Wannstedt staying strong despite turmoil

HOUSTON -- In his Oscar-winning performance as the blind but prescient Col. Frank Slade in "Scent of a Woman," actor Al Pacino suggested to moviegoers that there is no prosthesis for an amputated spirit.

It was, hoo-ha, one of the most poignant, even if inexplicably unheralded, lines of recent cinema. It is also a line, and perhaps a snippet of celluloid, Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt, embattled even before his team's run of preposterous misfortune, might consider showing to his stricken team.

Why so? Because losing players, particularly those the caliber of retired tailback Ricky Williams and injured wide receiver David Boston, is plenty bad enough. But once a team collectively abdicates its will, and begins questioning whether it can viably compete, that is typically the beginning of the end.

"We've really got to guard against that, especially with the younger guys, because you don't want to fall into a kind of mindset where you're just feeling sorry for yourself," acknowledged middle linebacker Zach Thomas, himself sidelined by knee surgery that could keep him off the field the entire preseason. "I've never seen anything like this. But you have to keep moving forward. There's nothing else you can do. No one else is going to feel sorry for us and no one else is going to help us. Whatever the answers are, we're going to have to find them inside our own locker room."

As the Dolphins queued up here on Friday afternoon, ready to board the idling buses that would carry them back to their team hotel following a practice with the Houston Texans in which Boston tore the patellar tendon in his left knee, some of the players wore fairly undeniable what next expressions.

Who could blame them? This is a team that had experienced a turbulent offseason in terms of off-field issues. By now, most know the litany of lunacy, as if by rote: Dan Marino's change of heart about becoming the top football man in the organization. The incongruous search for a general manager which ended in the promotion of personnel chief Rick Spielman. The decision by owner Wayne Huizenga to extend Wannstedt's deal by two seasons while also diminishing his role in making personnel decisions. And the resignation of the offensive coordinator job by Joel Collier, after he decided he could not emotionally cope with the pressures of the position.

The past couple weeks, however, have been just as catastrophic, if not more so.

The world discovered that, only weeks after urging his teammates to do everything in their power to compete for a ring in 2004, Weirdo Williams was actually talking about the ganja-based haze that encircles his head. The anticipated competition for the No. 1 quarterback job has been anything but scintillating, with neither Jay Fiedler nor A.J. Feeley conjuring memories of Marino's halcyon days. The offensive line is scrambled. Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, the AFC's leading sacker in 2003, continues to hold out in a contract dispute. And then on Friday afternoon, doing nothing more than making a soft cut on a fade route, Boston's knee exploded.

The news has been so dire of late that hardly anyone noticed when safety Chris Akins, one of the NFL's best special teams players, blew out an anterior cruciate ligament over the weekend. Given the recent stretch, it seems that such injuries have suddenly become a way of life for the Dolphins, and fans and probably some players as well wake up daily anticipating the worst.

Not since the ancient Hebrews were held captive in Egypt has a people experienced so many plagues. OK, that's hyperbole, we concede. But as we noted last week, it might be time for public relations impresario Harvey Greene to rename his traditionally weighty, 660-page media guide "The Book of Job." As badly as Miami needs any semblance of good fortune, it might require an exorcist even more.

Every time the Dolphins seem to hit rock bottom, a trap door appears, and it seems the term is redefined on a too-regular basis.

"I guess when the bottom falls out," said linebacker Corey Jenkins, "it falls all the way out. You keep thinking, 'Well, there's nothing worse that can follow this right?' And then something really bad happens again. It's like there's a spell or a curse on us right now."

But give Wannstedt and his staff credit for not allowing the Dolphins time to wallow. As is the case with most NFL coaches, Wannstedt is a pragmatic true believer and, if he has cursed the team's maddening string of bad luck, he has done so privately. On Friday, as a trainer huddled with Wannstedt on the field to apprise him of Boston's injury, the coach just shook his head, and moved on to evaluating the next drill. When he came off the field to address the media, Wannstedt did not try to downplay the seriousness of the situation, but he certainly maintained aplomb in the face of another disaster.

Through his career, Wannstedt has been a resilient coach. That resiliency will be tested now more than ever. Critical to the Dolphins' ability to proceed, though, is the ability with which Wannstedt is able to convince his players that all is not lost. The NFL isn't going to cut Miami any breaks, delay the season, force the Dolphins opponents to play with just 10 guys on the field.

Said Wannstedt: "You don't hide from it. You don't kid yourself. You don't stick your head in the sand."

On the latter issue, it is difficult to ignore that Huizenga in the spring issued to his coach and his team what can only be considered a playoff mandate after two seasons away from postseason play. The owner did offer one caveat, noting that Wannstedt might not be held totally accountable if the Dolphins suffered severe physical setbacks. What transpired in the past few weeks might qualify, one would assume, but the Dolphins can't count on any clemency or do-overs.

Undermanned doesn't necessarily mean a team can't overachieve. And, even with the losses of Williams and Boston, no one will tolerate indifference. If the Dolphins are Team Turmoil for now, they had better become Team Try-hard real quickly.

At least in that regard, players are talking a good game.

"This is way beyond gut-check time, man," said tight end Randy McMichael. "People are going to be watching us real close to see how we react. And, believe me, we're going to be watching each other, too. Guys are going to be held accountable. I don't want to hear any of that 'woe is us' talk. This is the NFL. (Stuff) happens. Bad stuff sometimes. But we've still got to figure out a way to win."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.