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Fiedler aiming to stop slide

After a strong start, the Miami quarterback is hoping his team doesn't repeat recent history.

By JOE FRISARO

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000


DAVIE -- As triggerman of the struggling Miami Dolphins offense, Jay Fiedler is shouldering much of the blame for his team's two straight losses.

Miami (10-5) finds itself in another December free fall in part because the once mistake-free Fiedler is committing crucial turnovers.

The quarterback has performed miserably since partially tearing his left rotator cuff in the second quarter against the Bucs Dec. 10. The combination of the injury and stormy weather that day resulted in Fiedler being picked off a career-high four times a 16-13 loss.

Fiedler followed his dreadful showing in the downpour with a 150-yard passing effort, including a fluttering last-minute interception, in a 20-13 loss to Indianapolis.

"As much as there were outside forces," Fiedler said, "I still have to take credit. I have to be smarter with the conditions."

For Fiedler and the Dolphins, the season is on the line Sunday in New England. A win clinches the Dolphins' first AFC East title since 1994. A loss, combined with wins by the Jets and Colts, would eliminate Miami from the playoffs.

"It's down to that part of the season where you have to win games," Fiedler said. "We expect that the Patriots will be motivated to knock us out of the playoffs. You can't think that they are looking forward to the off-season."

Two weeks ago the Dolphins were in position to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Now, the team is being compared with past Miami teams that folded in the final month.

Players desperately want to downplay talk of history repeating itself -- at least recent history. Last season, Miami squeezed into the playoffs despite dropping five of its last six. Since Don Shula retired after the 1995 season, the Dolphins are 7-13 in regular-season games played in December and January.

The final-month fade is almost a complete reversal from the Dolphins' September starts. In that span, they are 13-5 in the opening month of the season.

"We still can finish strong," Pro Bowl cornerback Sam Madison said. "Or we still may back into the playoffs, like we did the last couple of years."

For weeks, players talked about finishing strong. They're tired of hearing about how they were blown out 62-7 in the post-season by Jacksonville, and 38-3 to Denver in the 1998 post-season.

After losing to the Bucs, linebacker Zach Thomas insisted this year's team wouldn't stumble to the finish like it did during coach Jimmy Johnson's final two seasons. Today, even Thomas is doubting.

"I just hope we don't get into that slide again," he said.

Much of Miami's hopes rest on the decisionmaking of Fiedler, who directs the league's 27th-best overall offense. The Dolphins offense has been held to 17 points or fewer in five of its past six games. Fiedler has thrown just three touchdowns (all in a Dec. 3 win at Buffalo) in his past six games. For the year, he has 13 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Only the Browns have a worse-rated passing offense.

The dismal statistics even have coach Dave Wannstedt wondering whether Fiedler's confidence is shot.

"I would hope not," Wannstedt said. "But you'd have to ask him that. Personally, I think when you throw a few interceptions, it probably does (affect it)."

If Fiedler's psyche is shaken, he isn't saying so publicly. Instead, he points to the team in general.

"We still have our confidence," said Fiedler, who admits to experiencing pain while handing off with his left hand. "Personally, we made a lot of mistakes in the past two weeks. We're confident we'll go up and play well at New England. You always have to reinforce yourselves that things aren't as bad as they seem."

Wannstedt has received a great deal of credit for keeping the Dolphins focused despite adversity. That wasn't the case when Johnson feuded with quarterbackk Dan Marino, which caused distractions in the locker room.

The current slide is the team's first two-game losing streak of the season. And injuries could play a major factor at New England. The already hurting passing game is missing two more receivers: Bert Emanuel (ribs) and Leslie Shepherd (knee). And Oronde Gadsden, who is expected to step up in their absence, has chronic toe injuries.

Another possible distraction is centered on the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey reportedly is a strong candidate for the University of Georgia coaching job.

"We're still a work in progress in the passing game," said Gailey, who gives a "no comment" answer to questions about Georgia. "Any time you lose quality players, it's going to hurt the overall scheme and hinder what you're trying to do."

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