The light heart of a defense

January 03, 2009|By ETHAN J. SKOLNICK | ETHAN J. SKOLNICK,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

DAVIE, FLA. - His first sack?

"Dan Marino," Jason Ferguson says.

How well does he remember it?

"Very, very well," the defensive tackle says, breaking into falsetto. "All I remember was wanting to pick him up, and saying, 'Hey, could you sign something? Can you give me a glove? Maybe a thigh pad?' "

That was 11 years, one month and 24 days ago. These days, the sacks don't come as easily as Ferguson's laughter, especially at his own jokes. Still, as the 33-year-old prepares to play his eighth playoff game, this one against the Ravens, he stands as the most critical player on the Miami Dolphins' defense.

"This is the kind of game, this is my game," Ferguson says.

The Ravens go after teams in a no-nonsense, straight-up-the-gut way.

"This game, they actually need me to make plays," Ferguson says. "As long as [the Ravens] are bouncing everything outside, I think everybody's happy."

The Dolphins will be pleased if they can keep Ferguson in the middle of their defense on first and second downs for four quarters tomorrow, stuffing the run by occupying two blockers. Ferguson played only two series in the October matchup before pulling a right oblique, possibly because of dehydration, and experiencing "pain you don't wish on anybody." That pain, and Ferguson's absence, led to Willis McGahee's big gains (105 yards on 5.5 per carry).

Compounding the problem? Paul Soliai, Ferguson's primary backup, missed the game for disciplinary reasons.

Tomorrow? "Different story," Soliai says. "The noses are here now."

Starting with someone who should wear a big, red nose to work.

"He's the class clown," defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday says of Ferguson. "You need a guy like that. He doesn't care if it's a coach, if it's a player, he'll get on you. Everybody's game with Ferg."

That's just another reason sending a sixth-round pick to the Dallas Cowboys ranks as the Dolphins' second-best offseason move, behind only the signing of quarterback Chad Pennington. Yes, Bill Parcells and Jeff Ireland needed an anchor for their 3-4 defense and believed Ferguson could still fill that role even after missing the final 15 games of 2007 with a biceps injury. They also wanted Ferguson to fill a role off the field. After playing for Parcells' New York Jets and Cowboys, he had the knowledge, credibility and personality to spread the message with a smile:

Laughing is cool. So long as you work.

Tony Sparano viewed Ferguson as one of the "good, solid character people" who just "get it," and could explain why it was necessary for the coaches to torment players. Ferguson has served as an instructor as well as a liaison. Soliai still has maturing to do, as shown by his two single-game suspensions. Still, the second-year player appreciates Ferguson's tutelage, as Keith Traylor didn't offer the same last season.

Ferguson isn't a bad guy to emulate, considering his unlikely and lengthy career. He grew up in Mississippi, playing basketball and throwing the shot put while starring as a defensive tackle.

He played two seasons at Itawamba Junior College before transferring to Georgia. Parcells, running the Jets in 1997, took Ferguson in the seventh round, last of 11 selections, including three defensive linemen. Ferguson regularly needles his longtime boss about that last bit of trivia.

"Can I get some money from all those guys you invested in, who are not in the league?" Ferguson jokes.

Parcells signed Ferguson to a five-year extension in 2005, and Ferguson will wait until that contract expires before deciding whether he feels good enough to play on.

"But the main thing for me is now," Ferguson says. "I want to get this done now."

Maybe he'll even get one last sack, if not Joe Flacco's autograph.

Ethan J. Skolnick wrties for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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