As important as Bates has been to the Dolphins' defensive success, he does have talented players to work with. Jimmy Johnson never found a running back to fit his offensive philosophy, but his eye for identifying defensive playmakers provided Miami with a solid foundation. "The Dolphins have the right combination of players," says Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, whose team lost 23-0 to Miami in the season opener. "They have two corners [ Madison and Surtain] who can play a lot of man-for-man press coverage, which frees up the other nine guys to play their defense. They've got two big honkers inside [300-pound tackles Tim Bowens and Daryl Gardener, who will be out recuperating from back surgery for at least another two weeks], two very athletic ends [ Taylor and Kenny Mixon] and a middle linebacker [ Thomas] who's really special."
Three of Miami's best players—Madison, Taylor and 35-year-old defensive end Trace Armstrong—had big games against Buffalo. As part of the Dolphins' eight-man rotation along the line, Armstrong is used primarily in passing situations and stays fresh by appearing in roughly 15 plays a game. Against the Bills he had 3� sacks, giving him an NFL-high 10 for the season. Armstrong has also been helped by the improved play of Taylor, who already has five sacks, including one against Buffalo, after getting only 2� last year. By the end of the 1999 season Taylor was playing at 240 pounds, almost 20 less than his listed playing weight. This year Bates has kept the 6'6" Taylor away from the tight-end side of formations so he can take better advantage of his speed and avoid constant double teams.
Taylor spent the early part of his off-season contemplating his drop in production. Then, while lifting weights with Thomas one day last March, he had a revelation: "I realized that everything I was doing revolved around me wanting to not fail. I was afraid to succeed. I decided I was going to play to win."
Taylor, a third-round draft choice, and Madison, a second-round selection, entered the NFL in 1997 and immediately became known mostly for their trash-talking. Both have toned down their acts, especially Madison, who intercepted 15 passes over the last two years and in '99 started in the Pro Bowl, becoming the first Miami corner to play in the game. He admits that he was "out of control" as a rookie. Never was that more evident than when he joked that he was going to stuff Flutie Flakes, the cereal that Flutie promoted to raise money to battle autism, down Flutie's throat.
Former Dolphin Terrell Buckley, who wasn't shy about running his mouth in his younger days, helped Madison overcome his penchant for yapping. Buckley, now with the Denver Broncos, reminded Madison that his opponents had long memories and that the talking would eventually make him a target around the league. Madison, who has two interceptions this year, got the message. "I have gotten over that," he says. "Besides, when you're talking that much, it gets tiring. When we started playing a lot of man coverage in 1998 and I was running with receivers up and down the field, I didn't feel like talking when I got back to the huddle. I've learned to let my play speak for itself."
Wannstedt is leery of having too much praise heaped on his defensive unit, but his players are quick to point out his role in the defense's success. While coaching Chicago, from 1993 through '98, Wannstedt earned a reputation as a micromanager who made bad personnel decisions and wore down the Bears with grueling practices. Now he delegates more and has an eye on how hard he works his players.
"Dave has changed," says Armstrong, who played two seasons for Wannstedt in Chicago. "We still work hard, but he's more in tune with where the team is mentally and physically, and we don't work just for the sake of working. You're seeing Dave coach the way he wants to. When he was in Chicago, I think he was trying to coach like Jimmy would have coached."
Though the Dolphins are talking less trash and keeping their egos in check, don't assume they aren't enjoying themselves. Thomas and Taylor were two of the last to leave the locker room on Sunday, and as they greeted fans and relatives, Taylor stuck a victory cigar in his mouth and smiled. He wasn't blowing smoke.