It's customary, at the annual Kickoff breakfast held for Miami Dolphins boosters, for the team's top draft choice to address the throng. It's also customary for his words to be few and flavorless. "But that's not really my style," says running back John Avery, a minister's son out of Ole Miss whom Miami selected with the 29th pick. Speaking to a thousand or so Dolfans in Davie, Fla., on July 23, Avery said that as a rookie, "I'm not supposed to know what's going on. But I can tell you this, I won't be standing around scratching my head like Coach Johnson in that Denorex commercial."
This wisecrack brought down the house—and the jaw of Jimmy Johnson, whose expression said, Can you believe this kid? Fortunately for Avery, he has zip to go with his lip. He proved that on Sunday in his NFL preseason debut by going 71 yards for his second touchdown, the deciding score in a 21-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. In pulling away from safety Zack Bronson, the last Niner in pursuit, Avery displayed a burst that was, once again, jaw dropping.
This year more than most, South Florida's best-known dandruff-shampoo pitchman is inclined to be indulgent of a mildly flippant rookie—especially one who ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in February. Johnson goes into his third season as Miami's coach having made the most radical decision of his tenure: to junk a complex air attack in favor of a stripped-down playbook and a balanced offense. He intends to reduce the burden on 36-year-old quarterback Dan Marino by emphasizing the run.
In the past Johnson, like Don Shula before him, paid periodic lip service to the ground game but always leaned on Marino when the going got tough. As a result the Dolphins' offense became one of the league's most predictable, a fact underscored in Miami's first-round playoff loss to the New England Patriots last December. On the second play of the second half, Marino audibled a slant to wideout Lamar Thomas. Patriots linebacker Todd Collins immediately pointed at Thomas and shouted, "Slant! Slant!" He picked off Marino's pass and took it 40 yards for a touchdown.
Johnson had seen enough. After the season he fired longtime offensive coordinator Gary Stevens, known for his eagerness to abandon the run and for his thick play-book, which was as impenetrable as a Thomas Pynchon novel. Stevens's replacement, Kippy Brown, installed a much simpler system designed to reduce mistakes, establish a more physical presence, strike a balance between run and pass, and stay the hell out of third-and-longs.
This may be a watershed in the Marino era. For most of the last 15 years, Miami's ballcarriers have constituted a cavalcade of mediocrity. Sammie Smith, a first-round pick in 1989, was a bust who was traded after three seasons to the Denver Broncos for Bobby Humphrey, who could not even unseat the stumpy, straight-ahead Mark Higgs, who then yielded to Bernie Parmalee, an undrafted free agent who was working two jobs (unloading UPS trucks and toiling in a bowling alley) when the Dolphins signed him in '92.
Leading the charge this season will be Karim Abdul-Jabbar, who supplanted Parmalee in 1996 and whose longest run as a pro has been 29 yards. Abdul-Jabbar lacks exceptional speed but possesses something that matters more: his coach's confidence. "Nobody mentions that Karim led the NFL in touchdowns last year," says Johnson in defense of his starter, who had 16 TDs in '97. "I mean, he's a pretty good back. Not great. Pretty good." This pretty good back had a really bad day in San Francisco, fumbling twice in the first half; the second of those drops scotched a Miami drive deep in 49ers territory.
"Karim will be our singles hitter," Johnson said last Friday. " Avery will be our home run hitter." For a while on Sunday, Johnson's slugger couldn't get out of the batter's box. Unable to find the correct cleats for 3Com Park's slick turf, the 5'9", 190-pound Avery lost his footing a half dozen times and was tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage four times. He was on his third pair of shoes when, in the fourth quarter, he took a handoff from backup quarterback Craig Erickson, slid behind the textbook blocks of left tackle Jeff Buckey and left guard Brent Smith, and engaged his afterburners for that 71-yard touchdown run.
Avery was told at Asheville ( N.C.) High that he was too small to play running back in college. He was told at Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia that he was too small to play running back in the Southeastern Conference. So if his serial pratfalls in his first NFL appearance—a hamstring strain had kept him out of Miami's two previous exhibition games-made some people think he couldn't play, well, what was new? "I'm in the proving-people-wrong business," says Avery. "When people doubt me, I use it as fuel. If I could put it in a blender, I'd drink it."
"Hey, there'll be times when he's knocked back like a pinball," Johnson says, "but you better be careful, 'cause he's liable to go 80 on you." Avery's winning score enabled Johnson to crow five of his favorite words to a reporter as he came off the field: What did I tell you?