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Tough Mudders
Austin Murphy
September 28, 1998
The Dolphins got down and dirty, and beat the Steelers with the kind of defensive playmakers Jimmy Johnson always seems to unearth
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September 28, 1998

Tough Mudders

The Dolphins got down and dirty, and beat the Steelers with the kind of defensive playmakers Jimmy Johnson always seems to unearth

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If the Dolphins have a better pass rusher than Bromell, it is 260-pound Jason Taylor, a '97 third-round draft pick out of Akron whom Johnson believes may be the quickest defensive end in the league. That was Taylor terminating the Steelers' first possession by running Stewart down from behind four yards short of a first down; Taylor knocking left guard Alan Faneca on his duff in the second quarter; and Taylor batting down a Stewart pass later in the second period. "Jason has a kind of Charles Haley body," Johnson says. Haley, of course, earned five Super Bowl rings, the last three while playing for Johnson and the Cowboys.

While on the subject of his old team last Saturday, Johnson reminded his visitor of some of the obscure college players he unearthed while in Dallas. Take Pro Bowl defensive tackle Leon Lett, who was an unknown out of Emporia ( Kans.) State. Johnson liked Lett's combination of size and quickness and made him a seventh-round pick in '91. "Anytime a guy has some height and can run, he's got my attention," says Johnson. "That's what I want."

Johnson's hair may be rigid, but the thinking that goes on beneath it is not. He has long spurned the NFL adage about drafting the best player available. "We identify individuals who fit into our system," Johnson says. By sticking to that strategy, "we avoid wasting a pick on someone we're not that excited about. Plus, a lot of times we can trade down, get an extra pick and still get someone we want" In three drafts with Miami he has parlayed 25 draft choices into 36 selections. It is with the relish of a skilled garage sale scavenger that he makes this observation: "There's some real quality in the middle rounds."

In the bargain bin that was the fifth round of the '96 draft, Johnson took truncated Texas Tech linebacker Zach Thomas. Overlooking Thomas's lack of height—he goes 5' 11", 235 pounds—Johnson focused instead on his nose for the ball. All Thomas did in his first two seasons as a pro was make 329 tackles. He was all over the field again on Sunday, making eight tackles, forcing Stewart into an intentional grounding and stepping in front of wideout Courtney Hawkins for a third-quarter interception that he returned 17 yards for Miami's final touchdown. To celebrate, Thomas fired the ball into the aqua wall behind the end zone. "I didn't want to get fined, so I didn't throw it in the stands," he said. "And I didn't want to do a dance, because I have no rhythm."

For Stewart, whom Thomas spent the afternoon bedeviling, September has been an arrhythmic month. In three games he has completed 42 of 92 passes for 392 yards and two touchdowns, and he has thrown six interceptions. After Sunday's game his quarterback raring had dropped to a league-low 38.0.

What's wrong? What isn't?

While new offensive coordinator Ray Sherman did not replace the system used by his predecessor, Cowboys coach Chan Gailey, he has modified it. Sherman has Stewart throwing shorter passes and running the ball less frequently than in '97, his first season as a full-time starter. Last year Stewart averaged 12.8 yards per completion, and he was the club's second-leading rusher, with 476 yards and 11 touchdowns on 88 carries. This season his average per completion has dropped to 9.3 yards, and he has run for 42 yards and one score on 11 carries. Stewart's gifts are his dazzling quickness and cannon arm, so Sherman's strategy would seem to be counterproductive. Coach Bill Cowher's postgame vow to "take a hard look at everything—everything" suggests that Sherman may get a little more input than usual this week from the boss.

Nevertheless, after Sunday's loss there was neither finger-pointing nor despair in the losers' dressing room. The beaten visitors touched on several basic themes: Hey, we're 2-1. We've gotten off to slow starts before. We'll bounce back. "No panic," said Wolford. "Just disappointment."

And a bit of sheepishness. In the course of a routine bull rush during the fourth quarter, Taylor slid his right hand up to Wolford's face mask. When Taylor took his time removing his hand, Wolford delivered a crisp uppercut to his jaw. The punch dropped Taylor and betrayed the depth of Wolford's frustration. Not only did Wolford get away with it, but Taylor was also flagged on the play for illegal use of hands. Afterward, a grinning Wolford claimed to be unable to recall the incident.

Taylor had played a strong game, and over in the Dolphins' locker room the mention of Wolford's cheap shot riled Taylor. "That's not part of the game," he said. A moment later Taylor flashed the smile of a man who had lost the round but won the fight.

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