seem routine. There was Dilfer, a year removed from a 35.6 quarterback rating, dissecting the Dolphins. When he wasn't watching second-year fullback Mike Alstott gash Miami's interior line—Alstott, who had 95 yards on 18 carries, is John Riggins without the Mohawk—Dilfer was completing 18 of 24 passes for 248 yards and four touchdowns. A first-quarter interception by Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, who made a stellar play by deflecting the ball before catching it, was the first pick of a Dilfer pass this season and one of two in-completions Dilfer had in the first half.
Afterward, as he commended the Bucs and touched grimly on the inadequacies of his own 2-2 team, the normally larger-than-life Johnson seemed deflated. Who could blame him if, for the briefest of moments, he pondered what might have been? Less than two years ago, both of these franchises sought his services. He chose Miami, citing Dilfer—"a guy I don't have faith in" were his words—as one reason to avoid Tampa Bay.
So the Bucs interviewed Tony Dungy, an NFL assistant for the previous 15 years. Dungy, who is black, had interviewed for head jobs before. The word was, he was too cerebral. (Nor, it seems, did the color of his skin work in his favor.) Having concluded that intelligence in a coach might be a good thing, Tampa Bay in January 1996 hired Dungy, who in little more than one season has transformed one of the losingest franchises in pro sports into the new scourge of the NFC. Circle it on your calendar: Oct. 5, Buccaneers versus Packers at Lambeau Field. For the first time in memory, the Battle of the Bays will mean something.
Don't be deceived by the 10-10 records Dungy and Johnson took out of Sunday's game. While Miami has lost live of its last nine outings, Tampa Bay has won nine of its last 11. What we had on Sunday was one handsomely remodeled house and another that is nowhere near ready to shed its PARDON OUR APPEARANCE sign.
Don't despair, Dolphins. Here, free of charge, is a blueprint for success from your NFL neighbors to the northwest.
HAVE FAITH IN YOUR QUARTERBACK
What is Johnson up to? After pointing to Dan Marino as one of the primary reasons he chose Miami over Tampa Bay, he has, perversely, taken a can of spray paint to the Marino legend. He has discussed—heresy of heresies—the possibility of benching Marino in favor of Craig Erickson, and last Thursday, when asked if Marino still had the old magic, offered this tepid endorsement: "He's not the quarterback that he used to be; I think everybody knows that. But we can still win games with Dan. Is he going to play great every week? Probably not. But we can still win with him. So we go with what we got."
We go with what we got? Should Babe Laufenberg consider coming out of retirement?