NFL Season Preview: Miami Dolphins

We are officially less than a month before the start of the NFL season, so it's probably time to start previewing the monster. The key to the NFL's success — other than fantasy football and gambling, of course — is the rabid nature of its fans. That is to say: You don't see a lot of people painting their faces for their favorite golfer.

We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, even a TV guy or two, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, why My Team Is Better Than Your Team. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever. We will be running two a day until the beginning of the NFL season.

Right now: the Miami Dolphins. Your author is John Bolster.

John Bolster is the sports editor of Penthouse magazine. His words are after the jump.

——————————————————————————-

Will has kindly given us as many or as few words as we need to tell you why Our Team Is Better Than Your Team. Sweet. We Miami Dolphins fans can do it in three words: Nineteen. Seventy. Two.

Those words, of course, mark the year the mighty Miami Dolphins accomplished the DiMaggio-esque — hell, the Cy Young-ian — feat of being the only team in the 86-year history of the National Football League to run through an entire season undefeated.

So there you go: Not only is Our Team Better Than Your Team, Our Team Is Better Than Any Other Team Ever To Exist In the Entire History of the League.

No franchise had gone undefeated before Miami, none has done it since (33 years and counting), and in this salary-capped, free-agented, steroided day and age — when NFL dynasties are an endangered species — no team is going to do it any time soon.

But we don't need to rely on Our Team's ancient history to prove it is Better Than Your Team. I had my research assistant crunch some more recent numbers. And when I say "research assistant," I mean "me." Here's what the computer spat out: The Dolphins have been .500 or better in 30 of the 33 seasons since '72, and they've made 18 postseason appearances in that time. They've made 21 trips to the playoffs, total, and this year, they're the glamour dark-horse pick in all the NFL previews (including the one — shameless plug ahead — in the October Penthouse).

Miami closed last season with six straight wins, and everyone's saying that Daunte Culpepper, back home in Florida (where, if Wikipedia is to be believed, and I'm not sure they are, he was born in a jail), will lead them to a wild-card berth, at a minimum.

That's right: Culpepper, Nick Saban and his straw-boater-wearing, anal-retentive-rule-enforcing persona are taking Miami back to the postseason for the first time in four years, which is a Grapes of Wrath Dust Bowl-like drought for this proud franchise.

But let's go back a bit and answer the question that's no doubt uppermost in all of your minds right now: "Wait a minute, Bolster's from central Jersey, how is he a freakin' Dolphins fan?"

It's a legitimate question, and you shouldn't be at all ashamed for asking it.

I know we've all got YouTube clips to watch, fantasy football research to do and possibly even some work-related matters to attend to, but indulge me here for a few minutes. Where I grew up, on the mean streets of Princeton, N.J., we were equidistant between New York and Philadelphia. You could go Knicks/Rangers-Yanks/Mets-Jets/Giants, or you could go Sixers-Flyers-Phillies-Eagles. (Some actual Jersey options opened up later — Nets-Devils — but by then my allegiances were already set in stone.)

Those were your choices and there were plenty of them; more, in fact than in any other area of the country. You really couldn't complain, and you really shouldn't have had any trouble picking your teams.

But I was an against-the-grain little kid — probably from growing up in a Supersized Irish-Catholic family (we're talking well into double-digits, but that's another story) — and I was always looking for ways to separate from the herd.

So I went Knicks-Rangers-Mets ... Dolphins.

Truth be told, it was probably the cool aqua and orange uniforms that did it (still the best unis in the league, with the Bears a close second). Those, and, well, who doesn't like dolphins? I was a little kid; I'd seen real, live, ocean-going dolphins on a family vacation once, and I'd been to Sea World. I'd found my team. Then that team went 17-0 and won the Super Bowl. Been with them ever since.

And they've been coming up with the thrills decade after decade:

The Dolphins were involved in two of the hands-down greatest playoff games in NFL history — their marathon OT win over Kansas City in 1971, still the longest game ever, and their jaw-droppingly exciting comeback but eventual OT defeat against San Diego in 1982.

This was the game in which Don Strock (the greatest backup QB in NFL history, don't even try to dispute it), Duriel Harris and Tony Nathan executed the famous Hook-and-Lateral play for a touchdown right before halftime to juice the comeback. They'd been down 24-0; the trick play made it 24-17; the game ended 41-38 in OT, after multiple missed field goals, several spilled Cokes and one broken end table in the family rec room.

It was during this time — with the above game sealing the deal — that I gained an acolyte in my Dolphins fandom. Namely, my younger brother: a true wide-eyed convert who embraced the cause with a fervor that even I found scary at times. He had an elaborate — I'm talking Santeria-Occult elaborate — pregame ritual for Miami Dolphins television viewing.

I e-mailed him the other day, asking if he could remember the details. Here's what he shot back, 10 minutes later, along with a comment about how cool - really — things are right now between defensive end Jason Taylor and linebacker Zach Thomas:

Before games, all of these items were laid on, above, and in front of the TV, which in retrospect showed an awful lot of Dolphins games for a television in New Jersey.

—Danny the Dolphin (a two-foot orange stuffed dolphin that incidentally was named long before Dan Marino was a Dolphin)
—Posters: Bob Griese, Jimmy Cefalo, A.J. Duhe, Mark Duper and, later, John Offerdahl
—Dolphins Trash can
—Dolphins Replica Helmet
—Two Pencils: one orange w/ aqua writing, and one vice-versa.
—Replica Aqua No. 82 Duriel Harris jersey (probably bought at Sears)
—Authentic White No. 42 Lyle Blackwood jersey
—Authentic Aqua No. 77 A.J. Duhe jersey (both this and the above purchased at Gerry Cosby's in NYC)
—Hats:
Too many to recall but I'll start with:
One winter hat I knit in Third Grade (a simple pattern of half orange-half aqua);
One "coach's" hat (like you would see Shula wear in the late 70's) with a white mesh back and horizontal (orange/aqua) stripes on the crest with the dolphin symbol flanked by the words "Miami" and "Dolphins"— still my favorite football hat design, by the way;
A fitted aqua hat with the Dolphin-in-the-sun symbol;
—Dolphins-colored Zubaz (late-80's fashion nightmare) pants—these also came later. —Homemade items: these included an Irish flag that had spent too much time in the sun causing the Kelly green third of the flag to fade to a perfect Miami Dolphins aquamarine (courtesy my pal Matt Sanderson). An actual Orange Bowl. This was an appropriately- colored cereal bowl that Matt had labeled "Orange Bowl" using adhesive letters. Genius!


A few things to note about that e-mail, which did not come from a mental-health facility in South Florida but from a completely unsupervised apartment in Brooklyn:

First, notice how he calls the Dolphins logo a "symbol." It's not a mere commercial logo but something deeper, like a religious icon.

Second, the number of homemade items is either endearing or disturbing. I'm not sure which. Could be both.

Third, A.J. Duhe, the Phins' middle linebacker who was Rookie of the Year in 1977, and All-Pro in '84, is part of a proud Miami tradition of diamond-in-the-rough linebackers. (And my brother once left a party during high school to be home in time to catch A.J. Duhe on an episode of "Miami Vice." But anyway.) This tradition began with Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti in the '70s, continued through Duhe and five-time Pro Bowler John Offerdahl (a second-rounder out of Western Michigan), and carries on today in 5'11, 228-pound wrecking ball Zach Thomas, a six-time Pro Bowler whom everyone thought was too small to make it in the NFL.

Which brings us back to this year's team. Thanks for waiting. Thomas and Taylor will anchor the D along with stellar second-year linebacker Channing Crowder. We feel pretty good about the D, though the secondary is a little suspect. There's only one returning starter back there, cornerback Travis Daniels.

The offense should be serviceable, could be damn good. Our second-year running back, Ronnie Brown, says he's ready to shoulder a full load in Ricky Willams' absence, and we are choosing to believe him. Chris Chambers is a bona-fide, dangerous field-stretcher, Randy McMichael a quality tight end and Marty Booker a decent second option who can also go deep. And Ronnie Mexico's younger brother, Marcus Vick, is bound to contribute in some entertaining way. Possibly even on the field.

Then there's Culpepper. He's coming off of major knee surgery, which is scary enough. But what really scares Dolphins fans about Culpepper is this stat: He has 81 career fumbles in ... wait for it ... 81 career games. Yikes. As my friend Ward, a diehard Vikings fan says, "He's got small hands, like carnival folk."

Apparently so, because the football squirts out of those mitts at a Dave Kreig-like rate. Of the 81 cough-ups, 36 have been lost. Visions of Culpepper reproducing his electrifying 2004 season, when he threw for 4,717 yards and had a QB rating of 110.9, tend to evaporate in our mind's eye when we contemplate his fumble numbers. But hey, we've got Joey Harrington in reserve if Culpepper doesn't pan out! We're not worried.

Actually, we're not. We turn ham-and-eggers into Hall of Fame linebackers; we lost Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese to a broken leg in '72, plugged in 38-year-old Earl Morrall for nine games and still went undefeated and won it all; we went to the Super Bowl after the 1982 season with David Woodley at quarterback; we lost Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino to a ruptured Achilles tendon in 1993, and Scott freakin Mitchell stepped in and immediately started looking like Johnny Unitas.

It was Don Shula's machine and, apparently, anyone with opposable thumbs could drive it. And now Nick Saban has come in, turned a 4-12 doormat into a 9-7 winner last season and the curve is trending upward once again, as it always does in Dolphin-land. Yes, we believe Our Team Is Better Than Your Team.

And speaking of Marino, well, I realize I'm late getting to the biggest star in the team's history, but pick up a copy of my book Great Man-Crushes I Have Known for more on him. I say it all in there. In the meantime, here's a quick greatest-hits list: NFL MVP in 1984 with 5,084 passing yards and 48 TD passes; nine-time Pro Bowler, all-time NFL leader in career passing yards (61,361) and touchdowns (420); 1994 Comeback Player of the Year; the Fake Spike Game against the Jets that season (half-credit to Bernie Kosar); a cameo in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; second only to John Elway in fourth-quarter comeback wins ... I could go on and on in a Marino-induced reverie (did I mention that I am the No. 1 Proust scholar in the country?), but I'll wrap it up with a recent encounter with the man himself.

That's right, I ran into Dan the Man just a few weeks ago on the corner of 53rd and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. I came around the corner and there he was — frighteningly tan, possibly not in a good mood, chewing gum and staring hard at the foot and car traffic passing by. Maybe he was waiting to go on at HBO, I don't know, but there he was. In the flesh. His wife (I assumed) stood a respectful two-and-a-half yards off.

I'm not one for bugging famous people, but this was different, right? Could a lifelong Dolphins fan really let this moment pass without saying something? Of course not. But what to say that wouldn't be crushingly boring? I could go with "Hey Ace, got any more of that gum?" Or maybe "Clock! Clock!" I thought of a lot of perfectly clever things to say. Problem was, I thought of all those things after, way after, the moment had passed. All I could muster at the time was, "Thanks for all the great years." Just miserable, right? Hopelessy corny and trite. But, then again, not far off the mark.