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There are some unlikely scenarios in sports today that, even if they were to unfold, would seem almost impossible. The Boston Red Sox with too much pitching, for example. Or the Denver Nuggets scoring only 90 points in a game. Or Lou Holtz admitting he might have some good football players at Notre Dame. Or the Miami Dolphins playing the best defense in the NFL.
Last Saturday night, chatty cornerback Tim McKyer, who spent four years with the San Francisco 49ers before joining the Dolphins in the off-season, pondered the silly notion that he was part of the league's top defensive unit. He was sitting in his hotel room across the highway from Giants Stadium, where Miami would play the New York Jets the next afternoon, when he threw back his head and yelled, "We're a phoenix. Best defense in the league. [Laughter.] Boom! From nowhere to 7-1. Risen from the dead. Everybody in the league's wondering, What's happening down there in Miami? What's McKyer hollering about now?"
Downstairs in a conference room, as he prepared to school his charges one more time before the next day's game, defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti fretted as much as McKyer exulted. In its previous three years under Olivadotti, the Miami defense had ranked 26th, 26th and 24th, respectively, in the league. It was first now, but in the past he had seen the Jets—and every other Tom, Dick and Harry team—run and pass all over his unit. Even now, through the stench of his cigar smoke, Olivadotti could smell something bad, because something bad had happened to his defense almost weekly from 1987 through '89. "I don't like all this attention we're getting," he said. "It's no good for the players."
Then Olivadotti said he was worried about Ken O'Brien, New York's extremely mortal quarterback, who had had some of his best games against Miami. Then he said he was worried about the weather. The forecast called for high winds and a chance of rain.
Hey, Coach, lighten up. Let a little of McKyer rub off on you. Look at what happened on Sunday. Miami solidified its standing among the NFL's elite—and retained a share of the AFC East lead with the Buffalo Bills—by dismantling the Jets 17-3. The Dolphins, who are off to their best start since 1984, won the way they have been winning all year. They ran 18 more plays than the Jets, retaining possession with 35 rushes and the new short-passing game of Dan Marino. Third-string running back Troy Stradford led both teams with 99 combined running and receiving yards. The Dolphins dropped a tentative O'Brien for losses five times, increasing their season total to 35 sacks. Their secondary provided its usual blanket coverage (aided by winds gusting to 27 mph), and O'Brien completed only six passes to his wideouts and threw two interceptions. "Could've played better," McKyer said of the defensive effort. "We played soft a couple of series."
So it has come down to this: the Dolphins criticizing themselves after holding a freewheeling offense like the Jets' to three points. It just goes to show how quickly teams sometimes can turn around in this league. Marino's status has been reduced almost to that of a role player. The Dolphins who participated in an informal poll by The Miami Herald voted fullback Tony Paige, a Plan B pickup last winter, as the team's midseason MVP. Some members of the defense are absolutely unrecognizable. Starting outside linebacker David Griggs, who spent most of last season as a tight end on Miami's developmental squad, had 2½ sacks on Sunday. Nosetackle Shawn Lee, whom the Dolphins acquired for a conditional draft choice in a preseason trade with the Tampa Bay Bucs, forced two fumbles. Another Plan B signee, Cliff Odom, starts at inside linebacker, and a 12th-round pick in the 1989 draft, J.B. Brown, starts with McKyer at cornerback.
Miami has given up 13 fewer points and 140 fewer yards than the New York Giants—who have the second-ranked defense in the NFL—and hasn't allowed an opposing offense to score a touchdown since Oct. 18. The Los Angeles Raiders, who have the third-rated defense in the league, have yielded 343 more yards than the Dolphins and 41 more points.
One more thing: All of these castoffs—Odom, Griggs, Lee, McKyer and Paige, plus backup linebacker E.J. Junior—know what it's like to have nothing, so now they want everything. Don't underestimate that attitude, or the motivational skills of coach Don Shula, in this turnaround. "More than any team I've ever seen, we're hungry," says Junior, who was a Plan B pickup in '89. "We're a bunch of barking dogs chasing that bone. The bone is the Super Bowl."
To understand better why these Dolphins are playing so much better than was expected, let's start from the beginning.
Last February, when the Plan B signing period began, Monte Clark, an old friend of Shula's and a former Miami assistant coach, was vacationing in South Florida. The Dolphin ownership wanted Shula to unload some of his responsibilities, so he added Clark to the staff. As the pro personnel director, Clark started playing catch-up in evaluating the free agents.