Off And Running Coach Jimmy Johnson hopes that rookie back John Avery will, at Last, give the dolphins the ground game they need to be championship contenders

August 30, 1998

It's customary, at the annual Kickoff breakfast held for Miami
Dolphins boosters, for the team's top draft choice to address
the throng. It's also customary for his words to be few and
flavorless. "But that's not really my style," says running back
John Avery, a minister's son out of Ole Miss whom Miami selected
with the 29th pick. Speaking to a thousand or so Dolfans in
Davie, Fla., on July 23, Avery said that as a rookie, "I'm not
supposed to know what's going on. But I can tell you this, I
won't be standing around scratching my head like Coach Johnson
in that Denorex commercial."

This wisecrack brought down the house--and the jaw of Jimmy
Johnson, whose expression said, Can you believe this kid?
Fortunately for Avery, he has zip to go with his lip. He proved
that on Sunday in his NFL preseason debut by going 71 yards for
his second touchdown, the deciding score in a 21-20 victory over
the San Francisco 49ers. In pulling away from safety Zack
Bronson, the last Niner in pursuit, Avery displayed a burst that
was, once again, jaw dropping.

This year more than most, South Florida's best-known
dandruff-shampoo pitchman is inclined to be indulgent of a
mildly flippant rookie--especially one who ran a 4.38-second
40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in February. Johnson
goes into his third season as Miami's coach having made the most
radical decision of his tenure: to junk a complex air attack in
favor of a stripped-down playbook and a balanced offense. He
intends to reduce the burden on 36-year-old quarterback Dan
Marino by emphasizing the run.

In the past Johnson, like Don Shula before him, paid periodic
lip service to the ground game but always leaned on Marino when
the going got tough. As a result the Dolphins' offense became
one of the league's most predictable, a fact underscored in
Miami's first-round playoff loss to the New England Patriots
last December. On the second play of the second half, Marino
audibled a slant to wideout Lamar Thomas. Patriots linebacker
Todd Collins immediately pointed at Thomas and shouted, "Slant!
Slant!" He picked off Marino's pass and took it 40 yards for a
touchdown.

Johnson had seen enough. After the season he fired longtime
offensive coordinator Gary Stevens, known for his eagerness to
abandon the run and for his thick playbook, which was as
impenetrable as a Thomas Pynchon novel. Stevens's replacement,
Kippy Brown, installed a much simpler system designed to reduce
mistakes, establish a more physical presence, strike a balance
between run and pass, and stay the hell out of third-and-longs.

This may be a watershed in the Marino era. For most of the last
15 years, Miami's ballcarriers have constituted a cavalcade of
mediocrity. Sammie Smith, a first-round pick in 1989, was a bust
who was traded after three seasons to the Denver Broncos for
Bobby Humphrey, who could not even unseat the stumpy,
straight-ahead Mark Higgs, who then yielded to Bernie Parmalee,
an undrafted free agent who was working two jobs (unloading UPS
trucks and toiling in a bowling alley) when the Dolphins signed
him in '92.

Leading the charge this season will be Karim Abdul-Jabbar, who
supplanted Parmalee in 1996 and whose longest run as a pro has
been 29 yards. Abdul-Jabbar lacks exceptional speed but
possesses something that matters more: his coach's confidence.
"Nobody mentions that Karim led the NFL in touchdowns last
year," says Johnson in defense of his starter, who had 16 TDs in
'97. "I mean, he's a pretty good back. Not great. Pretty good."
This pretty good back had a really bad day in San Francisco,
fumbling twice in the first half; the second of those drops
scotched a Miami drive deep in 49ers territory.

"Karim will be our singles hitter," Johnson said last Friday.
"Avery will be our home run hitter." For a while on Sunday,
Johnson's slugger couldn't get out of the batter's box. Unable
to find the correct cleats for 3Com Park's slick turf, the 5'9",
190-pound Avery lost his footing a half dozen times and was
tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage four times. He was on
his third pair of shoes when, in the fourth quarter, he took a
handoff from backup quarterback Craig Erickson, slid behind the
textbook blocks of left tackle Jeff Buckey and left guard Brent
Smith, and engaged his afterburners for that 71-yard touchdown
run.

Avery was told at Asheville (N.C.) High that he was too small to
play running back in college. He was told at Northwest
Mississippi Community College in Senatobia that he was too small
to play running back in the Southeastern Conference. So if his
serial pratfalls in his first NFL appearance--a hamstring strain
had kept him out of Miami's two previous exhibition games--made
some people think he couldn't play, well, what was new? "I'm in
the proving-people-wrong business," says Avery. "When people
doubt me, I use it as fuel. If I could put it in a blender, I'd
drink it."

"Hey, there'll be times when he's knocked back like a pinball,"
Johnson says, "but you better be careful, 'cause he's liable to
go 80 on you." Avery's winning score enabled Johnson to crow
five of his favorite words to a reporter as he came off the
field: What did I tell you?

"Did he score in the first half?" That rhetorical question was
posed after the game by Chris Doleman, a 49ers defensive end.
Doleman's point: Avery scored his two touchdowns (his other was
a two-yard plunge in the third quarter) against the scrubs.
While going up against the San Francisco first team, Miami
rushed for a scant 21 yards before intermission. "Jimmy's trying
to go back to that old Dallas smashmouth style," said Niners
inside linebacker Winfred Tubbs, "but we were geeked up to stop
'em."

Indeed, in his third year in Miami, Johnson has done what he did
in his third year as coach of the Dallas Cowboys: scrapped a
predictable, pass-happy offense for a simpler one. The
difference is that in Dallas, Johnson had Emmitt Smith running
behind Kevin Gogan, Nate Newton, Mark Stepnoski and Erik
Williams--offensive linemen with the temperaments of Dobermans.
While the Dolphins' offensive linemen range from competent to
very good, they aren't known for their surliness.

The exception is Kevin Donnalley, a 6'5", 305-pound right guard
who was signed away from the Tennessee Oilers in the off-season
and of whom Johnson says, "He doesn't hit after the whistle so
much as he hits while the whistle's being blown." Johnson's
advice to opposing defenders--"Don't stand around the pile,
because Kevin's on his way"--came too late for Darnell Walker, a
49ers cornerback, whom Donnalley creamed with a borderline-cheap
downfield block on Sunday.

Will Donnalley's orneriness prove contagious? Can this line, so
accustomed to pass-blocking, transform itself into a capable
run-blocking unit? Until the game in San Francisco, the signs
were good. Miami's first unit ran well in victories over the
Washington Redskins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The latter
game ended with Bucs Pro Bowl defensive tackle Warren Sapp
screaming at Larry Beightol, Miami's offensive line coach. Sapp
was yapping that several Dolphins had tried to take him out at
the knees. Johnson saw Sapp's anger as a good sign.

What's not in question is that the Miami locker room is a
happier place. Marino, who has looked extremely sharp, is high
on Brown's system. Having watched fellow class of '83
quarterback John Elway ride running back Terrell Davis to a
Super Bowl title last season, Marino is willing to give it a
shot. His receivers are happy because they are required to do
far less reading of defenses on the run, which means fewer blown
routes, which means fewer opportunities for Marino to scowl and
scream at them on national TV. The hogs are happy because with
fewer audibles, they can concentrate on their assignments and
the snap counts. The backs are happy because for the first time
in almost two decades, they are not second-class citizens in the
offense.

Skeptics say this isn't the first time they have heard promises
of a balanced Dolphins attack. They'll believe it when they see
Johnson stick with it for an entire year. But, says Brown,
"that's going to happen. We're past the point of no return."

The Dolphins are, as one of their players might say, in the
business of proving people wrong.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Cut above Once he found the right cleats, Avery stepped up against the Niners. [John Avery with football eluding defender as Dan Marino watches] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Short order Abdul-Jabbar, who led the league in 1997 with 16 TDs, will continue to grind out yardage while Avery tries to go long. [Karim Abdul-Jabbar with football in game] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Passing out Marino has looked sharp in Miami's new streamlined attack, which will put less of a burden on his 36-year-old arm. [Dan Marino passing in game]

By paying lip service to the run, Miami's offense had become one
of the league's most predictable.

"When people doubt me, I use it as fuel," Avery says. "If I
could put it in a blender, I'd drink it."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)