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 Tuesday, September 7
Dan still awaiting his day
By Alex Marvez
Pro Football Weekly

 And then there was one.

Zach Thomas
Zach Thomas

Last year: 10-6, second place in AFC East
Key returnees:: QB Dan Marino (310-for-537, 3,497 yards, 23 TDs, 15 INTs); WR O.J. McDuffie (90 rec., 1,050 yards); RB Karim Abdul-Jabbar (270 carries, 960 yards, 6 TDs); LB Zach Thomas; CB Sam Madison (8 INTs)
New faces: G Kevin Gogan (49ers), RB Cecil Collins (first round), WR Willie Green (Broncos), WR Tony Martin (Falcons), DE Rich Owens (Redskins)
New places: P Klaus Wilmsmeyer (Panthers)
Watch out: WR Tony Martin is the deep threat Marino needs.
Better than '98: Collins could be a fifth-round steal and give Miami the strong inside run game it has lacked.
Worse than '98: In September Marino turns 38, an age when many quarterbacks have suffered nagging injuries.
-- Scripps Howard News Service

With the retirement of John Elway, the illustrious QB class of 1983 is down to a lone active member. And as Elway has already done, Miami's Dan Marino is hoping to finally capture about the only prize that has eluded him in 16 NFL seasons -- a Super Bowl ring.

"That's what you're doing this for," Marino said. "That's why you're playing -- to work to have a chance to win a championship. My position on that is no different than anybody else in this locker room. If it's different, then they probably won't be here."

But for the Dolphins to win their first Super Bowl title in 26 years, Marino can't do it alone. He will need a top-notch running game and a speedy wide receiver to help improve what was a mediocre offense in 1998.

Enter rookie Cecil Collins and Tony Martin. Collins, who slipped to the fifth round of April's draft because of off-field problems, has shown first-round talent in the preseason. However, he severely sprained his right ankle in a preseason victory over Detroit, postponing his challenge of Karim Abdul-Jabbar for the starting tailback job for a few weeks.

The Martin situation finally cleared up Aug. 26, when Martin was acquitted of charges of money laundering. The verdict means the Dolphins will not need to swing a trade for a receiver who can stop teams from constantly keying on O.J. McDuffie. In Martin, the Dolphins' offense has a playmaker who can stretch the field.

Defensively, there's no reason to believe the Dolphins can't duplicate last year's success. Miami surrendered a league-low 265 points in 1998 and didn't lose a starter from that unit.

No wonder Jimmy Johnson entered training camp with more confidence than at any time during his first three seasons with the Dolphins.

"I'm excited about it," said Johnson, who almost retired in January before being coaxed back by Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga. "We've got a good football team, and we've got a chance to be a special football team. For that reason, I am having fun, and I am enjoying it."

Let's see if Johnson feels the same way Jan. 31.

Here's a position-by-position look at Miami's roster:

Dan Marino is still a very effective passer, but he never has been a mobile quarterback, and he needs help from the running game. The Dolphins have improved their offensive line with several nice pick-ups over the last two years. Guard Kevin Donnalley is an excellent run blocker, and Kevin Gogan is an adept run blocker also. So those are positive steps. Miami's offensive line always has been set to pass, but now they have some road-grating blockers to help the ground game.

But they must find a reliable running back. That's the big question. It's Karim Abdul-Jabbar's job to lose because he's the incumbent. They also like rookie J.J. Johnson, but he's been hampered in camp by a hamstring problem. Johnson is 235 pounds, and he can run, catch and block.

Fifth-round pick Cecil Collins is really coming along well, but you have to question his durability. He played only six college games, and now he has been slowed by an ankle injury. The Dolphins expect Collins back for the season opener, but he's a tough back to rely on.

The Dolphins should battle with the Jets for the AFC East title, and they definitely look like a playoff team. But they'll only go as far as their ground game takes them.

Marino gets knocked for his lack of mobility and plodding style of handing off the football, but there are few quarterbacks who play better in crunch time. Marino still has plenty of arm strength, and, even at age 37 (he will turn 38 after Week 1), isn't planning on retiring anytime soon.

Johnson swears he wouldn't trade his two backup quarterbacks for any other set in the league, but it's fair to wonder how Damon Huard and Craig Erickson would respond if Marino were out for a lengthy period of time. Huard is the backup and shows promise but has played only in mop-up duty in two NFL games. Erickson is still recovering from elbow surgery that forced him to sit out most of the '98 season. He hopes to compensate for reduced arm strength with better decisions and increased movement in the pocket. Grade: B

Running backs
Abdul-Jabbar is dependable, having gained 2,968 yards in his three NFL seasons. However, he hasn't shown much of an ability to shed tacklers and break the big run. The drafting of Collins and second-rounder J.J. Johnson might light a fire under Abdul-Jabbar, who is slated to become an unrestricted free agent after this season.

At this point, 1998 first-round pick John Avery is strictly a third-down back and kick returner. Avery has been unable to effectively carry the ball, so the Dolphins hope to find ways for him to use his quick feet in the open field as a pass catcher.

At fullback, incumbent starter Stanley Pritchett has looked sharp and should keep his job. Second-round pick Rob Konrad needs work on his blocking, but he has shown good pass-catching ability. Bernie Parmalee will probably stick because of his special-teams prowess and ability to play both backfield positions. Grade: B-

Wide receivers
After McDuffie and Martin, there are questions. Lamar Thomas suffered a shoulder injury during the preseason that could linger into the regular season. Yatil Green seems well on his way to being a contributor after missing the past two seasons because of knee problems.

If neither pans out, the Dolphins will have to rely heavily on Oronde Gadsden. TE Troy Drayton is an adequate blocker and receiver. Grade: B

Offensive linemen
The cohesiveness of this unit wasn't helped in the preseason by the absence of OLT Richmond Webb, who was unhappy at being named the team's franchise player. Should Webb's holdout continue into the regular season, Brent Smith will start at left tackle. Yes, that would be a drop-off.

OLG Mark Dixon, regarded as the team's best offensive lineman by coach Johnson, has recovered from neck surgery and also might get a look at left tackle. C Tim Ruddy and ORT James Brown are steady players. One of two quality veterans -- Kevin Donnalley or Kevin Gogan -- will start at right guard, though Gogan could be the left guard if Dixon goes to tackle. Grade: B

Defensive linemen
This unit is so deep the backups (DEs Rich Owens, Trace Armstrong and Lorenzo Bromell and DT Barron Tanner) could start for plenty of other teams.

But in Miami, those four players aren't good enough to beat out starters Jason Taylor, Daryl Gardener, Tim Bowens and Kenny Mixon. Gardener and Bowens are so dominating inside that both should garner serious Pro Bowl consideration this season. Former Vikings' first-round pick Dimitrius Underwood could be icing on the cake. Grade: A+

MLB Zach Thomas is the key to the Dolphins defense, having led the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons. Such play earned Thomas a five-year, $22.5 million contract extension in the offseason. Strong-side LB Robert Jones also cashed in with a new five-year, $14.5 million deal.

Weak-side linebacker was a concern entering training camp, but Derrick Rodgers has proved he's ready for a breakout season. This unit's only concern is depth, as Dwight Hollier is the only established backup at any of the three LB positions. Grade: A-

Defensive backs
No cornerback duo in franchise history has recorded more interceptions than Terrell Buckley (eight) and Sam Madison (eight) did in 1998. Both players are talented enough to excel in the bump-coverage schemes the Dolphins employ on the majority of their defensive plays.

FS Brock Marion was average in 1998, but the Dolphins have enough confidence in him that the position wasn't upgraded via free agency. Hard-hitting Calvin Jackson will start at strong safety, as Shawn Wooden hasn't fully recovered from reconstructive knee surgery. Grade: A

Special teams
PK Olindo Mare has one of the NFL's strongest legs and has made 79.4 percent of his field-goal attempts (50-of-63) the past two seasons. Sixth-round pick Brent Bartholomew will handle the punting chores, although Johnson won't be afraid to make a change if the rookie struggles. The return units (featuring Avery on kickoffs and Buckley on punts) are pretty good. Grade: B

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