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AFC column
Thursday, March 16
Dolphins prepare for life
in 2000 A.D. (After Dan)

The Dolphins without Dan Marino is like New York City without the Empire State Building, St. Louis without the Arch, L.A. without pretention, Washington, D.C. without the White House, Miami without Madonna and South Beach.

Jay Fiedler
Jay Fiedler will battle Damon Huard to become Dan Marino's successor.

What will the Dolphins do now?

How bad will it get before it gets better?

Miami doesn't completely realize it right now, but it should brace itself for a significant post-Marino-era hangover.

With respect to new head coach Dave Wannstedt, who's enthusiastic about retooling the Dolphins, there are a lot of signs that point to difficult times for Miami football -- and the fact that there isn't a championship starting quarterback in sight is only one of the problems, albeit the most pressing issue.

Here's what the post-Marino-era quarterback situation looks like as the remaining quarterbacks have just begun (on March 6) their offseason program of learning new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey's offense:

  • There's Damon Huard, who was Marino's backup last season and performed fairly well despite criticism in Miami that he's not starting material.

  • There's Jay Fiedler, the Dolphins' "marquee" offseason free agent signing. Fiedler was Mark Brunell's backup in Jacksonville and saw limited action.

  • There's Jim Druckenmiller, who's known better for some off-the-field legal troubles than he is for throwing the football.

  • And there's Scott Zolak, a career backup, who wasn't good enough to beat out then-inexperienced Ray Lucas for the No. 2 job with the Jets last year.

    The early line is this: Huard is considered the heir to Marino and the favorite to win the job. Fiedler is considered the primary challenger. Druckenmiller is a very dark darkhorse and Zolak is in no man's land.

    Interestingly, the Dolphins signed Fiedler to a contract of similar money to the two-year, $2.1 million extension Huard signed in December. The message there: The job is up for grabs.

    Who'll seize it from here, no one knows, but it's most likely the Dolphins will end up using both Huard and Fiedler at different times.

    Huard's numbers in 1999 were respectable. He completed 125 of 216 passes (57.9 percent) for 1,288 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions for a rating of 79.8.

    In games Huard started for Marino in '99, the Dolphins were 4-1, and that doesn't include a game against New England in which Huard entered the game trailing 14-0 and Miami came back to win. So really, he was 5-1.

    Yet there are doubters everywhere. And everywhere includes inside the Dolphins' coaching staff. Sample this comment coming from a current Dolphin assistant coach, who requested anonymity:

    "Well, the good news is we've got Damon Huard as the starter. At least he's a guy that's gotten his feet wet. But, the bad news is Damon Huard is the starter."

    One area where Huard must get better if he's to be the starter is in his release and escape ability. He was sacked 28 times last year compared to Marino's nine sacks in much more playing time.

    Well, the good news is we've got Damon Huard as the starter. At least he's a guy that's gotten his feet wet. But, the bad news is Damon Huard is the starter.
    Dolphins assistant coach

    As for Fiedler, don't tell him Huard is Marino's successor. Fiedler sees himself as starting material and he believes he's waited long enough.

    "I've put myself in this position through years of hard work," Fiedler said. "I sat out for a couple of years and worked my butt off to get into this situation. It's starting to pay off right now."

    There are many questions with Fiedler, too, though.

    After spending 1994 and '95 with Philadelphia, he was waived by the Eagles and Bengals in '96. The following year, he juggled jobs in the World League and as a Hofstra University assistant coach.

    Now Fiedler has come to grips with the magnitude of trying to replace a legend in Marino.

    "He's one of the greatest quarterbacks," Fiedler said. "When I was growing up in high school, Dan Marino was THE quarterback in the NFL. The bar has been set at the position extremely high to the level that is almost unattainable to anyone.

    "Dan Marino's records aren't going to be broken anytime soon. What I want to do is take this team to a high level, not just the quarterback position."

    That figures to be a daunting task because the Dolphins' problems and question marks aren't merely at quarterback.

    Miami's other "marquee" offseason signing was former Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas, who's been injury-prone and ineffective in his later years. Thomas is expected to be a third-down back. At starting tailback, New Orleans reject Lamar Smith will compete with injury-prone J.J. Johnson.

    The Dolphins have seemingly let their best tight end, Troy Drayton, go via free agency.

    They signed Heath Irwin in hopes he'll start at right guard even though the Patriots got rid of him. They re-signed center Tim Ruddy despite a shaky '99 season. And they signed Brian Walker from Seattle in hopes he'll compete at strong safety even though the Seahawks didn't want him.

    All this and the Dolphins don't even have a first-round pick in next month's draft.

    Something most Dolphins fans probably have not pondered is this: Until the Dolphins land themselves a marquee player with some star power, the stands at Pro Player Stadium are likely to become more and more vacant.

    "Dan has been the identity of this franchise for so long," former Dolphins receiver Jimmy Cefalo told the Miami Herald. "He's been it. He's been the Dolphins. It's not going to sink in until the first Sunday when he's not there. It's not going to be pretty during those tough times.

    "This is just going to be the beginning of the retirement of Dan Marino. You will not see the fallout until that stadium is empty two years from now if they don't find a star to try and take some of his aura."

    Kim Bokamper, another former teammate of Marino's, had a similar analysis for the Miami Herald: "This has been a team that has been blessed with some star-studded, marquee people in Don Shula, Larry Csonka, Bob Griese, Paul Warfield and then Dan Marino comes on the scene.

    "Not to take anything away from Dave Wannstedt, but certainly he doesn't carry the marquee impact that those guys do. Dan Marino steps down and really this is a team without a lot of flash. It's almost like you look at them and maybe you say they've become the Cincinnati Bengals and the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chicago Bears -- just another one of the group."

    The method to Jets' madness over Keyshawn
    There were those who wondered aloud whether Bill Parcells, Al Groh and the rest of Jets management were annoyed that the Baltimore Ravens went so public with their dealings regarding Keyshawn Johnson.

    To the contrary, the Ravens played perfectly into the Jets' hands when team owner Art Modell and coach Brian Billick were so candid about their talks with the Jets.

    They simply conveyed the Jets' message to Johnson and his agent, Jerome Stanley, that they were "serious" about dealing the receiver ... even if they aren't.

    Keyshawn Johnson

    The bottom line is this: The Jets are, indeed, concerned about whether they'll be able to re-sign Johnson, who has two years remaining on his six-year, $15 million deal. And they are concerned about Stanley holding Johnson out of training camp, as he's threatened.

    But, according to highly-placed Jets' sources, the Jets are not going to renegotiate Johnson's contract. They have a long-standing policy of not redoing contracts with more than a year remaining.

    The Jets front office source said teams that do that risk becoming the 49ers -- with no salary cap room and not a lot of talent.

    After what appeared to be a flurry of activity with Parcells talking to the Ravens about trading Johnson for Baltimore's No. 5 overall draft pick, things have become so quiet that it's now annoyed the Ravens, who want Johnson and are waiting for permission to speak to Stanley to see if Johnson is signable.

    "We can't make New York progress with this any faster," Billick said. "At this point, we're going to move along and do the things that are right for our organization with regard to other players. If that puts us in a position where it precludes a deal of that magnitude, then we've reached it.

    "The bottom line is, we're kind of moving on. We'll proceed as though this doesn't exist right now."

    Asked specifically if he believes the Jets were angered by Billick's public comments on the trade, Billick said, "If this irritates somebody in New York, deal with it. Because I'm talking about the Baltimore Ravens and what's in the best interests for this organization."

    At this point, several teams, including Baltimore, Washington and Tampa Bay, have had conversations with the Jets regarding Johnson. If the Jets are going to part with Johnson, which isn't a good idea almost regardless of what the deal is, they want to then get themselves into that top three drafting position to get Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown.

    Is Cleveland's Clark playing cat-and-mouse with No. 1 pick?
    Cleveland Browns director of football operations Dwight Clark has been at his coy best of late while toying with whom to select with the No. 1 overall pick.

    Meanwhile, the teams picking below the Browns are being driven crazy with curiosity.

    Since before the NFL Scouting Combine, Clark was talking up Florida State receiver Peter Warrick. Browns quarterback Tim Couch, too, was lobbying for Warrick in an effort to jump-start Cleveland's dormant offense.

    Lately, however, Clark has been chirping about Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington -- undoubtedly worrying the Redskins, who pick second and third and have just about been designing plays for Arrington.

    For a long time, it was Peter, Peter, Peter. Now it's, 'Maybe we should look at these other guys; they're pretty damn good.'
    Dwight Clark

    "For a long time, it was Peter, Peter, Peter," Clark said. "Now it's, 'Maybe we should look at these other guys; they're pretty damn good.' "

    This is when Clark compared Arrington to Lawrence Taylor.

    It could be pre-draft hype and smoke with Clark perhaps trying to drive up the price of a trade for the first overall pick. The Redskins want Arrington badly, and the Jets have spoken to Cleveland about trading up to the No. 1 spot, presumably to pick Arrington or teammate, Courtney Brown.

    "Coach Parcells is very sly, and he plays this cat-and-mouse game better than anybody," Clark said. "So if he's saying Courtney Brown, you have no idea. He could be saying Courtney Brown to throw everybody off, or it could be true. Who knows?

    "I personally think he wants LaVar Arrington, because LaVar Arrington is Lawrence Taylor."

    Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post writes an AFC notebook for that appears every other Thursday.

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