One year the Dolphins blamed their late-season fade on intense early-season practices that took away their legs. So now the practices are lighter.
For a while they complained about an inconsistent running game. Then Ricky Williams led the NFL in rushing in 2002, and Miami still missed the postseason. They can talk about the six games that their quarterback, Jay Fiedler, sat out last year with a broken right thumb and how the 2-4 record during that span hurt them dearly, but the season still came down to the last two games, against the Vikings and the Patriots. The Dolphins blew a lead in each game and lost.
"Seems like every year at this time I give you an excuse," middle linebacker Zach Thomas says. "Then I say what has to be done, and we do it, and the next year there's a different excuse. But what they've done this year is pack the team with so much talent that we won't be able to blow it. We're so loaded that there just won't be any excuses."
They all know it. They get the feeling they're playing on some kind of Pro Bowl roster. Las Vegas has made Miami the short-priced AFC team to reach the Super Bowl, even ahead of last year's representative, the Raiders. "It'll just be a shame if we don't make it," tackle Todd Wade says. "This is the most talented team I'll ever play on."
The front office doesn't get a lot of credit, but the Dolphins never seem to lose their stars. The key people get signed. In free agency the imports are always better than the exports. This year, though, they outdid themselves. A team that had good personnel is now bursting with it.
Junior Seau, a Pro Bowl player for 12 of his 13 years in San Diego, is the new weakside linebacker. Thirty-four-year-old legends come cheap: He cost Miami a late-round draft choice. Seau plays a spot that has a lot of coverage responsibilities, but he's coming off a bad ankle sprain last year. "Horrible," he says. "They shot it with painkiller on Saturday and on Sunday. It hurt even standing in the huddle." So, can he still get downfield? "Just watch," he says. And you might even see Seau do something he did best at USC and early on with the Chargers—line up as a down lineman in the nickel defense and rush the passer from the edge. "It's what got me into the NFL," he says.
Strong safety Sammy Knight, 27 years old and a Pro Bowl selection two years ago, was a terrific free-agent pickup. There isn't a scar on him. He's not that speedy, but he'll be playing closer to the line than he was in New Orleans. "This defense allows me to be more aggressive," he says, "which is delightful."
Almost overlooked was the acquisition of free-agent defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina, a classic run-stopper, late of the Rams. Every defense needs one; few have one. "Play the two-gap, stop the run—I've been doing that my whole career," he says.
The Dolphins also brought in a former Pro Bowl quarterback, Brian Griese, as Fiedler's backup. Now Griese is sidelined after injuring his toe in last Friday's preseason game. From the Redskins they snatched the guy who has been the star of training camp, wideout Derrius Thompson. He runs disciplined routes and tears the ball away from defensive backs. "It seems that every day he's grabbing one that nobody thinks he's going to get," center Tim Ruddy says of Thompson.
"I told my guys, 'Believe your eyes,' " offensive coordinator Norv Turner says." Toil saw him. He is what you're watching.' "