The Dolphins have arguably the toughest early schedule in the league, with five of their first six games coming against the Titans, Rams and Jets on the road plus the Bills and the Raiders at home. All five opponents either made the playoffs or jostled for a spot in the final weeks of last season, and three ( Oakland, St. Louis, Tennessee) are strong contenders to reach the Super Bowl. For winning the AFC East in 2000, Miami was "rewarded" with a first-place schedule that turns out to be a high price to pay for success.
Naturally, the Dolphins shrug it all off, and with good reason: Over the past 10 seasons they are a league-best 26-9 in September. "We have a tough schedule, but we're used to playing big games every week," says center Tim Ruddy of the rugged AFC East. However, if the Dolphins come out of those first six games with a losing record, another telltale number will loom: an 8-11 regular-season record in December over the past five years.
"We've been mentally and physically exhausted," wideout Oronde Gadsden says of the late-season dropoff. "We've had some pretty rigorous training camps. We come out of the gate firing on all cylinders, but it takes a toll on people at the end of the year."
The December lineup this season offers little relief, beginning with a home date against Denver (the Broncos will be coming off nine days' rest) and then three games (the Colts, at the 49ers and at the Patriots) in a span of 13 days. In preparation for the long haul, though, second-year coach Dave Wannstedt ran far fewer full-contact drills in camp than his predecessor, Jimmy Johnson, did. At one point in August the players went 13 straight practices without donning full pads. Injuries factored into Wannstedt's decision to tone down workouts (left tackle Brent Smith was the major casualty, tearing the ACL in his left knee during a July 27 full-contact drill), but the team welcomes the change, whatever the reason for it.
"If we can get through those first six games 5-1, or at worst, 4-2," says Gadsden, "that would be a good indicator that things are going the way we planned."
5 Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon have another magical season?
If the Raiders want to reach their first Super Bowl in 18 years, they better pray the answer to that question is yes. For the most indispensable player on any contender this season may be Gannon, a 35-year-old quarterback who seven years ago spent his autumn Sundays building a model train set in his basement while mulling a contract offer from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
As we learned when Gannon went down in the second quarter of a 16-3 loss to Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game last January, Oakland's prospects are poor without him. (Backup Bobby Hoying had the dubious distinction of throwing 224 passes without a touchdown while with the Eagles in 1998 and has thrown only seven passes during the past two seasons.) "You have to watch our film to understand what he means to this offense," coach Jon Gruden says of Gannon, who earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2000. "The guy makes so many plays."
A scrambler without blazing speed and an accurate passer without a Herculean arm, Gannon threw for 3,430 yards and 28 touchdowns with only 11 interceptions last year, ran for 529 yards and was a serious MVP candidate for much of the season. Yet some skeptics wonder whether Gannon can continue to perform at that level, and he understands their trepidation. Asked last week if it's logical to assume he'll be similarly successful this year, Gannon replied, "Not at all. That's a dangerous assumption. You have to approach it like every year's a new year, and you have to earn your completions and your wins."
Don't count Gannon's teammates among the skeptics. "People speculating like that provides extra incentive for him to prove them wrong," says wide receiver Jerry Rice, who signed with the Raiders after 16 record-setting years with San Francisco. Adds Oakland fullback Jon Ritchie, "Talent doesn't disappear from one season to the next. From our perspective Rich is better prepared for this season than he was for last season. If anything, he should be better."