- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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This was traditionally one of the most ferociously competitive divisions in football, but now it's a two-tiered society. The Bills, the Jets and Colts are the have-nots. Miami is the aristocracy. But this is the year the NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS join the upper crust. All the signs are there.
Sign No. 1—Happiness. Everyone's signed: rookies, guys who'd played out options, prominent starters. And this is a team that usually lets its productive veterans drift away, e.g., Shelby Jordan, Mike Haynes, Russ Francis, Don Hasselbeck, Leon Gray. What's more, the Patriots got up the dough to remove fullback Craig James from the USFL, which also supplied them with quarterback Tom Ramsey.
Sign No. 2—The Steinberg cycle. Dick Steinberg was a scout for the Patriots in the Chuck Fairbanks era, when New England went from nowhere to the playoffs as Steinberg came up with a heavy load of talent. Then he moved to the Rams as director of college scouting, and three years later they were in the Super Bowl. He has been back with the Patriots as chief scout for three years now, and the talent influx is ready to take hold. They have players—lots of them.
Sign No. 3—The defense is coming on. It was young last year. Seven of the starting 11 were in their first or second year, but the defense held opponents to seven points or less five times in the last nine games. In Rod Rust, a quiet, 56-year-old Iowan, the Patriots have one of the game's finest defensive coaches. Andre Tippett can stand alongside the superstar outside linebackers in the NFL; Raymond Clayborn's a big league cornerback. If the line comes on, the Pats' defense will be formidable. A lot depends on left end Kenneth Sims, the No. 1 draft choice in the NFL in '82. In two seasons he has done zip.
Head coach Ron Meyer's offense, which was largely hunt and peck last year—find something that works and stick with it—now has settled into a one-back power concept: Bang away behind one of pro football's more massive lines. The Pats can come at you with an almost inexhaustible supply of backs—James, Tony Collins, Robert Weathers and Mosi Tatupu, the most underrated back in the NFL. Put Tatupu in an offense that would feature him, and he'd routinely crank out 1,000-yard seasons.
Meyer cannot escape his SMU upbringing. He's happiest when the runners (such as ex-Mustang James) are doing the work, and a big key this year is center Pete Brock, coming back from two knee operations. But the air game, with wideout Irving Fryar, the NFL's No. 1 draft pick, taking the heat off Stanley Morgan, could be effective. The Pats were driving for a playoff spot last year until quarterback Steve Grogan went down with a broken left fibula in game No. 12. Kicking was a major problem, but Meyer feels he's solved it with a trade for the Eagles' Tony Franklin.
These should be happy days for MIAMI DOLPHINS coach Don Shula. In the off-season he signed a three-year contract for a reported $2.4 million. In 1987 the Dolphins should be in their new stadium, and Shula's excited about the prospect. No Dolphin has been lost to the USFL, and in Dan Marino Shula has a QB to build a future around. But there are problems.
The toughness that Shula has always liked eroded a bit last year. The running game wasn't consistent. Toward the end of the season the Dolphins had trouble stopping the run. In the last four games, counting the playoffs, three enemy runners went for over 100 yards. Many of the problems were hidden behind the glitter and flash of Marino throwing the deep one to the breathtakingly fast Mark Duper, but then Marino missed two games at the end of the season. When he came back for the playoffs, the rust showed, and the Dolphins lost to Seattle.
In the preseason this year Marino went down again with a broken index finger on his throwing hand, and Shula worried about all the snaps his young quarterback was missing; Marino is expected to be fit for the opening game of the regular season. The Dolphins were saddened by the death of halfback David Overstreet in a car accident in June—he was the third Miami player to die in three years. Overstreet was the closest thing to a breakaway back Miami had, and now Shula's looking to replace him, either through a trade or with a sleeper, 20-year-old rookie David Nelson from Heidelberg College, a 230-pounder who can run a 4.58 40.
The defense isn't in great shape, either. The keynote linebacker, A.J. Duhe, is recovering from knee and shoulder surgery and is still out. Two more linebackers, Earnie Rhone and Bob Brudzinski, pulled hamstrings on the first day of camp. Top draft pick Jackie Shipp (Oklahoma) will help fill the gap there, and the second-round choice, Jay Brophy (Miami), a tough guy with limited speed, probably will, too. But nobody can fill Duhe's vital double-duty role of linebacker and down lineman. And everyone's waiting to see what the Dolphin defense will look like with Bill Arnsparger gone (to LSU as head coach) and Chuck Studley in control.