A pensive Jimmy Johnson met with the local media today less than 10 hours after his football team collapsed in the fourth quarter of yet another critical game the Miami Dolphins had countless opportunities to win.
In the second half of this season, as he watched his Dolphins lose five of their last seven games, there have been days when the mercurial coach would stomp out of news conferences after 20 seconds. But this morning, he spent close to 25 minutes looking back at Monday night's dispiriting 38-31 loss to the spoiler New York Jets and ahead to an immediate future that includes an essentially meaningless game Sunday against the Washington Redskins.
Miami's playoff future will be settled minutes before the 4:15 p.m. kickoff at FedEx Field. The Dolphins will get in as a wild-card team if visiting Seattle loses to the Jets or if Kansas City loses at home to Oakland. If the Seahawks and Chiefs both win in games that start at 1 p.m., the Dolphins will be out of the postseason, and who knows where Johnson or his 39-year-old quarterback, Dan Marino, will be next year?
Johnson sounded today like a man who is still thinking beyond this season. He talked about the Dolphins having as much salary cap money as anyone to compete for free agents in the offseason. He talked about liking the character and the talent he sees on his team. He predicted that rookie J.J. Johnson "is going to be a top-notch running back for us."
He also insisted that he still believes the Dolphins have enough talent to have an impact in the playoffs if they can somehow slip in, ironically with some help from the Jets.
"People may scoff at it, but this team, when it's playing with confidence, is capable of playing with anybody," Johnson said. "It's what's so frustrating for me as an individual. If I thought we were just going to be average, I don't want any part of it."
Marino's future has been debated all year. There were times against the Jets when he looked like the old Dan Marino, flinging passes with the quickest release in the game. There were other times when he simply looked old, unable to execute a simple handoff, a statue planted in the pocket who has had five interceptions returned for touchdowns this season. Marino said again after the game he has made no decision about playing another season, adding: "Who knows what the future will bring?"
The same also could be said for Johnson, who almost retired after the 1998 season before deciding to come back. His future once again is being debated ad nauseum in South Florida since his team's second-half slump that came after a 7-1 start.
"My approach is that it's day by day and game by game," he said. "You try to do the best we can to win the next game. I'll assess everything after the season, like I do every year. I think it does take a toll on you, it takes a toll on most head coaches. I'm half sick [with a cold] right now, but don't put any meaning into that. It hasn't been easy."
Johnson also put in a good word today for his old friend, Redskins Coach Norv Turner, who was his offensive coordinator in Dallas. Turner's team has clinched the NFC East title, but the Redskins will be playing for a first-round bye if Tampa Bay loses to Chicago and Minnesota loses to Detroit in Sunday's early games.
"Norv Turner is a great football coach," Johnson said. "He loves the game. I know there have been some frustrations for him there this season. I'm happy for him to get in the playoffs for the first time. He's worked very hard to get to this point. I'm happy for what Norv has done there."
Johnson said he now faces something of a dilemma in preparing to play the Redskins in a short week in a game that will have no bearing on the Dolphins' ability to keep playing in the postseason.
"We need [to win] the Washington game just for our own pride and to get back on a winning track," he said. "The concern is we've had a lot of players banged up right now. . . . The starters who are healthy will play. . . . Dan Marino is our quarterback and we're going to stay with him.
"Now I've got to get our guys back up morale-wise. They gave tremendous effort against the Jets. We had opportunities to win three or four times. But they made the big plays in the fourth quarter and we made too many mistakes. I'm confident we can get them back up."
Johnson also admitted that his optimistic outlook for his team and his lofty expectations for a possible Super Bowl earlier this year have made losing even more difficult to accept.
"I'm so optimistic with our team year in and year out," he said. "I always look at the best thing that can happen. A lot of people look at that as if it's a prediction. It's not. What I'm saying is that this is what the team is capable of doing. Because I am so optimistic and we do have big expectations, people do get disappointed. But I've never been a coach to poor-mouth talent so when you win everybody thinks you've done a great job.
"This league is very delicate with the talent level, free agency, the scheduling. I told [owner] Wayne Huizenga last night that the biggest enemy of great is good. You're pretty good, trying to stay good but also trying to get great. But sometimes it's easier to get great when you're bad.
"It's the way the league is structured. It gives you high picks if you lose. The 25th pick in the draft is not the same as the first or the second. In Dallas, we gutted the whole team, got a bunch of number one picks and got some great players. If you stay at a high level, it's hard to go from good to great."