2003 NFL training camp

John Clayton

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Sunday, August 3
Updated: August 9, 10:57 AM ET
Seau, Knight looking to change Dolphins' formula

By John Clayton

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Wondering about the Dolphins' annual December fade? Don't ask. It's a touchy subject. Defensive end Jason Taylor is sick of being asked about it. Coach Dave Wannstedt doesn't have any answers other than to bring in more veteran leadership to change it.

"This is my ninth year, and it's the same, repeat process," middle linebacker Zach Thomas said. "It's kinda like the movie 'Groundhog Day.' "

Which is why Wannstedt hopes that he's stumbled upon the right formula for reversing the Dolphins' annual late-season retreat. He brought in veterans whose actions speak louder than words. Linebacker Junior Seau, defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina, strong safety Sammy Knight and cornerback Terrell Buckley let their actions speak for them. Wannstedt is hoping that leadership by example can lead the Dolphins to the playoffs and beyond.

Jason Taylor
Jason Taylor wants his teammates to forget about past late-season struggles.
"Football is simple; you go out there and make plays," Seau said. "The Dolphins know about my credentials. They have my résumé. But everything starts in practice in trying to be consistent in what you do."

Seau is among nine current and former Pro Bowlers on the Dolphins' defense. Often, they sit around the Pro Bowl looking at each other wondering why a group this talented on one side of the ball can't make it to the Super Bowl. Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain are the game's best tandem of cover cornerbacks. Taylor is a defensive player of the year following an 18½-sack season.

"People over-analyze things and try to psycho-analyze everything," Taylor said. "Every year, it's the same old thing. We get into late November or the first week in December and we start getting the questions. They are asking about losing and faltering on the road, all that talk. It starts getting in people's heads. People start thinking about it. To me, it's history. Don't talk about it. Don't worry about it."

The Dolphins won't know until December whether their fortunes will fade, but they know in August that they are loaded with talent. Bettors in Las Vegas are wagering heavily on the Dolphins. The Dolphins haven't had a losing season since 1988, but they have lost at least two games in the month of December each of the past seven seasons. During that span, they've been 13-16.

There should be optimism. Halfback Ricky Williams dropped his weight to 228 pounds and is running quicker than his 1,853-yard season in 2002. Wide receiver Derrius Thompson, who signed as a free agent after two seasons with Washington, is the Dolphins' sleeper whom Wannstedt believes will offer Jay Fiedler a big target and a big-play threat. Their major concerns are at left tackle because starter Mark Dixon has a history of back problems and may not be able to stay healthy for 16 weeks.

Defensively, the Dolphins have ranked no lower than sixth in the NFL since 1998. On paper, they're better and deeper.

What is noticeable is the professionalism, enthusiasm and attention to detail offered by some of the newest Dolphins. Between dual practice sessions Friday with the Titans in Nashville, Knight and safety Brock Marion spent two hours on the chalkboard looking at plays and studying tape while others rested their camp-weary legs.

Seau comes to Miami on a mission. After 13 seasons, including 12 consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl, Seau was traded by the Chargers even though he wanted to finish his career there.

In Miami, he's all business. Seau's taken his conditioning to a new level. His weight has dropped from 255 to 245 pounds. His face is leaner and meaner than in the past. On the field, when he isn't making plays, he works on footwork techniques and pass drops.

Ankle problems nagged him last year, but he kept trying to play. In 13 starts, he had a career-low 60 tackles and 24 assists, but he kept trying to make it through on guts and smarts.

"I shouldn't have played some of those games," Seau said. "I had the ankle shot every Saturday and Sunday and it was something I wanted to gut out. Obviously, I was judged on that. Here I am a Miami Dolphin, and the ankle is doing fine."

Seau and Thomas are an interesting pair at linebacker. Both are among the game's best anticipators of plays. During minicamps and training camp, the two perennial Pro Bowlers are learning how to work with other.

Every year, it's the same old thing. We get into late November or the first week in December and we start getting the questions. They are asking about losing and faltering on the road, all that talk. It starts getting in people's heads. People start thinking about it. To me, it's history.
DE Jason Taylor

"He's the bigger guy; I'm the smaller guy," Thomas said. "He's got the better pass rush game going after the sack. I'll be the coverage guy. I think I blitzed eight times the whole year last season. I think we will be blitzing a little more because of Junior. He does a great job of getting to the quarterback."

Wannstedt wants Seau to turn the weak-side linebacker position into the strength of the defense even though he's starting his career over at the age of 34.

"The skilled part of his game is amazing," Wannstedt said. "The way he runs is amazing. The way he reacts is truly amazing. I don't even know how old he is or how long he's been playing when I've watched him. It doesn't enter my mind. He's in such great shape."

This could be a good system for Seau. Wannstedt's scheme has the linebackers playing a yard or two deeper than most defenses. His defensive linemen are active and their mission is to funnel the ballcarrier to the linebackers. Seau loves the action and so does Thomas, who says he enjoys working with the future Hall of Famer.

"Junior can do a lot of stuff in this defense," Thomas said. "The defense is disciplined but you can flow, set up the middle linebacker and let the weak-side linebacker make plays. If we stay disciplined, we'll definitely have a great year."

Statistically, the Dolphins have a great year every season on defense. But stats aren't enough. Last year, the team, along with the defense, struggled in road games, another baffling characteristic of a Dolphins team that tied for the AFC East lead but finished third because of tie-breakers. Maybe at 34 Seau isn't any better than former Dolphins linebacker Derrick Rodgers, who was traded to New Orleans.

Here's the Dolphins' thinking: Seau will provide energy and confidence to the Dolphins in some of those road games. He makes big plays. He's smart. He can still run. He's on a mission, and so is Knight.

"It's exciting," Seau said. "I'm coming to a great organization and a great team. There is a lot of talent and great character. We've got to turn the corner and build a dominating defense."

Another thing the Dolphins know for sure is that they have a dominating running attack. Williams looks so much better than last year that it's scary to think of the numbers he's going to put up this season.

Minor shoulder surgery improved some of the pain he was having last season. Williams is more comfortable than he's been at anytime in the NFL. He no longer wears a helmet to hide his face during interviews. Williams is still shy, but he's thoughtful, well-spoken and seems comfortable with his teammates and his coaches.

"I'm a couple pounds lighter than last year, and I've been working hard in the offseason," Williams said. "The biggest thing this season is that I need to build on what I did last year. I'm just trying to be consistent and stay focused. I feel good."

The Dolphins feel good, too. We'll see how they feel come December.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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