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Taming the Beast The Dolphins may play boring football, but they're making an exciting title run in the ferocious AFC East

Dec. 11, 2000
Dec. 11, 2000

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Dec. 11, 2000

Taming the Beast The Dolphins may play boring football, but they're making an exciting title run in the ferocious AFC East

Spinning, spinning, spinning inside a neon-green circle, Jay
Fiedler surveyed the mass of humanity around him and searched for
his mom and dad. This wasn't a dream or a hallucination; it was
merely the surreal aftermath of the Miami Dolphins' emphatic 33-6
victory over the Bills in Buffalo on Sunday. As Fiedler, the
Dolphins' quarterback, emerged from a tunnel leading to the
players' parking lot outside Ralph Wilson Stadium, he was
engulfed by autograph seekers, bundled-up visitors from South
Florida and, finally, a half-dozen stadium security guards in
reflective-green jackets--everyone but Donna and Ken Fiedler, who,
unbeknownst to their son, were 50 yards behind him.

This is an article from the Dec. 11, 2000 issue Original Layout

The rest of the AFC East can relate to the elder Fiedlers, for
right now their son has Miami out in front in its run for its
first division crown since 1994. In the season following the
dissolution of the four-year marriage of necessity between Jimmy
Johnson and Dan Marino, the Dolphins (10-3) have taken charge of
football's most demanding division, with the New York Jets (9-4)
in hot pursuit. The unsexy partnership of retread coach Dave
Wannstedt and cast-off quarterback Fiedler has created a team
hell-bent on boring its opponents into submission. "Everyone on
our offense would love to open things up and show what we can
do," says Fiedler, who confounded the weary Bills by completing
13 passes in 21 attempts for three touchdowns, "but we know we
have a great defense and strong special teams. So the smart thing
to do is keep things close to the vest. It's not exciting, but
everyone's satisfied with winning."

In the AFC Beast, you do what you have to do, for life in this
division amounts to a series of Survivor episodes. Banished from
the island on Sunday along with the Bills (7-6), a 1999 playoff
team, were the defending division-champion Indianapolis Colts
(7-6), whose 27-17 defeat by the Jets at Giants Stadium continued
a plunge from expected Super Bowl contention. Both Buffalo and
Indianapolis will most likely miss the playoffs, and after the
two teams meet next Monday night at the RCA Dome, Colts fans
could be looking at an indoor Indy .500. "Life in this division
is brutal, man," Indianapolis tight end Ken Dilger said on
Sunday. "All we do is beat each other up every week, and I think
whichever teams survive and make the playoffs get hurt by it,
because they're so drained. I can't wait for realignment."

The top four teams in the AFC East have a combined 18-8 record
outside the division, and the New England Patriots (3-9 entering
Monday night's game against the Kansas City Chiefs) are probably
the league's most physical last-place team. However, the
ruggedness of the division alone doesn't explain the demise of
the Colts, who last year raced to a 13-3 record behind their trio
of young offensive stars: quarterback Peyton Manning, halfback
Edgerrin James and wideout Marvin Harrison. This season
Indianapolis has gotten sloppy, suffering defeats to the lowly
Chicago Bears and the struggling Green Bay Packers. The Colts'
defense bends and breaks with glaring regularity; on Sunday, Indy
trailed 14-0 before it had run its fourth offensive play, and
Jets halfback Curtis Martin (page 52) was on his way to a career
day. Then, after the Colts fought back from a 20-0 deficit, an
errant shotgun snap by center Jeff Saturday killed their chances
to tie or win the game.

It may be revisionist history, but the Colts say the preseason
projections that had them in the Super Bowl were unwarranted.
Smiling through his gold teeth as he lit a stick of incense at
his Indianapolis town house last week, James said, "I never
looked at us as division favorites, because last year we had a
fifth-place schedule, and I knew that playing a first-place
schedule would be a lot tougher." That glossed over the losses to
the Bears and the Packers and the fact that Indianapolis's eight
games within the division haven't changed. "But, hey," James
said, "we're all right. It's not like we suck."

The Bills are sucking wind as they embark on a feeble stretch
limp. Last year Buffalo came within a Music City Miracle of
making some noise in the postseason. Then they commanded
attention in this year's opener by winning their rematch with the
Tennessee Titans. But a series of injuries to starters put the
Bills in a tailspin, and the absence of four regulars on defense
had them in an especially dark mood going into Sunday's game
against the Dolphins, who hadn't won in Buffalo since 1996.
Standing at the awesome precipice of Niagara Falls after a trip
across the Canadian border last Saturday, Bills linebacker John
Holecek made the inevitable metaphorical connection. "I hope
we're not headed over the falls in a barrel," he said, "but with
so many guys out, it's going to be a challenge." Then Holecek, a
run stopper who's slower than a manual recount, turned to his
three older brothers, Rick, Dave and Jim, and added, "I mean, I'm
playing in a nickel package tomorrow for the first time since
high school. How crazy is that?"

If you want crazy, check out Miami, whose recipe for success
following last January's 62-7 playoff loss to the Jacksonville
Jaguars was this: Replace a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach
with a guy who had a 41-57 record; then dump one of the best
passers of all time for an undrafted journeyman who played at
Dartmouth and got cut by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Yet the unflashy Wannstedt and Fiedler have helped turn the
Dolphins into one of the league's feel-good stories. Wannstedt,
criticized as overly demanding during his six-year stint as the
Bears' coach, has taken on the role of hip substitute teacher in
Miami. The team has had two field trips to movie theaters, an
intrasquad softball game and, most significant, a measured
reaction to a disastrous defeat. In late October, after the
Dolphins had blown a 30-7 fourth-quarter lead to the Jets and
lost 40-37, Wannstedt resisted the urge to rip his players.
Instead he scaled back practice and told them the loss was "not
even worth talking about." Miami has won five of six since,
losing only their rematch with the Jets, in which Fiedler
(pinched nerve in his neck and right shoulder) and halfback Lamar
Smith (strained right hamstring) went down with injuries.

Another banged-up Dolphin, All-Pro linebacker Zach Thomas, is
playing with a sprained right ankle that won't heal until long
after the season, but the defense stood tall during Thomas's
recent four-game absence. While he was sidelined, Thomas was
especially heartened by the pass-rushing heroics of rejuvenated
end Jason Taylor. The 6'6" Taylor, who looks like a model, is
engaged to Thomas's comparably tall and beautiful sister, Katina.
"I guess I was adopted," says Thomas, who's generously listed at
5'11". "Jason will definitely help the family's gene pool."

Fiedler's gifts--intelligence, grit and deceptive mobility--are far
less conspicuous. On Sunday he executed offensive coordinator
Chan Gailey's game plan to perfection, exploiting Buffalo's
inexperience at linebacker with a power-running attack and timely
play-action passes. Rather than quake at the specter of replacing
a legend, Fiedler, 28, who dresses near the glass-encased locker
that is a shrine to Marino's 17 years as a Dolphin, has evolved
into a respected leader. He's still rankled by the series of
rejections that preceded this opportunity, especially his release
by the Minnesota Vikings late in the summer of 1998, an
experience he calls the low point of his career. "It really
pissed me off," he says. "I had a great preseason, but they kept
another quarterback [Todd Bouman] who even the coaches had told
me I should have beaten out. He was one of Denny Green's
projects, I guess."

Now Fiedler's accurate throws (no interceptions in his past four
full games) and timely scrambles (with 214 rushing yards, he has
a chance to break David Woodley's single-season team record for a
quarterback, 272) are winning over the skeptics--including HBO
broadcaster Marino, who before the season criticized Wannstedt's
decision to start Fiedler over Damon Huard. Fiedler's teammates
are most impressed with his toughness. He has fought through
injuries to his hip, neck, shoulder and back, the last of which
nearly forced him to miss an Oct. 29 home game against the
Packers.

After leading the Dolphins to a 28-20 victory that day, Fiedler,
who last Friday proudly wore a gray JEWISH SPORTS HALL OF FAME
T-shirt in the Miami locker room, heard his teammates kvelling
about his guts. In contrast, the two women closest to Jay--his
mother, Donna, and longtime girlfriend Jennifer Ekstrand--viewed
him as meshuga. Kept up most of the night of Oct. 28 by back
spasms, Fiedler had paid an 8 a.m. visit to Doctors' Hospital in
Coral Gables, where he was X-rayed as a precaution. Four hours
later, as he was suiting up in the locker room, his cell phone
rang. Donna and Jennifer, who were in a Pro Player Stadium
concourse, demanded an explanation. "They had heard an
exaggerated version--that I was rushed to the hospital the night
before--and were worried about my playing," Jay says. "They knew
I'd go out there even knowing I shouldn't, and they wanted to
make sure I didn't do anything too stupid."

If Donna had any motherly advice after Sunday's game against the
Bills, the man of the moment was in no position to hear it.
Encircled by the neon-coated guards protecting him from the
screaming Dolphins fans outside the stadium, Fielder turned round
and round while repeatedly asking, "Where are my parents?"
Finally he pulled out a cell phone and dialed his folks, almost
simultaneously bending to retrieve and sign a five-year-old boy's
program. Upon hearing Donna's voice, Jay yelled into the phone,
"Where are you? In the tunnel? ...No, I'm out here by the
buses.... Hurry up if you want to see me, 'cause we're ready to
roll."

The last of Miami's team buses revved its engine, and a pair of
motorcycle cops cranked their sirens. Stymied for the first time
all afternoon, Fiedler switched off the phone and shrugged. "Aw,
I see them enough," he said of his parents, laughing as he
boarded the bus. Seconds later it chugged off into the chilly
Buffalo night, heading at full steam for January.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER COVER The War Zone In the NFL's toughest division, the surprising Dolphins are on top Miami running back Lamar SmithCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Handy man Receiver Oronde Gadsden went high and wide to snag this pass from Fiedler in the second quarter of Miami's victory over the Bills.COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Dan who? Fiedler may not have Marino's arm, but he threw for three scores on Sunday.
Fiedler's accurate throws and timely scrambles are winning over
the skeptics.