Don Strock, who was knocked silly last Sunday, has been cleared for combat duty by a neurologist and will start at quarterback for the Miami Dolphins Thursday night in their showdown with the New England Patriots for first place in the AFC East.
This is pro football's most neurotic division, the one nobody seems to want to win. The game will be televised in Washington (WJLA-TV-7, 8:30 p.m.).
Strock, elevated from understudy to top billing ahead of fading star Bob Griese a week ago, was dazed by Baltimore Colt defensive end Fred Cook in the second quarter Sunday. He remained woozy on the sidelines as Griese, demoted from No. 1 quarterback for the first time in a dozen years, came in to lead the Dolphins to a 28-24 victory.
But after a precautionary examination on Monday, Strock was given permission to play Thursday. He had a lingering stiff neck as he led the Dolphins through a light final practice today at Biscayne College, but said he would be ready for the game that could redeem what seemed less than a week ago to be a lost year for the Dolphins.
That was before the Patriots lost in overtime 16-13, to old nemesis Buffalo, the third time in five weeks that they have let a one-game lead disappear.
For both teams, tied for the fifth time this year atop their division with 8-5 records, this game at the Orange Bowl looms as a one-night season. The winner likely will go to the playoffs as the division champion and the loser home for the winter to contemplate an exasperating sequence of injuries and squandered opportunities.
The Patriots and Dolphins, teams of impressive talent that have been beset by troubling injuries and the puzzling, inexplicable lack of consistency that makes coaches kick their clipboard and talk to their movie projector, have had chances to take command of their division. But every time first place has fallen into their laps, they couldn't seem to get rid of it fast enough.
Unlike Don Shula-coached teams of the past, Miami has played its worst football in its biggest games this year. This is not encouraging for the sellout crowd of 75,000 expected Thursday, but the fact that New England has not won a game in the Orange Bowl since 1966, nor scored a touchdown there since 1975 gives the Dolphin fans renewed hope.
"We've had a miserable season, but justice is about to prevail," predicted veteran Bob Kuechenberg. "New England has let us back in the ball game one time too many. We won't lose again."
"We haven't been able to win any showdowns this year and we're due," said Shula, long a master of imparting his own big-game intensity to his team. s"It's ironic that we're in the position we're in with all the disappointment we had. Now it all boils down to Thursday night . . . We have to rise to the occasion."
Continuing his season-long search for a spark to ignite the offense, Shula has turned again to OUR MAN STROCK -- as this drama surely would be called if it were a TV series instead of a a football game.
The Miami offense sputtered and stumbled under Griese, 34, the bespectacled 13-year veteran from Pardue who leads all active NFL quarterbacks in victories as a starter (99) and touchdown passes (183).
A classy, courageous, intelligent quarterback, Griese had epitomized Dolphin success for 12 years. It was a traumatic decision to bench him while healthy, but with his accuracy declining. Shula made the move last week.
Strock, who turned 29 this week, is a 6-foot-5, 200-pound six-year man out of Virginia Tech. He has been billed "the bullpen ace of the NFL" for his more-than capable work as a relief man for the injured Griese in recent seasons, especially last year when he got the Dolphins off to a 5-2 start before their No. 1 flipper came back from a knee injury and took them to the playoffs.
Strock completed three of six passes for 50 yards and a touchdown to speedy Duriel Harris in Baltimore before Cook separated him temporarily from his senses.
He suffered momentary amnesia, and was punchy the rest of the game -- "in the ozone" as he put it. Griese came in and completed nine of 17 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns in engineering the victory.
"Even when I was a pitcher in Little League and Pony League, I was always a starter, but maybe now I should be a relief pitcher," said Griese. "When Shula told me I wasn't going to start, I told him I would do anything I could to help and I'd be ready. When Don went down, I was. I was just happy to be able to contribute."