The P.R. man issues the warning in the corridor on the way to Jimmy Johnson's office: The interview with the Miami Dolphins coach will be a brief one. It is 9:15 on Saturday morning, and Johnson, the p.r. man explains, is not yet fully awake.
Turns out it's easy to get Johnson all wide-eyed and full of life. Just ask him how he has built another speedy, marauding, youthful defense from scratch, as he did when he was coach of the Dallas Cowboys at the start of this decade.
He pops out of his chair and walks to a framed list hanging on his office wall: 5 MOST IMPORTANT CHARACTERISTICS FOR DRAFT CHOICES. The list was compiled by Johnson's staff, and of the five entries—intelligence, work hard, playmaker, gym rat, character—he seems to put the most emphasis on the middle one. What Johnson wants to know, first and foremost, about every potential draftee or free agent is, Does the guy make big plays?
When that question was asked about Louisville comeback Sam Madison before the 1997 draft, for example, the answer was yes. Madison had set the school record for career interceptions, with 16, and the Dolphins selected him in the second round. On Sunday at Pro Player Stadium there was Madison, tormenting Kordell Stewart, twice intercepting the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback in Miami's rain-soaked 21-0 rout of the defending AFC Central champs.
The Dolphins and the Steelers entered the game with two wins apiece over teams that aren't playoff caliber and viewed Sunday's matchup as a reality check. The game was enlightening: We learned that Miami's defense, which has given up a total of 22 points to its first three opponents, is the real tiling, and that Pittsburgh's offense is in real trouble. The Steelers' 14 possessions resulted in 10 punts, three interceptions and a blocked field goal. In his worst outing as a pro, Stewart completed 11 of 35 passes for 82 yards and had three interceptions. When he wasn't throwing the ball too high or too low or into double coverage, his wideouts were dropping it. On fourth-and-22 in the third quarter, Stewart lined up in shotgun formation and pooch-punted to the Dolphins' two-yard line. It was his best play of the day.
"Their defense really showed me something today," said Pittsburgh running back Jerome Betas, whom the Dolphins held to 48 yards on 13 carries. "I mean those guys are quick. But that's a Jimmy Johnson defense for you."
Yes, while his successor in Dallas is out of football and his prot�g�s are floundering in Washington and Chicago, Johnson is getting it done in Miami, where he has not only assembled a terrific young defense but has also taught an old dog a few new tricks. Five days after his 37th birthday, Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino handed off 37 times and threw 22 passes against the Steelers, completing 14 for 113 yards and one touchdown (no interceptions). While less dramatic than the aerial onslaughts that Marino executed during his first 15 seasons in Miami, the current Dolphins scheme has fewer moving parts and less room for error. Karim Abdul-Jabbar rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries; his first-quarter fumble was only the second Miami turnover this season.
These days the fireworks begin when the Dolphins defense takes the field, as the Buffalo Bills' Rob Johnson can attest. Johnson, one of the NFL's most mobile quarterbacks, was sacked eight times in Miami's 13-7 win on Sept. 13. With Madison and fellow corner Terrell Buckley in man-to-man coverage, and human credenzas Tim Bowens and Daryl Gardener occluding the rushing lanes up the middle, the rest of the defense swarms to the ball. The tsunami of big plays that rolled over the Bills conjured memories of—dare we say it?—Johnson's great Dallas defenses. Although he was sacked just once on Sunday, Stewart was pressured and clobbered numerous times.
Nailing Stewart for the sack was 6'6", 265-pound rookie defensive end Lorenzo Bromell. Remember that name. In a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers he astounded his coaches and teammates by bull rushing 340-pound guard Frank Middleton into the lap of Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer. Against the Bills in his first regular-season game, Bromell had two sacks. With Pittsburgh facing third-and-17 midway through the fourth quarter, Bromell bowled over left tackle Will Wolford and pressured Stewart into rushing a throw that slipped out of his hand and traveled all of five feet.
Three sacks in two games isn't bad for a guy who spent two years at Georgia Military College before transferring to Clem-son. Bromell started for the Tigers his senior year but was not invited to the NFL scouting combine last February. Johnson, acting on a tip from Clemson defensive coordinator Reggie Herring, an old friend who had been on his staff at Oklahoma State, selected Bromell in the fourth round after moving up 10 spots in a draft day trade with the Philadelphia Eagles.