This is the second year in Jimmy Johnson's three-year plan to
get the Dolphins into the 1999 Super Bowl, which will be played
in...Miami, naturally. The first year? Johnson finished 8-8
despite losing Dan Marino for three games and most of a fourth,
and despite inheriting a team that had overspent on signing
bonuses and had almost no room to maneuver under the salary cap.

Johnson loaded up on draft choices, which has always been his
style. "I like young players," he says. "They stay healthy, and
they only get better as the year goes on." Half a dozen of his
12 draft picks became starters in '96. Some achieved surprising
success. Middle linebacker Zach Thomas was voted team MVP, only
the second time in the past 14 years that Marino didn't win the
honor. The tailback, fullback and third-down back were all
rookies, and Karim Abdul-Jabbar became the first Dolphin to run
for 1,000 yards in a season since Delvin Williams did it in '78.

Going into Year 2, Johnson knew his secondary needed help. Last
season Miami ranked 24th against the pass; Dallas burned the
Dolphins for 359 yards in the air, and New England for 409. So
the big-money, free-agent pickup was former Seahawks cornerback
Corey Harris, and for insurance, Johnson grabbed a former
Cowboy, free safety George Teague. The rest of the defense?
Youth and speed would take care of that.

Then there's Marino. "The reality of it is I'm 35," he says.
"There's a chance I can play until I'm 40, there's a chance this
may be my last year." So far there's no sign that he's about to
hit the wall, but who knows when or how the end will come? It
came for Jim Kelly in Buffalo last year, leaving only Marino and
John Elway from the Great Quarterback Class of '83. A sturdy
running game will prolong Marino's career. So will a big-league
line, and Miami's is above average. Of course you can't have too
many good receivers, either. Fred Barnett appears to be back
from a knee injury that sidelined him for the first six games
last year. O.J. McDuffie is one of the NFL's unsung clutch
receivers; 50 of his team-leading 74 catches went for first
downs, and 23 of those came on third-down plays. (Only
Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith had more.)

In the first round of the draft, Johnson selected Yatil Green,
who looked like the most serious long-ball threat since the
Duper-Clayton era. But in the first week of training camp, Green
tore ligaments in his knee and was lost for the year. That
seemed to start an injury epidemic. Kirby Dar Dar, the "flier"
on the punt- and kick-coverage units, was lost with a torn knee
ligament on July 14. Four days later Larry Izzo, the wedge
buster, tore his Achilles tendon. Then in the second preseason
game, Thomas went down with a cracked left fibula while covering
a kickoff; he is questionable for the opener.

That's the bad news. The good news is that Johnson continues to
fill out his roster with youth. Two draft-day trades increased
Miami's haul to 14 picks, including sleepers such as Stanford
wideout Brian Manning, a sixth-round pick who looked terrific in
camp. All told, 13 rookies and first-year players made the
53-man roster. You can't question Johnson's record of finding
and developing green talent.

Youthful exuberance abounds, plus, of course, a fair share of
wackos. Tight end Ed Perry, a sixth-rounder from James Madison,
collects rubber bands. His goal is to own his own barber shop.
He gives teammates haircuts for eight dollars. Linebacker Mike
Crawford, a sixth-rounder from Nevada, is a skydiver. During
camp he announced that he would be tough to get rid of. "If they
cut me, I'll stay on as a janitor," he says. "I ain't leaving
this place."

As much as Johnson likes a roster loaded with youth and fire,
even he admits that there are limits. "One guy had a real low
test score," he once said, "so we decided to go back and check
the interviews. In one of them he said he was raised by wolves."

Yes, the AFC East is loaded with wild animals. But Johnson's
crew should have no problem holding its own.


COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS McDuffie has a nose for the first-down marker and plays a key role in Johnson's three-year plan. [O.J. McDuffie in game]

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