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3 Miami Dolphins
Peter King
August 17, 1998
As Jimmy Johnson plots it, the Dolphins will be better grounded, less Marino reliant and ready to showcase the team's homegrown talent
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August 17, 1998

3 Miami Dolphins

As Jimmy Johnson plots it, the Dolphins will be better grounded, less Marino reliant and ready to showcase the team's homegrown talent

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at Indianapolis









at N.Y. Jets


at Jacksonville (Mon.)







at Buffalo




at Carolina


at New England (Mon.)





at Oakland






at Atlanta

Coach Jimmy Johnson has oriented the Dolphins' offense toward the run in the off-season, and he was preaching the gospel of smash-mouth one day in his office when he nodded at the huge fish tank that is its centerpiece. Two new, ferocious-looking fish—spiny, circular, brown-white-and-blue guys—patrolled the waters, waiting for the live-and-let-live fish to emerge from the shelter of sea anemones and coral. Then, Johnson said with some excitement, the monsters would pounce.

"Volitan lionfish," he said, like a proud papa. "Imported from the Philippines. I put a dozen goldfish in the water the other day, and they each ate six. I've had a passive tank before, but I wanted some tougher fish, some real meat eaters." With Johnson, everything is a message. Here it came. "You know why I like 'em? They're beautiful, they're smart and they're aggressive."

The same traits, Johnson hopes, are what he has instilled in the Dolphins in his three drafts with the team. The proof, he knows, is not in the record. Miami is a very un-Johnson-like 16-16 since Johnson came aboard 32 months ago, and he says with some justification that the turnaround has been slowed by the horrendous salary-cap situation he inherited from the final desperate 1995 Don Shula signings. But Johnson isn't without blame here. He was cowed by the looming presence of Dan Marino into keeping a pass-happy offense he hated; Miami would have been significantly better than .500 in the last two years if in 1996 Johnson had built the Dolphins to run. After Miami was held to 162 total yards in a 17-3 wild-card playoff loss to the Patriots last December, Johnson fired longtime offensive coordinator Gary Stevens and replaced him with running backs coach Kippy Brown.

What has the tanned natives getting a little restless from Islamorada to Boca Raton is the failure of Johnson's Dolphins drafts to produce more-spectacular results. In Johnson's first three years (1989-91) in the Dallas war room, the Cowboys harvested stars like Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Erik Williams and Leon Lett, as well as solid starters Daryl Johnston, Mark Stepnoski, Russell Maryland, Tony Tolbert and Larry Brown. The run of three Dallas Super Bowls in four years began in 1992.

No one around Miami—except Johnson, maybe—is expecting a Super Bowl anytime soon, and the dream of Miami fans that he would build a super team around Marino now seems remote. Johnson hit home runs in Dallas. He definitely has not struck out in Miami, but his hits have been doubles and singles. With the Dolphins, remember, he has had nothing like the Herschel Walker train robbery that helped the Cowboys get so good so fast. In Dallas, Aikman and Maryland were the first overall draft choices. In Miami, Johnson's first picks have been, in order, 20th, 15th and 29th overall; in '96, he had one pick in the top 75. The only borderline All-Pros from Johnson's first two drafts have been linebacker Zach Thomas and pass rusher Jason Taylor, who came in the third round last year and immediately became the front-seven player with the most impact.

"If you take away Troy and Emmitt, I think our first three drafts here are comparable to our first three in Dallas," Johnson says. "We got Troy because we had the first pick, and Emmitt [No. 17 overall] might be one of those once-in-a-lifetime picks. But after that most of the players we took, even the ones who started and made an impact, are the type we've drafted here. Most of those Cowboys didn't get recognized until we won Super Bowls. For instance, I think it will prove out that if we win, Stanley Pritchett's about the same as Daryl Johnston. But how do you know yet? This year, [cornerback] Patrick Surtain might be the best pick we've made here. Kenny Mixon's already our best every-down defensive end, and Lorenzo Bromell's close. I know they'll be good players. They need time."

This is an impatient business, though. "They obviously brought Coach Johnson to Miami because he's a draft guru," says Surtain, taken 44th overall out of Southern Miss. "The guys he picks, he wants to play. Being a rookie, I like that. Whether you're a rookie free agent or a 10-year vet, he's going to play the guy he thinks is best."

The Dolphins need Johnson to be right on the Surtains and the Mixons, preferably before Marino is fitted for his bust in Canton. "We weren't far away last year, when we ran an offense I didn't like, and we had the worst run of injuries in a year since I've been coaching," Johnson said. "We were 7-7 coming down the stretch, and if we've improved as much as I think we have, we're going to be pretty good."

They had better be. There's something about a two-season .500 record while having Dan Marino's arm and Jimmy Johnson's head on the same team that just doesn't compute.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]