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.
November 19, 1990
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.
Right away Clark told Shula that Miami had to have Paige, a 5'10", 235-pound fullback, whom the run-and-shoot Detroit Lions had left unprotected because big backs are unnecessary in that offense. "And after looking at film, I felt we had to get some unselfish, powerful blocking," says Clark. Paige was already being recruited by the Bears when the Dolphins called. But Clark went into a full-court press. Paige stayed at Clark's house for two nights, and they played golf together. At the end of Paige's visit, Miami quarterback coach Gary Stevens asked Paige whether he wanted to play for Chicago or catch 50 passes from Marino. "I'm so glad I went down and played golf with Monte Clark," says Paige now.
Feeling that the Dolphins needed more inside muscle to stop opposing rushers, Clark also signed Odom, who had been left unprotected by the Indianapolis Colts. Then in April, on the first day of the draft, Shula selected Texas A&M tackle Richmond Webb in the first round and Iowa State guard Keith Sims in the second. They would play side by side on the left side of the offensive line for all but seven plays during the preseason.
On the second day of the draft, the Dolphins traded two draft picks to San Francisco for McKyer. "We needed a good coverage corner," said Shula after making the deal, which was viewed by some in the league as a risky move. The 49ers had suspended McKyer last season for insubordination after he had a run-in with coach George Seifert, who McKyer says kept him on the sideline despite McKyer's insistence that he was ready to return from a groin injury. "I'm just different," McKyer says. "But I played hard for the 49ers. I wasn't a barroom brawler."
In training camp, starting offensive linemen Roy Foster and Jeff Dellenbach were holdouts in contract disputes, forcing Shula to go with his youngest line ever: Webb, Sims, second-year center Jeff Uhlenhake, third-year guard Harry Galbreath and fourth-year tackle Mark Dennis. Average age: 24. Junior and Rick Graf were supposed to compete for the strongside outside linebacker job, but Graf hurt his knee and Junior was playing lackadaisically, so the Dolphins put Griggs up against Junior. Griggs won the job.
Early on, McKyer called together the defensive players and ripped into their attitude. "I just didn't see the things I was used to seeing with a world championship team," he says. "I saw disarray. So I told them, 'If you're satisfied with just being in the NFL and not being a world champion, then you're just another player, no matter how good you are.' "
Some veterans who didn't like being admonished by a newcomer grumbled. But, as McKyer says, "I think at times here they had an every-man-for-himself attitude. It became a 'we' attitude."
In the first three weeks of the season, Miami overcame a poor start by Marino in the opener to beat the Patriots in the final two minutes, held the Buffalo Bills to 44 yards rushing in a 30-7 victory and then lost convincingly to the Giants. Since then, the Dolphins have won six straight, and in those 24 quarters they haven't allowed a rushing TD. They haven't been giving up deep passes, either.
Odom, All-Pro inside linebacker John Offerdahl and a combination of Lee and third-round draft pick Alfred Oglesby at nosetackle are strong enough to shut down the inside rushing game. When opponents go to the air, the Miami cornerbacks are maintaining their coverage so long that quarterbacks have to scramble and look for second and third receivers. And because they don't have to help the corners with their coverage of wide receivers, safeties Jarvis Williams and Louis Oliver can roam the field and create other headaches for offenses. The Dolphins don't blitz much, so the key to putting pressure on the passer is to make him take longer to throw.
"I'm not just saying this because I'm a cornerback," says McKyer. "But I believe the teams with the best corners win the Super Bowl. It just gives your defense the time to do so many more things when the people on the perimeter are not giving up big plays."
As the Jets prepared for last week's game, they were shocked to see how well the Dolphin defense was playing. "When we broke down their film for the last three games," said New York coach Bruce Coslet on Friday, "there wasn't one snap against their goal line defense. And those teams had been in the red zone [inside the Miami 20-yard line] on six plays. Six plays in three games. That's unbelievable. They're not doing a damn thing different than they were last year. They're just doing it better, with better players."
On Sunday, the sun broke through an overcast sky above Giants Stadium by midmorning, but the wind was biting on the field. It was a day fit for neither man nor Marino, which was fine with the Dolphins. This season's run-pass ratio—49% to 51%—is Miami's most balanced of the Marino era. "We love balance," Shula had said before the season.
The Jets' rookie corners, Tony Stargell and Don Odegard, were exposed early by Marino, who beat them with passes to old reliable wideouts Mark Clayton and Mark Duper. In the first 30 minutes New York completed one pass against a Dolphin cornerback, and the half ended 3-3.
On the first possession of the third quarter, Miami punted from the Jet 41, and Kerry Glenn of the Dolphins knocked the Jets' James Hasty into the path of the punt. The ball hit Hasty on the foot at the Jet 17, and Greg Baty recovered for the Dolphins at the six. Two plays later Marino drilled a four-yard touchdown pass to Paige for a 10-3 Miami lead. Paige, who had 57 receptions in six seasons with the Jets and the Lions, leads the Dolphins with 30 catches, in addition to being their best blocker out of the backfield. Early in the fourth quarter, Marc Logan, who shares the fullback duties with Paige, burrowed the last yard for the touchdown that completed the scoring.
Although Marino's stats aren't as impressive as they have been in seasons past—on Sunday he completed 21 of 36 passes for 192 yards—the Dolphins' new diversity on offense might be making him more of a threat. "He's not having to carry the load by himself by trying to throw the ball up-field," said Jet linebacker Kyle Clifton after the game. "It makes him tougher, because he can pick and choose and put them in the best situation to win."
So, could this be the Year of the Fish? The Dolphins have a slight schedule advantage over Buffalo in the battle for the AFC East title and a possible home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Miami's toughest remaining games are against the Raiders this Monday night, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Redskins, while Buffalo still has the Houston Oilers, the Eagles, the Giants and the Redskins. The Bills-Dolphins rematch isn't until Dec. 23—in Buffalo. "We haven't won a bad-weather game since I've been here," says Olivadotti.
Relax, Coach. This year, that might not matter.