Sharks circle Dolphins legend Shula

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nearly 27 years ago, Don Shula lost a game to the New York Jets that changed his life and his career and was instrumental in his move to Miami.

What may have been his most significant loss since then came last Sunday -- again to the Jets -- and it could be the beginning of the end of Shula's Miami career if the Dolphins don't snap out of it.

When Shula's Baltimore Colts were upset by the Jets in Super Bowl III, the loss soured his relationship with owner Carroll Rosenbloom and led to his departure in 1970 to Miami, where he became a coaching legend and won two Super Bowls.

But it has been nearly 22 years since Shula won a Super Bowl and the fans are getting impatient. Their anger boiled over Sunday when the Dolphins lost their third straight game, to the lowly Jets.

The Dolphins, who have 19 players who were chosen on the first round of the draft, were supposed to be headed to the Super Bowl.

Instead, they may be the proof that a bunch of high-priced free agents does not make a team. Chemistry is important, and the Dolphins seem to be lacking it.

When Miami safety Louis Oliver was asked whether divisions are developing on the team, he said: "What I'm supposed to say is no. So, I'll say what I'm supposed to say -- no -- and let you fill in the blanks."

Bryan Cox said, "We have too many locker-room lawyers."

Safety Gene Atkins, whose best hit this year was on a reporter in the locker room, threatened to walk out if buddy Michael Stewart was benched.

ESPN2 reported that quarterback Dan Marino, on a plane ride home from New York, confronted players who he thought were taking the loss lightly. Marino denied the report and added: "You want to know what I did on the plane? I got on the plane. I sat in my seat. I watched a movie. I didn't really get out of my seat until the plane landed. And I went home."

In any case, Shula is getting most of the heat. One columnist said the coach has lost control of his team.

A whole generation of fans who don't remember the Dolphins' perfect 1972 season are calling for him to quit or resign.

Shula said, "They haven't called me."

But he conceded: "It's up to me. We've got to get it back."

Fans have noticed that former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson lives in the Miami area and has left little doubt he's interested in the job. Johnson, who has turned down the New Orleans Saints, has kept the heat on Shula all season.

"Maybe it's bad for me to say, but he's not really above criticism. Everybody else is criticized, right?" Johnson said earlier this year.

Shula tries to ignore the Johnson speculation.

"That's always been there since Jimmy has been available. If it's not Miami, it's New Orleans or any other team that loses a game," he said.

That's why the Dolphins' home game today against the Buffalo Bills is so important. Marino, sidelined the previous two games by hip and knee injuries, is supposed to return, and the Dolphins must stop the slide to stop the rumors.

"This [losing] sure better stop," wide receiver Gary Clark said. "Or we'll be home for Christmas opening gifts."

If that happens, Shula could be home joining the ranks of the unemployed coaches.

Browns embarrass Modell

Who ordered the benching of Cleveland Browns quarterback Vinny Testaverde?

Whispers in Cleveland are that owner Art Modell ordered coach Bill Belichick to do it because he was so upset about the loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last week.

There's no doubt about one thing. Modell was upset.

"It was a very, very poor performance by the entire team, the coaches, the players, everybody," Modell said. "I apologize to the public at large. It was an embarrassment to me. What's so distressing is that this is a better team than last year, based on the acquisitions we made. I've invested a lot of money in this ballclub this year, and I expected better results. I can't remember the last time I felt this low. I'm extremely upset. This was a bad one. I don't want to underestimate the impact it had on me and others in the organization."

The tirade started speculation that Belichick's job is on the line. Modell didn't exactly give him a vote of confidence.

"I'm not going to get into that. I'll make my assessment at the end of the season," he said.

Meanwhile, Testaverde, the AFC Player of the Month in September, is unhappy, too.

Testaverde said he told Belichick, "I think the situation stinks." He added: "Bill said I wasn't being made the scapegoat, but I told him that's how it's perceived. Bill said he felt like we had no leadership. He said that I have been playing well but the players around me have not performed."

He then blamed his receivers, saying, "I think we would have won at least two more games if we had hung on to some balls."

Deion's debut

Deion Sanders makes his debut as a Dallas Cowboy today at the Georgia Dome, a stadium Sanders called "my house" when he played for the Atlanta Falcons.

The league earlier had indicated that it might try to stop Sanders from playing because it contends the Cowboys are over the salary cap, but the matter will be decided in court. U.S. District Judge David Doty has sent the matter back to a special master for a hearing after briefs are filed by Nov. 6.

That likely means the matter won't be decided before the Cowboys play the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 12, so the Cowboys won't have to adjust their roster for that key game even if the league eventually prevails.

Meanwhile, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones continues to criticize the league for threatening to try to stop Sanders from playing.

"They change their position as the days go by. They have been all over the lot in this," Jones said. "I hope this is resolved before we have a debate right before the kickoff as to who is on the field and who isn't."

Jones, meanwhile, has been consistent. He says that Sanders' contract is legal under the cap and that he'll win. He has the NFL Players Association on his side because the players like gimmick contracts that put huge signing bonuses (Sanders got $12.9 million) into the players' pockets.

The concussion watch

St. Louis Rams quarterback Chris Miller has suffered four concussions in 13 months, and doctors say he's at serious medical risk if he suffers an additional one. But he's not getting sympathy from coach Rich Brooks.

"I think concussions are a little overrated," Brooks said. "People in the game also have knee injuries. They have shoulder problems. I think concussions have been made bigger than life. People have been getting hit on the head since creation. Rocks fall on you. Trees fall on you. The media hype on concussions the last two years has been unbelievable.

"With all the media talk about concussions, I think this encourages players to take shots at a guy if they think he is a melon head and it can put him out of the game."

Miller's wife, Jennifer, has a different view.

"Before every game, I am a wreck," she said. "I worry about him all the time. My No. 1 interest now is to make sure he comes out of the game in one piece. It's very hard."

The last word

Former Oilers running back Alonzo Highsmith is a heavyweight fighter in Houston and hasn't lost yet. He figures he can use the Astrodome if the Oilers and Astros both move.

"I'll be fighting in the Astrodome. It's going to be me in the dome. I'll be the only ticket in town," he said.

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