American Football: Mid Term Report: Faith in Johnson's belief system

Jimmy Johnson's first half season with the Dolphins has had its ups and downs, but few doubt that he will find a winning way. Matt Tench reports from Miami
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The Independent Online
As you enter the Dolphins training headquarters at Nova University 40 miles north of Miami Beach, you can almost smell the past. From the trophy cabinets that tell their own version of the franchise's history, to the banners hanging from the walls commemorating each divisional title, the sense of nostalgia is overwhelming.

And there over the entrance is The Team. Each member with his own portrait (sideboards a must, apparently), his own plaque, his own wooden mounting. Thirty-three pictures in all, taking up half the wall. They sure do like that team.

The Miami Dolphins of 1972 are the only side to go through an NFL season unbeaten, which was some feat then and now looks unmatchable. In the middle of them all is the 42-year-old Don Shula. Looking almost youthful - his version of those sideburns may have been the closest he ever got to being fashionable - that team was Don Shula's greatest moment. Having already been to the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Colts, he moved to Miami in 1970. In 1971 they reached the Super Bowl and lost, a year later came The Team on The Wall with its 17 victories. Their title was retained in 1973, and in three years Don Shula had become a legend.

The problem, as far is the Miami Dolphins are concerned, is that is where the legendary exploits started and finished. In the 22 years that followed, Shula guided his side back to the sport's showpiece just twice. Both contests were lost, the last in 1984. No wonder they surround themselves with the past.

Which makes you wonder what Jimmy Johnson feels when he walks through the door every morning. Johnson, who replaced Shula in January, is too polite to demand a redecoration. But he is not one for looking back.

"I don't like to think about the past," he said."I like to think about today. I like to think about tomorrow. I like to think about next week. I don't stand a whole lot of time thinking about the past.

"Then again, I've said before, maybe that's a fault. Friendships sometimes get hurt by it. I'm not one to dwell on what happened 10 years ago. I might have nothing in common with people I knew I high school, so why should I pick up the telephone and call some of them? I'd much rather talk to a guy I'm working with."

Johnson was talking before Miami's recent game against his former team, the Dallas Cowboys, and his confessed myopia made it nearly possible to believe him when he insisted that should his new side beat his old it would not be as satisfying as the victory in Buffalo 10 days' earlier.

The Cowboys' humiliating triumph meant that he was never put to the test. It also put in perspective the Johnsonmania threatening to engulf south Florida.

For Johnson, who had won as many Super Bowls in Dallas in five years as Shula did in Miami in 25, is saddled with an expectation level only just below that of messiah, despite inheriting an ageing, overpaid team. Whether he likes it or not the entire city expects him to win a few more with the Dolphins.

From the beginning he set about rearranging his roster with characteristic ruthlessness. Talented veterans were dispensed with, as was Bryan Cox, the volatile linebacker, who gave the team what limited spirit it had in Shula's declining years. Johnson has always liked to nurture young talent - those whose loyalty to him would be unswerving - and with typical disdain for convention he went into the season with two rookie running backs starting in his back field.

One of them, Karim Abdul-Jabbar, was sufficiently unknown that even his own team spelt his name wrong on his shirt for the opening game of the season. Not for long though, as Abdul-Jabbar became the focus for a solid Miami rushing attack (a contradiction in terms in the latter years of the Shula era) and the Dolphins sprinted to a 3-0 start.

Six weeks later reality has set in. In late September the Dolphins lost the services of their superstar quarterback Dan Marino, then lost four out of the next five games. In the fevered world of the NFL, where a weekend can be a long time in sports politics, it may not be long before some are asking if Johnson too has lost something. The plot.

The answer is almost certainly no. Watching the Cowboys demolish Johnson's team what struck you was not the ineptitude of the Dolphins but the power and precision of the opposition. On this form they would beat most teams. They are, after all, the Super Bowl champions.

The Dolphins defense was slow, certainly by the standards Johnson has been used to, and there was a lack of playmakers. But there is talent and spirit. On the sidelines Johnson was a portrait of animated involvement, but by the end his countenance betrayed the resignation of a general who knows he is outgunned.

You can feel the frustration. Johnson is, for example, known for his maverick play-calling. But while his team is in its developmental stage the opportunities are limited. "You go into every ball game and you try to look into areas where you can make plays," he said. "Obviously if you're going to upset the momentum and psyche of the opponent you've got to do some things out of the ordinary. But you have to have a good enough football team to back that up. If you're strong defensively you might take some chances."

To illustrate the point, Johnson makes reference to his Dallas team. "When we were up against Green Bay in one play-off game, we faked a punt on the 28-yard line. But we were strong enough defensively to stop 'em, and they just kicked a field goal."

Even the presence of Marino is a mixed blessing. Marino remains capable of conjuring passes few of his contemporaries would have the audacity to attempt, but the team is too reliant on his brilliance and it was no surprise when they lost three of the four games he missed with an ankle injury.

"I said it on day one, before we ever started. We didn't want to be totally dependent on one player. I've never been around a team that had such a drop in confidence as when Dan went out here," Johnson said.

His solution has been to sign Craig Erickson, a talented college player whose NFL record with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts had been less impressive. Erickson, though just a back-up, insists he wouldn't be anywhere else in the league. Such is the lure of working for Johnson.

"What we do is hard," said Trace Armstrong, a defensive lineman, who has played for a variety of masters during his nine years as a pro before serving under Johnson's notoriously rigorous regime. "Guys have to believe that what they're doing is giving themselves a chance of success. Guys here believe that.

"There are a lot of teams where they don't hit during the week, they don't run like we run. And I assume they get paid the same as we do. But guys here do it because they believe it's the best way to win, to get to the Super Bowl."

Armstrong believes Johnson's secret is simpler than generally realised. "You know, he's got this flamboyant image, but in many ways he is an old- fashioned coach. He believes in hard work, discipline and practice. And doing it his way. If you work hard and are disciplined and do it his way he'll back you all the way. If you don't you're not around for very long."

The effect on the players has been noted by those who make a living out of watching the Dolphins. "I can't think there is anyone in Miami, in the organisation or among the fans, who doesn't think the Dolphins aren't on their way to being a champion. And that does something, " Ken Rodriguez, of the Miami Herald, said.

Not that everyone relishes playing for Jimmy Johnson. Charles Haley, who played in both Johnson's Super Bowl teams and whose moodiness is enough to give problem players a bad name, used Dallas's trip to Miami as an opportunity to continue a bitter feud.

"He thinks he's the only coach who can coach football," Haley said. "He's going to flop here because guys are not going to listen to his bullshit."

That seems unlikely, certainly if Zach Thomas has anything to do with it. Thomas is a typical Johnson product. The stocky Texan was regarded as too slow and too small by most NFL scouts, but Johnson saw potential and anchored the middle of his defense around him. Thomas has responded by becoming the team's leading tackler.

"I love him to death," Thomas said as he towelled himself down after another gruelling practice. "I wouldn't wanna play for anyone else." Thomas looks up, the sweat still dripping off him, but a look of determination in his eye.

"He took a chance on me when no one else would. I want to prove him right. He's the man."