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Tired of Falling Short

Thomas, motivated by negative comments, finds plenty of fuel in last season's collapse by Dolphins.

August 07, 2003|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

DAVIE, Fla. — Zach Thomas is too short, too slow and didn't deserve to go to one Pro Bowl, let alone four. Miami choked last season, and so did he. The Dolphin middle linebacker has heard it all.

From his mom.

"She's always sent me news clips ever since college and it's always negative clips," said Thomas, a fifth-round pick who has led the Dolphins in tackles six times in seven seasons. "When I'm in a hotel room opening up mail from my mom and reading that, that's my mom, man. She knows what makes me click."

They're devil-may-care packages sent with love.

"We kind of laugh about those things," said his mother, Bobby. "That's part of wanting to be the best, to prove people wrong."

But there are some barbs Thomas cannot refute. He agrees he and his teammates gagged away last season, failing to make the playoffs after a 5-1 start. Even after a midseason dip, the Dolphins looked as if they would stroll into the postseason when they beat visiting Oakland, the eventual AFC champion, to improve to 9-5. Miami rolled up 334 yards in that 23-17 victory by dominating the clock, sacking Rich Gannon five times and keeping the mighty Raider offense out of the end zone for three quarters.

It looked as if the Dolphins were the best team in the conference when they were playing at home, where they were 7-1. They were 2-6 on the road, though, proving the juggernaut was a juggernot.

"When we're here at home and we're winning, the crowd's yelling and screaming, everybody's jumping up and down and excited, it's easy to play," defensive end Jason Taylor said. "But when you're on the road and you're down by a touchdown or 10 points in the third quarter

A week before they lost their finale in overtime at New England -- a defeat that cost them a postseason berth -- the Dolphins lost at Minnesota, which came into that game 4-10.

"They were ready just to hand it to us," Thomas said. "The whole game they were just handing us, and we couldn't put them away. And even at New England. We didn't deserve to go to the playoffs playing like that. We would have gotten beat anyway. It was a good thing that we were getting some people bitter because it's not about being good, it's about being great."

With that in mind, Miami's front office was among the most active in the off-season, making sure all 11 returning offensive starters were locked in place and bolstering the defense with free agents, adding linebacker Junior Seau, defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina, safety Sammy Knight and cornerback Terrell Buckley. The team also signed quarterback Brian Griese and receiver Derrius Thompson.

The Dolphins haven't been to the conference championship game since 1991 and have a well-deserved reputation for folding late in the regular season. They haven't been better than 2-2 in December since 1995.

Dolphin owner Wayne Huizenga had gotten into the habit of extending Coach Dave Wannstedt's three-year contract by a year. But Huizenga didn't do that this off-season, offering the somewhat dubious excuse that Wannstedt didn't ask for an extension this year.

A more logical rationale is Wannstedt's Dolphins need to start winning big games. They have shown the potential: Every year since 1998 they have beaten a team that has made it to that season's Super Bowl. And yet five of their seven losses last season were to teams that missed the playoffs.

"We're under pressure here," Thomas said. "Coaches and players."

Then again, Thomas plays better when challenged. He laughs about the time a fan in Buffalo pointed to his No. 54 jersey and yelled, "Is that your height?" (Thomas is listed at 5-11.) Then there was the fan letter that began, "Dear Midget." Even his family chirps in, teasing Thomas that his head and shoulders were so square when he was a baby, it looked as if he was born in a shoebox.

"I like when I feel like it's me against the world," he said. "There's all kinds of things, from reporters to fans: I don't hold up, I'm too small. I've always heard it my whole life. Doesn't matter to me though, I'm here and they don't think that stuff upstairs."

That's obvious. The Dolphins signed him in March to a five-year contract extension through 2008. Even with a future Hall of Fame linebacker in Seau next to him, Thomas is the linchpin in this defense. The scheme is designed to funnel everything to him. And he willingly shoulders all the responsibility, and, yes, the criticism that comes with it.

After all, if he can handle letters from mom, how much worse can it get?

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