Swimming With the Fishes

The $8 million man will lead the Dolphins out of the desert. Honest.

Dolphins fans have never swallowed humility easily.

By all rights, Fins fans should be some of the loudest Yankees-level gasbags in the country. Since 1970, when the American Football League merged with the National Football League to create the modern NFL, no team has won more games, and in all of pro sports, only the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers have a better winning percentage. No team can boast such a statistical prodigy as Dan Marino, save for Jerry Rice's 49ers. Don Shula set a standard for bland longevity that only The Today Show can match. The team has had just three losing seasons out of the past 36.

And yet...

In the 2000s, the Dolphins have played just four playoff games, winning one and losing three blowouts, including a 62-7 stomping by the Jaguars six seasons ago, a game that ended the careers of both Marino and Coach Jimmy Johnson.

Since then, it has been years of wandering the desert. Remember the Jets coming back from a 30-7 deficit to win an infamous Monday Night Football game in 2000? What about the Raiders shutting out the Fins in the playoffs that year?

There was Ricky Williams amassing 2,216 yards from scrimmage in 2003, then flaking out in 2004 to pursue a life of meditation, travel, and the kine bud.

The lowly Arizona Cardinals broke a 17-game road losing streak in Dolphin Stadium in 2004, the worst of a franchise-record 12 losses that year.

"We did not play any harder when we were winning ten and 11 a year, I promise you that," hapless Head Coach Dave Wannstedt said after the Cardinals game. "We did not play any harder than we did today. That's what rips your heart out."

The coach quit three days later. That was pretty much the highlight of the season for many Dolphins fans.

This year, though. Ahh.

The pieces may at last be in place. After struggling mightily early last season, the Fins enter this season on a six-game winning streak, the league's longest, save for Super Bowl champ Steelers. They have a young hoss of a running back. A head coach seemingly spawned from the very union of Foot and Ball. Offensive linemen who actually know one another. The jiggliest cheerleaders in sports. Brilliant specialists. Accomplished receivers. Experienced defenders. A stadium featuring two of the largest high-definition video screens in the universe. The Dolphins even have their own $8 million man, Daunte Culpepper, a starting quarterback with — get this — athletic ability.

(Little-known indicator of how relatively stacked this team is: The highest-rated Dolphin in Electronic Arts' Madden NFL 07, John Madden's best-selling video-game take on the NFL season, is fullback Fred Beasley. In truth, Beasley spent the end of training camp fending off Darian Barnes for the starting job. That's roster depth, kids.)

But for this reason more than any, in the modern NFL, when Rams and Ravens and Falcons and Bucs and Panthers all go to the big game, when the choke-artist Broncos win two straight and the sad-sack Patriots win three of four, when Trent freakin' Dilfer goes to Disney World (Baltimore Ravens, Super Bowl XXXV), the Dolphins simply must be next in line.

The Dolphins are due. Overdue, in fact. Since the 'Niners thumped Miami in Super Bowl XIX, a dozen different teams have won Super Bowls, and nine others have at least been there. Since the Dolphins lost the 1992 AFC Championship to the Buffalo Bills, every AFC team but Miami and two expansion teams (the Browns and Texans) has played for the conference title.

The Super Bowl has been played in Miami five times since the Dolphins last won it, and it will be in Dolphin Stadium come February 2007. Perhaps the thought of watching the Patriots hoist another Lombardi Trophy at the 50-yard line of his home stadium prompted Chris Chambers to say in March: "They're playing the Super Bowl here next year, and I'll be damned if we're not the ones playing it in our own stadium."

Here's to irrational exuberance, Chris Chambers not being damned, and Fins fans returning to their rightful perch as entitled sports dorks.

In the pages ahead, you'll find a breakdown of the elements that will determine whether the Dolphins can advance past yet another playoff-missing 9-7 campaign. Remember, you can't get this kind of analysis just anywhere, and chances are, you wouldn't want it anyway.

Jointly Speaking: We Kneed It

Commentators who are high on the Dolphins this year always temper their encomiums with a warning: If Daunte Culpepper's reconstructed right knee isn't ship-shape, this team will be lucky to limp to .500. How vital is Culpepper's knee? It has even overshadowed the quarterback's other high-profile blowout last season, as Google search results show:

Number of results for "Daunte Culpepper" and:

"knee injury": 66,700

"knee and questions": 76,800

"tore three ligaments": 16,000

"bum knee": 535

"horrific knee injury": 1,270

"Minnesota Vikings boat sex": 30,000

"Love boat" scandal: 3,010

"Lake Minnetonka" party: 670

"Booze cruise": 364

"Strippers and nipple": 167

"Throwing dice alibi": 29

Bronzed Bruiser

This season, the Dolphins bid farewell to Junior Seau, one of the all-time great linebackers to prowl the gridiron and who no doubt will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in a few short years. As a San Diego Charger for 13 seasons, Seau was a 12-time Pro Bowler. But his three seasons in Miami were tainted by injuries and one infamous quote at a team banquet in which he explained his affection for his teammates: "I would say love and everybody would say 'You're a faggot,' but I'm not." The Dolphins released him in March to clear salary-cap space, leading Seau to retire for two whole days in August before signing with the Dolphins' division rival Patriots.

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