Johnson, Dolphins head back to square 1

On the NFL

January 04, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Two years ago, Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga pushed Don Shula out the door after he went 9-7 in the regular season and lost a first-round playoff game on the road to a division rival (the Buffalo Bills) by 15 points.

Huizenga quickly hired former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, who promptly announced he had a three-year Super Bowl timetable.

That sounded logical because he had taken a 1-15 Dallas team to the Super Bowl in four years.

After two years, though, Johnson appears to be behind schedule.

He went 9-7 this season and lost a first-round playoff game on the road to a division rival (the New England Patriots) by 14 points.

In two years, Johnson doesn't seem to have made much progress over Shula's last team. Miami still can't run the ball, and quarterback Dan Marino is two years older.

That helps explain why Johnson was so irritated after the 17-3 loss to New England last Sunday.

He all but fired offensive coordinator Gary Stevens, saying that the Patriots knew the Dolphins' audibles.

"It happens everywhere," said the Patriots' Keith Byars, a former Dolphin. "Jimmy was just giving you guys [media] a smoke screen. You have to read between the fine print. Jimmy is just trying to cover his behind."

That may have prompted Johnson to take some responsibility.

"I screwed up," he said the next day. "I went with the system the way it was, even though I was uncomfortable with it. I should have stepped in on Day 1. I felt like if we kept the system the same with my emphasis on trying to run the ball within the system, we could get it done. I was wrong. The Dolphins hadn't been able to run the ball for a long time before I got here. The system doesn't fit into what I wanted to do."

That means that Ernie Zampese, the Dallas Cowboys' offensive coordinator who is likely to be swept out when Jerry Jones hires a new coach, probably will replace Stevens.

But it also means that the Dolphins will be virtually starting over. Johnson's three-year timetable is in ruins. He says Marino will be back, but he'll be 37 next year and backup Craig Erickson isn't likely to be the answer.

So Johnson simply announced that he never had a three-year timetable.

"The only thing we said is we're going to have our best team in our third year," he said.

Johnson also, in effect, told his critics to get a life.

"I need to pull back and not get caught up in all the vultures flying right now," he said. "It's a sign of the times that you want to tear down anybody that is trying to be successful. It makes the individuals in their trivial little lives feel better."


Jim Kelly was in the audience when Marv Levy made his emotional resignation as Bills coach last Wednesday.

"It was hard for me to sit there and not go up and give him a big hug because he made me what I am," Kelly said. "I was very blessed to have a class individual like Marv Levy [coaching me]."

Another man who helped make Kelly successful was Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda. He was a Buffalo assistant from 1987 to 1991, serving the last three as offensive coordinator.

He played a big role in installing the no-huddle K-Gun offense that emphasized Kelly's strengths. And that's why it's easy to understand why Kelly and Marchibroda like the idea of a reunion in Baltimore.

One good thing about this development is that it's a sign that Marchibroda has finally figured out he's not going to win with Vinny Testaverde at quarterback.

But it's also a sign that Marchibroda wants to try the quick fix because he knows he has to win in 1988. He'll be entering the season as a lame duck in the final year of a three-year contract.

The Ravens might be better off giving Marchibroda a one-year extension so he's less likely to make short-term decisions such as considering Kelly, who'll be 37 on Feb. 14 and would be coming off a one-year layoff.

The Ravens have to be thinking long term. They've got to be thinking about grooming a quarterback for the future. They made one mistake with Testaverde when they thought he could do it and bypassed players like Danny Kanell and Bobby Hoying in the draft.

But Marchibroda can't be blamed for making short-term decisions if his job is on the line.


When Levy retired, he was the second-oldest coach in NFL history -- 72 years, 5 months. George Halas retired as Chicago Bears coach in 1967 at 72 years, 10 months.

Just as remarkable was that Levy was hired 10 games into the 1986 season. Only Tom Kelly of the Minnesota Twins, hired in September 1986, had seniority on Levy among coaches and managers in the NFL, NBA, NHL and major-league baseball.

Marty Schottenheimer, who joined the Chiefs in 1989, is now the senior man in the NFL. Only 14 men in the four sports have held their jobs for at least five years.


The NFL has a policy that the staffs of the teams with the best non-playoff records coach in the Senior Bowl.

That's why the Redskins, who finished 8-7-1 in the NFC, will have one of the staffs coaching the game.

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