The NFL star in the BMW pulled up to a stoplight on Palm Island Road, where an unkempt man with a scraggly beard was holding a cardboard sign that read, hungry, need $ for food. The athlete, who was on his way to work on a Tuesday morning in October, lowered his tinted window and handed the grateful man a $100 bill. ¬∂ "Hey!" the man said, "you're Zach Thomas." ¬∂ "That's right," the Miami Dolphins' AllPro middle linebacker replied. ¬∂ "Listen, brother. You hang in there." ¬∂ The Dolphins were 0--6 at the time--Brother, can you spare a victory?--and Thomas drove off wondering if he'd entered a Seinfeld-like parallel universe. Miami and the San Francisco 49ers, two of the NFL's winningest franchises since 1970 (box, page 88), have plummeted to the bottom of the league.
Twenty years ago at Stanford Stadium, with quarterbacks Joe Montana and Dan Marino in starring roles, the 49ers defeated the Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX. On Sunday, 30 miles farther north on U.S. 101 at San Francisco's aptly renamed Monster Park, in a meeting of 1--9 teams, Miami prevailed over the Niners 24--17.
"That was despicable," 49ers outside linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said after his team had moved into the crash-test dummy's seat in the NFL standings.
"This was a game I felt we had a chance to win, but, obviously, we didn't," added coach Dennis Erickson. "It was just a matter of who was going to screw it up--us or them. Lo and behold, it was us."
As is the case in Miami, fans spoiled by decades of success in San Francisco have been jolted by their home team's precipitous fall. Owners of a record-tying five Lombardi Trophies, the Niners were the league's winningest team in the 1980s and '90s. As recently as two years ago they won the NFC West--their 14th division title in 22 years. Now cynicism is running rampant in the City by the Bay, where boobirds dot an increasingly empty stadium and parsimonious owner John York is less popular than Karl Rove.
The Dolphins, who narrowly missed the playoffs the past two years, are in the midst of their first losing season since 1988, and only their second since '76. Coach Dave Wannstedt resigned on Nov. 9, two days after Miami's 24--23 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals, extending a run of premature exits from the club this season. Those include Marino's departure after a three-week stint as team vice president last January and 27-year-old star running back Ricky Williams's sudden retirement a week before training camp started.
"You can say we got dealt a bad hand, but it's more like people thought we had a good hand--and we were just bluffing," Thomas said last Saturday. "I used to get upset every year when we'd lose in the first or second round of the playoffs, but I'd take that any day over what we're going through now. It's embarrassing."
The Dolphins were a grumpy bunch on Sunday, having been living out of suitcases for nine days. The NFL had honored a request from Wannstedt to schedule the team's two West Coast games in Seattle and San Francisco on back-to-back Sundays so the club would have to make only one cross-country trip. That ticked off many of the players and their families. What's more, a Thanksgiving dinner of crab cakes and steak at a Union Square restaurant was blamed by AllPro defensive end Jason Taylor for the food poisoning that left him vomiting for two days afterward. On Sunday, Taylor took out his anger on the 49ers' overmatched offensive line and quarterback Tim Rattay, getting three of the Dolphins' eight sacks. The last takedown forced a fumble that linebacker Derrick Pope scooped up and carried one yard for the touchdown that put Miami on top 24--10 with 3:10 remaining.
Unlike the 49ers' impotent offense, which produced only a 19-yard Todd Peterson field goal and a garbage-time touchdown with 37 seconds left, the Dolphins' attack showed some semblance of spunk. Already playing with an extremely sore lower back and buttocks, quarterback A.J. Feeley (17 of 33, 159 yards, two touchdowns) shook off a dislocated middle finger on his passing hand six minutes into the first quarter and looped a 25-yard scoring pass to wideout Chris Chambers for the game's first points. "I don't know how I did that," Feeley said afterward. "I couldn't even feel the ball." After San Francisco had taken a 10--7 lead on middle linebacker Derek Smith's 46-yard fumble return on the second play of the fourth quarter, Feeley coolly zipped a 15-yard touchdown toss to tight end Randy McMichael for the go-ahead score.
Such idyllic moments give rise to the notion among the Dolphins that they are mere victims of circumstance, that they are only a few tweaks of the roster from returning to the ranks of the contending. It is true that they have endured an unseemly share of bad breaks, from Williams's shocking defection in July to the four hurricanes that rattled families and altered practice and game schedules in August and September to the slew of players lost to season-ending injuries (including defensive tackles Tim Bowens and Larry Chester, linebacker Junior Seau and wideout David Boston). "I labeled it the Perfect Storm," Wannstedt said last Saturday from his Naples, Fla., home. "It was so bizarre, and we got hit from so many angles. It's almost as if we never got started."
Nevertheless general manager Rick Spielman says, "There's a bright future that's going to happen here very quickly. People think we are so far away, but we're actually very close to turning this around." Skeptics might regard that as delusional. In a recent interview Williams said he "couldn't have helped [this year's Dolphins]; they've got big problems." Feeley, too, questioned the team's offensive approach, saying, "We need a scheme, an identity. That kind of went out the door when Ricky quit."
With interim coach Jim Bates not likely to be retained after the season, the offense will be one of many issues to be addressed by the next coach. Who will hire himis a mystery as well. Owner Wayne Huizenga, who has declined comment since Wannstedt's resignation, is searching for a successor to retiring team president Eddie Jones. It's possible that a personnel guru will be hired for the job, or to replace Spielman. Or the new coach could be given authority over the roster's makeup.
the niners' chain of command, on the other hand, is clearly defined; it's the people in charge--Denise DeBartolo York, who wrested control of the team from brother Eddie DeBartolo during the 1998 season, and her husband, John--who infuriate many of the fans. They chanted, "Sell the team!" during the closing moments of San Francisco's 37--27 home loss to the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 14, a development that undoubtedly delighted the creators of dumpyork.com, a website that has obtained more than 1,100 signatures demanding that the team be sold.
It is unlikely that ownership will be changing hands anytime soon. John York, who declined comment for this story, has turned down overtures from a group of prospective buyers fronted by former Niners stars Steve Young and Brent Jones. And in October, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison mentioned at a company shareholders' meeting that he had inquired about purchasing the team, only to be told that it wasn't for sale.
York, who once lectured franchise architect and Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh on how to run an organization--"I've only written a book on the subject," Walsh complained to friends--has stressed cost-consciousness at every turn. Last winter, team sources say, York decided to end the longtime practice of giving toys to employees' children at the team's Christmas party, earning him the nickname Bad Santa. (He relented, after several executives offered to pay for the toys, though he did institute an age cutoff.)
More objectionable from the fans' perspective has been York's fiscal restraint when it comes to roster moves. General manager Terry Donahue blames the recent gutting of the 49ers' roster on salary-cap woes caused by the DeBartolo--Carmen Policy regime, though it was Donahue who negotiated many of the contracts purged during the off-season. In addition to trading its best player, All-Pro wideout Terrell Owens, San Francisco cut ties with quarterback Jeff Garcia, guard Ron Stone and running back Garrison Hearst (all Pro Bowl players at one time) and two other offensive starters, tackle Derrick Deese and wideout Tai Streets. "I feel bad for Coach Erickson," fullback Fred Beasley said last week. "They stripped this team and gave him nothing to work with."
Each departed starter was replaced by a younger, unproven player, which affected team chemistry on and off the field. "Some of those guys they got rid of were the heart and soul of this locker room," running back Kevan Barlow said. "I don't know if we even have a good locker room guy [on offense]. It was devastating."
Unlike the Dolphins, the Niners harbor no illusions about a quick turnaround. Echoing the skepticism of several players, Beasley said, "We've got so many holes to fill, and with the route we're going right now, it'd be very difficult for me to sit here and say, 'We're going to have a winning season next year.'" What they'll probably wind up with is the first pick in a draft that many believe lacks a true franchise player (box, right).
As for the rest of this year, Barlow said, "we're all playing for our jobs because this season's done." That was obvious as the final seconds ticked down on Sunday. While the Dolphins congratulated one another on their first road victory, the 49ers trudged off as the league's unquestioned laughingstock. Just before ducking into the locker room tunnel, Barlow took off his gloves and tossed them to a middle-aged fan a few rows above the railing. As the running back disappeared into the darkness, the fan chucked the gloves back to the tattered grass below.
"This was a game I felt we had a chance to win, but,
obviously, we didn't," said Erickson. "It was a matter of who was going TO SCREW IT UP. Lo and behold, it was us."