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The NFL star in the BMW pulled up to a stoplight on Palm Island Road, where an unkempt man with a scraggly beard was holding a cardboard sign that read, hungry, need $ for food. The athlete, who was on his way to work on a Tuesday morning in October, lowered his tinted window and handed the grateful man a $100 bill. � "Hey!" the man said, "you're Zach Thomas." � "That's right," the Miami Dolphins' AllPro middle linebacker replied. � "Listen, brother. You hang in there." � The Dolphins were 0--6 at the time--Brother, can you spare a victory?--and Thomas drove off wondering if he'd entered a Seinfeld-like parallel universe. Miami and the San Francisco 49ers, two of the NFL's winningest franchises since 1970 (box, page 88), have plummeted to the bottom of the league.
Twenty years ago at Stanford Stadium, with quarterbacks Joe Montana and Dan Marino in starring roles, the 49ers defeated the Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX. On Sunday, 30 miles farther north on U.S. 101 at San Francisco's aptly renamed Monster Park, in a meeting of 1--9 teams, Miami prevailed over the Niners 24--17.
"This was a game I felt we had a chance to win, but, obviously, we didn't," added coach Dennis Erickson. "It was just a matter of who was going to screw it up--us or them. Lo and behold, it was us."
As is the case in Miami, fans spoiled by decades of success in San Francisco have been jolted by their home team's precipitous fall. Owners of a record-tying five Lombardi Trophies, the Niners were the league's winningest team in the 1980s and '90s. As recently as two years ago they won the NFC West--their 14th division title in 22 years. Now cynicism is running rampant in the City by the Bay, where boobirds dot an increasingly empty stadium and parsimonious owner John York is less popular than Karl Rove.
The Dolphins, who narrowly missed the playoffs the past two years, are in the midst of their first losing season since 1988, and only their second since '76. Coach Dave Wannstedt resigned on Nov. 9, two days after Miami's 24--23 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals, extending a run of premature exits from the club this season. Those include Marino's departure after a three-week stint as team vice president last January and 27-year-old star running back Ricky Williams's sudden retirement a week before training camp started.
"You can say we got dealt a bad hand, but it's more like people thought we had a good hand--and we were just bluffing," Thomas said last Saturday. "I used to get upset every year when we'd lose in the first or second round of the playoffs, but I'd take that any day over what we're going through now. It's embarrassing."
The Dolphins were a grumpy bunch on Sunday, having been living out of suitcases for nine days. The NFL had honored a request from Wannstedt to schedule the team's two West Coast games in Seattle and San Francisco on back-to-back Sundays so the club would have to make only one cross-country trip. That ticked off many of the players and their families. What's more, a Thanksgiving dinner of crab cakes and steak at a Union Square restaurant was blamed by AllPro defensive end Jason Taylor for the food poisoning that left him vomiting for two days afterward. On Sunday, Taylor took out his anger on the 49ers' overmatched offensive line and quarterback Tim Rattay, getting three of the Dolphins' eight sacks. The last takedown forced a fumble that linebacker Derrick Pope scooped up and carried one yard for the touchdown that put Miami on top 24--10 with 3:10 remaining.
Unlike the 49ers' impotent offense, which produced only a 19-yard Todd Peterson field goal and a garbage-time touchdown with 37 seconds left, the Dolphins' attack showed some semblance of spunk. Already playing with an extremely sore lower back and buttocks, quarterback A.J. Feeley (17 of 33, 159 yards, two touchdowns) shook off a dislocated middle finger on his passing hand six minutes into the first quarter and looped a 25-yard scoring pass to wideout Chris Chambers for the game's first points. "I don't know how I did that," Feeley said afterward. "I couldn't even feel the ball." After San Francisco had taken a 10--7 lead on middle linebacker Derek Smith's 46-yard fumble return on the second play of the fourth quarter, Feeley coolly zipped a 15-yard touchdown toss to tight end Randy McMichael for the go-ahead score.
Such idyllic moments give rise to the notion among the Dolphins that they are mere victims of circumstance, that they are only a few tweaks of the roster from returning to the ranks of the contending. It is true that they have endured an unseemly share of bad breaks, from Williams's shocking defection in July to the four hurricanes that rattled families and altered practice and game schedules in August and September to the slew of players lost to season-ending injuries (including defensive tackles Tim Bowens and Larry Chester, linebacker Junior Seau and wideout David Boston). "I labeled it the Perfect Storm," Wannstedt said last Saturday from his Naples, Fla., home. "It was so bizarre, and we got hit from so many angles. It's almost as if we never got started."