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Turnaround Is Theme for Shula and His Once-Mighty Dolphins

Newsday

People who were there say Don Shula appeared close to tears after Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly scored on the last play of the season opener to hand the Miami Dolphins’ coach his 10th straight loss in the AFC East.

Think of it -- a Don Shula-coached team losing 10 consecutive games with Dan Marino at quarterback in a division it dominated for what seemed like forever. It’s simply incomprehensible.

Coming on the heels of the first winless preseason in Shula’s 27 years as an NFL head coach, it was beginning to look as though that granite profile of his was vulnerable as never before.

Shaking his head when asked about the success the Washington Redskins had running the ball against a weak Dolphins defense in a nationally televised preseason game, New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells said, “That was a mercy killing.”

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It’s hard to believe, but Shula’s defensive teams haven’t earned much respect since a 38-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XIX after the 1984 season. Shula’s 278 career victories are second only to the 325 compiled by George Halas in 40 seasons with the Bears, but Shula’s last three teams have failed to make the playoffs. The Dolphins’ 6-10 record last year was the worst of his career and only the second losing season overall.

The level of frustration and defensiveness becomes obvious when he is asked directly the cause of that 10-game divisional losing streak. The famous jaw grimaces, as Shula summarizes it this way: “We lost to New England, 6-3, and to Buffalo, 9-6. One of the weirdest was a 15-13 loss to the Colts. We didn’t give up any touchdowns, and we scored two touchdowns and still lost.

“It’s difficult, but I also know there have been good times. I have faith there will be more good times.”

It was Monday, the day after Shula’s faith was rewarded with a 24-10 victory at New England for the Dolphins’ first AFC East win since a 37-28 victory over the Jets on Dec. 7, 1987, in Miami. Shula maintains an even keel in victory and defeat, but he sounded hopeful that the first two games are an indication the Dolphins are ready to begin measuring up to his standards.

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“Turnaround” is the word Shula has chosen as his theme for the season, and the Dolphins will be looking for more signs they are headed in the right direction when they meet the New York Jets (0-2) Sunday at Joe Robbie Stadium.

“I felt pretty good after the Buffalo game, even though it was a heartbreaking defeat,” Shula said. “We played a heck of a football game. I think the players felt confident going to New England.”

The return of holdout wide receiver Mark Clayton provided a lift, and Shula pulled a surprise by starting No. 1 draft pick Sammie Smith at running back in the first game after his holdout ended. Smith hinted at what he could do for the Dolphins by carrying seven times for 40 yards before twisting an ankle. But the biggest shock was that Miami recorded seven sacks for the first time in three years.

“There were a lot of things to be happy about,” Shula said. “The defense fought and scratched in the second half, particularly in getting the sacks. That’s something we haven’t done a lot of around here.”

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The Dolphins still have problems with injuries and holdouts. Veteran inside linebackers John Offerdahl and Mark Brown are holding out, which severely weakens the interior defense, and defensive end John Bosa, the No. 1 pick in 1987, is recovering from reconstructive surgery on his left knee but is expected back in another week or two.

As for a defense described as “soft” by one NFL veteran starting quarterback who watched the Redskins preseason game, Shula said with some irritation, “We might’ve appeared to be playing soft, but Gerald Riggs ran for 221 yards against Philadelphia (Sunday), and no one has ever accused them of playing soft.”

In terms of injuries, Shula’s offensive line, in particular, has been ill-fated in recent years. The worst loss was the knee injury in that Dec. 7, 1987, game against the Jets that ended the career of perennial Pro Bowl center Dwight Stephenson.

“Last year at this time, our offensive line was devastated,” Shula said. “It was halfway through the season before we started to put things together. We’re still having major problems.”

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Against the Patriots, Shula chose to start rookie fifth-round draft pick Jeff Uhlenhake at center. A byproduct was a 103-yard rushing game for the Dolphins, who ranked 28th in the NFL in rushing last season. While Marino is one of the greatest passers in history, the Dolphins’ run-pass ratio of 335-631 a year ago made them too one-dimensional, and Shula has admitted as much.

“We haven’t been able to run for the last two or three years,” he said. “We’ve gone to camp with the idea each year of improving the running game. Last year was the worst that it’s been.”


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