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Shula, Dolphins Caught in Rough Waters

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 22, 1995

MIAMI, NOV. 21 -- These are troubled times for the Miami Dolphins and their rock-jawed coach, Don Shula. Never mind the lynch-mob mentality out there on South Florida's talk-show circuit the morning after Monday night's 44-20 loss at the hands of the visiting San Francisco 49ers. Now, even some of Shula's staunch supporters are wondering how long the NFL's winningest coach can survive if his team continues to embarrass itself as it did before a national television audience.

This morning, Shula stuck out his chiseled chin and solemnly said: "How can you blame the fans {for being upset}. . . . It's strictly on us. They have a right to be down on everyone. . . . We were completely overpowered and outclassed."

By this afternoon he insisted he's felt worse after other losses, but not much worse. He also was able to laugh when a television reporter doing a Thanksgiving story asked the coach what he was thankful for.

"You're catching me at the wrong time," Shula said with a smile before clicking off "good health, happiness, family, all those things."

Bolstered by the offseason addition of some high-priced free agents, his 6-5 team, loser of five of its past seven games, cannot be counted among his current blessings. The Dolphins won their first four, then lost the next three, including what Shula said today was his lowest of lows, a 17-16 decision against the pitiful New York Jets. Then came an important home victory against Buffalo and another on the road against San Diego, games Shula said he thought had gotten his team "back on track."

Not so. Instead, it's been a total derailment the past two weeks. There have been humbling losses to New England and San Francisco. Monday night the Dolphins dropped 11 passes, missed at least seven tackles, allowed quarterback Dan Marino to be sacked on the game's first three plays and made 49ers quarterback Elvis Grbac look like an all-pro.

Shula, 65, has been through all of this before, and the two Super Bowl trophies in the entrance hall of the team's practice facility, not to mention 344 career victories in 33 years and certain Hall of Fame enshrinement, attest to his enduring brilliance. But now more than ever many fans in this area are wondering how much longer he will be willing to subject himself to this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately barrage from fans and to a team that's not always on the same page. After the 49ers game, both safety Louis Oliver and linebacker Brian Cox questioned the heart of some teammates and Oliver said he wished more players would study more game tapes and work harder on the practice field.

Asked about what appeared to be in-fighting among some players, Shula said: "That's the thing I've got to make sure doesn't happen. There are always players having opinions or attitudes. They're free to say or think what they feel as long as it doesn't interfere with my preparation or their preparation or hurt the team. I don't have a problem with it. If it does interfere, I do."

H. Wayne Huizenga, the team owner and an lifelong fan of Shula's, has been mostly silent on his team's up-and-down year after many picked Miami to be the AFC's Super Bowl representative. After the Buffalo victory, Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope asked him if he was considering a coaching change after the season. "The thought has never entered my mind," he said. Huizenga was not available to comment today, according to a spokesman.

The thought has entered many minds that Jimmy Johnson, the former University of Miami and Dallas Cowboys coach, is merely biding his time, commuting between his home in the Florida Keys and a Fox television studio in Los Angeles until Shula decides he would like to stop. But if there is any quit in Shula, you would have a hard time believing it today.

Even if his fans and many in the media are already writing off his team's playoff chances, Shula certainly has not. "A lot of teams are in the pack," he said. "How many have better records than 6-5?"

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© 1995 The Washington Post Company