They have had such a remarkable season, throwing and catching the football like no other team in NFL history. And yet, there has been just a little trouble in the paradise that is the Miami Dolphins' offense.
Just a little spat among best friends, receiver Mark Clayton was saying this morning as the Dolphins continued preparations for Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. He and his quarterback, Dan Marino, have had words several times this season, even as Clayton set a league record for touchdown catches (18) and Marino set a record for touchdown passes (48) and yards (5,084).
"Well, one time, Coach (Don) Shula called a play during a TV timeout, so he (Marino) comes back to the huddle," Clayton said, an impish grin on his face. "It was a reverse and I told him I didn't want to run that. I wasn't feeling too good, a little tired. Then I said, 'Okay, I'll run it, but don't send me across the whole field.' He says, 'Ah, just shut up.' 'Okay,' I said. Then I'm running and Marino misses a key block that would have sprung me. I told him what I was thinking. Oh, yeah, he knew what was on my mind.
"We got off the field when the series was over, and we talked, and got it straight. That happened in our first New England game. Then we did it again in the Philly game.
"He just gets so hyped up, so pumped up. He wants to do good on every play. So do I. I guess we're both that way, so we fight a little. But it's still a big happy family, no question. And what's a family without arguments?"
A year ago, Clayton was mostly a stepchild in that family. He was an eighth-round draft choice from Louisville, an itty-bitty, 5-foot-9, 175-pounder used mostly in third-down situations and as a punt returner. He caught only six passes and, according to David Shula, Don's son and the receivers coach, "He just wasn't in tune, as into it as he should have been. He had trouble concentrating on the ball. We knew he had all the tools, and we knew he could be better."
In the offseason, the Dolphins ask many of their players to attend a 10-week session. It is held three days a week, five hours a day, and they work on skills on the field, study film and learn the subtleties of the game. Clayton was there every day -- "They said it wasn't mandatory, but you kinda got the idea you better be there," he said -- as were receiver Mark Duper and Marino.
"We're on the field every day, throwing passes, sometimes with one-on-one coverage, working on their routes, working on adjustments, learning about each other," David Shula said. "We also learned a lot about Mark. During that period, we gained confidence in him and we knew he could help us if he got the chance. As you can see, he did that."
Clayton did not know he had replaced Jimmy Cefalo as a starter until the week before Miami's season opener against the Redskins. "Nah, they never come out and tell you, but they had me in there with the first team, so I could figure it out . . . "
In his first game, Clayton caught three passes against the Redskins for 31 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown catch that merely got him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
More important, the Dolphins also were sending out a message that teams no longer could afford to put double coverage on Duper and leave Clayton one on one with a defender. That can create all manner of problems for a secondary, as the Dallas Cowboys found out in their last game of the regular season.
Needing a victory to get into the playoffs, Dallas was done in mostly by Clayton, who caught three touchdown passes, including the game-winner in the fourth quarter.
"Yeah, that was kinda nice," Clayton said today. "After my first touchdown catch that night, (Dallas cornerback Michael) Downs gets in my face and says, 'No way you get any more.' I told him to come talk to me after the game. I never saw him, and I was looking for him."
Mostly, however, Clayton says he is looking for respect. "I've been talked about all my life," he said. "It's always you're too small. I like to make the doubters look silly.
"Even on the field, they look at me a lot different this year than they did last year. I can see they respect me just by looking at their faces.
"I have all the confidence in the world in my ability. Nobody can ever tell me I can't do anything. Don't ever say no to me. Everybody says he's so little. I look at it like this: They don't spell man B-I-G."