James McKnight wouldn't let go. Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler could wiggle and plead that he wasn't woozy, but McKnight, a Miami wide receiver, would have none of it. He had just watched Oakland Raiders linebacker William Thomas and safety Johnnie Harris smack Fiedler at the end of a six-yard scramble, and the picture wasn't pretty. After Fiedler struggled to get to his feet, McKnight wrapped his arms around the quarterback's chest and motioned toward the sideline for help.
Fiedler tried to break free, but then he settled into McKnight's embrace and scowled. He drew a deep breath, exhaled and, as he admitted later, "got very pissed off." The Dolphins had a third-and-four on their own 26, trailing 15-10, and when Fiedler's next pass fell incomplete with 2:32 left, some in the crowd of 73,404 at Pro Player Stadium began filing toward the exits. Fiedler, however, wasn't ready to throw in the towel. "I was trying to protect Jay," McKnight said. "And he was about to show us that he's a warrior."
When the Dolphins got the ball back at their 20 with 1:41 remaining and no timeouts, Fiedler directed a frantic 10-play drive, capping it with a two-yard scramble into the end zone with five seconds to go to give Miami an 18-15 victory. The drive was especially impressive in light of Fiedler's erratic play over the preceding 58 minutes. He had floated passes into double coverage (and when he had been on target, his receivers had dropped several of those balls). Before that last possession Fiedler had misfired on his previous seven attempts, one an interception that safety Anthony Dorsett had returned 26 yards for the touchdown that had put the Raiders ahead by five points.
Fiedler had made a similar mistake early in Miami's 27-0 AFC divisional playoff loss to Oakland last January, throwing an interception that Raiders cornerback Tory James returned 90 yards for a touchdown, which set the tone for a long afternoon. This day, though, would be different. Fiedler started the final drive with four consecutive completions, each to a different receiver. On fourth-and-three from the Oakland 18, he was flushed out of the pocket but hooked up with wideout Dedric Ward for a nine-yard gain. On the following play Fiedler ran seven yards on a quarterback draw, and after rolling right on a bootleg two plays later, he dived into the end zone a split second before three defenders could get to him.
"The game got away from us, but I had confidence in what we were doing," said Fiedler, who completed 16 of 34 passes for 217 yards with two interceptions and ran for a two-yard score late in the first half. "We've been down before and come back—last year we did it twice—and we knew we could find a way to win this thing."
Miami's passing game is far more sophisticated than it was in 2000, with Fiedler's having gotten comfortable in his second year as a starter. A key reason for Fiedler's newfound confidence is the five days a week he spent during the off-season watching film with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. The two discussed routes they wanted specific receivers to run and plays they wanted to try in certain situations. Those sessions helped convince Fiedler that the Dolphins believed in him, even after the club had pondered trading for Matt Hasselbeck (a Green Bay Packer at the time), showed interest in free agent Gus Frerotte, signed restricted free agent Ray Lucas of the New York Jets and considered drafting Purdue's Drew Brees. "I'm not thinking so much when I go out there," Fiedler says. "Last year I spent half the season in a feeling-out process. Now I know what I'm comfortable with doing."
Says wide receiver Oronde Gadsden, "I think Jay feels that if he throws an incomplete pass now, he won't get pulled. We all feel more confident in the passing game."
Miami's new wideouts have also made life easier for Fiedler. McKnight and Ward, free-agent acquisitions who each have only one full season as a starter, have brought much-needed speed to the position. But rookie Chris Chambers, a second-round draft pick from Wisconsin, is the jewel. Another burner, he sits in the middle of the front row during position meetings, takes copious notes and has a knack for delivering big plays, like his 27-yard reception on the game-winning drive against Oakland.
The addition of that trio makes it difficult for teams to double-cover Gadsden, the Dolphins' best possession receiver. The three also give Gailey confidence to call passes against cornerbacks as talented as Oakland's Charles Woodson and Eric Allen. Although the Raiders' corners permitted only one reception to Chiefs wide receivers in the Raiders' season-opening victory over Kansas City, Fiedler wasn't afraid to go after them. All told, Miami wideouts caught 12 passes for 183 yards. "Those guys did something with the ball when they caught it," said Oakland linebacker Elijah Alexander. "They took five-yard passes and turned them into 15-yard gains."
The Raiders should have seen that coming. In the Dolphins' season-opening upset of the Titans in Tennessee, Fiedler completed 12 of 20 passes, three for at least 30 yards. The Titans didn't have a sack, and the Raiders got only one. Miami's win on Sunday wasn't a thing of beauty, but coach Dave Wannstedt is perfectly willing to play that way. The defense dominated (limiting Oakland to 216 yards and two third-down conversions in 12 attempts), running back Lamar Smith gained 92 yards, and Fiedler made plays when he had to.