- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

The Miami Dolphins are up to their usual tricks. When late summer and early fall turn into late fall and early winter, the Dolphins invariably turn tail.

Atop the AFC East with a 4-1 record Oct.19, Miami is 2-3 since. But that’s no surprise. From 1992 to 2002, Miami was 36 games over .500 in the first half of the season and .500 afterward. Not once did the Dolphins have a better record in the second half.

And although the Dolphins are always talented — they’ve sent 35 players to the past 10 Pro Bowls — they’re never there at crunch time. Miami’s last Super Bowl appearance was after the 1984 season; long-downtrodden Cincinnati is the only other AFC team (not counting newcomers Cleveland and Houston) not to reach the conference title game since 1992.

Last year’s 4-4 second half, which ended with a blown 24-13 fourth quarter lead and a 27-24 overtime loss at New England, kept the Dolphins (9-7) out of the playoffs for the first time since 1996.

“In this league, you have to be able to finish strong,” said fourth-year coach Dave Wannstedt, who is under fire despite a 38-23 record and two playoff berths heading into Sunday’s home game against the Washington Redskins. “It’s really critical to play well in November and December. If we don’t, we’re not going to be a playoff team. It’s pretty clear-cut where we stand right now.”

The Dolphins (6-4) began their latest slide with another overtime loss to the Patriots, this one at home as normally ultra-reliable kicker Olindo Mare missed a 35-yard field goal try and had another from the same distance blocked.

After beating lowly San Diego with former Denver starter Brian Griese replacing injured quarterback Jay Fiedler, the Dolphins lost at home to Indianapolis and were walloped at Tennessee. They squeaked past visiting Baltimore 9-6 last week, but not before the fans booed Wannstedt’s decision to run out the final 51 seconds from his own 20-yard line and go to overtime.

“It wasn’t any one thing that put the skids on,” defensive end Jason Taylor said. “We lost tough games to New England and the Colts that we felt we should have won. But to say if we had done this or that, we would be 8-2 is a loser’s viewpoint. We are what we are. Is it the end of the world? No. If we keep playing well and winning, we’ll be just fine.”

Taylor, one of seven Pro Bowl players on a defense that allows a league-low 14.7 points a game, backed up that assertion with his assessment of Miami’s mental health.

“Our mental state was very fragile at times in the past,” said the seventh-year Dolphin. “We’ve been through the 6-1 starts and 7-2 starts and had problems finishing up. We lost some games and let things compound on us. Through the adversity we’ve had in the last month, it has become evident that this team is a little different mentally. Guys are growing up. What that turns into late in the season, we’ll have to wait and see. It was tough to be here last week, but we were able to bounce back and focus in. Playing pretty well and getting a win at home was big for us. It helped a lot of people’s confidence.”

No one has lost confidence in the Miami defense, but the offense has been just offensive. In other words, it stinks. No other winning team has fewer yards or points.

Running back Ricky Williams, who rumbled for a franchise record 1,853 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2002 while averaging 4.8 yards a carry, has gone over 100 yards once in the past seven games and had 43 runs for no gain or negative yardage. Williams has scored five times and is averaging a paltry 3.3 yards a carry despite having all but one of his blockers back.

“Offensively, we really haven’t gotten on track all year,” said Wannstedt, who doesn’t plan to choose between the recovering Fiedler and Griese as the starter for Sunday’s game until just before kickoff. “The [dropoff in the] running game is really shocking to all of us. I’m hoping that maybe we’re saving it all or something.”

Wannstedt and Taylor said there hasn’t been any internal talk of trying to save the coach’s job, but with dates against playoff-bound Dallas, New England and Philadelphia on tap after the Redskins, his Dolphins better stop repeating history in a hurry.

“This is the most talented team that I’ve ever been on,” Taylor said. “Are we playing up to our potential? No. We have six weeks to get that together. We have everything we need to get into the playoffs and take it from there. If we don’t, it will be a shame.”

It always is in Miami come this time of year.

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