TORONTO – The engines on the buses that would take the Miami Dolphins from the Rogers Centre to Pearson International Airport were already revved up. Veteran defensive end Vonnie Holliday, the last player in the locker room, was being rushed away by an anxious team official as he buttoned his stylish dress shirt.
"Vonnie, bus," the man said, gesturing in the direction of the stadium exit. "We've gotta go."
Soon the Dolphins would be out of Canadian airspace and into a realm that, for Holliday and 23 other survivors of the Disaster of 2007, feels completely foreign: After thrashing the Buffalo Bills by a 16-3 score while the Jets were stumbling in San Francisco, Miami is 8-5, in a three-way tie atop the AFC East and in control of its own playoff future.
You know, just like nobody on earth predicted a few short months ago.
"It is pretty damn amazing," Holliday said, shaking his head and pausing to spend a few more minutes discussing one of the more dramatic turnarounds in NFL history. "Last year was one of the worst seasons anyone could imagine, and to come back and be sitting where we are, it's great.
"As a veteran, it's so gratifying to have this opportunity – to succeed when everybody is doubting you and expects nothing. This is why we play the game."
Exactly a year ago the Dolphins were playing to avoid the ultimate embarrassment. At 0-13, they were staring at the most wretched regular season in NFL history, and only an overtime triumph against the Baltimore Ravens (after Matt Stover missed a potential game-winning field goal) kept them from becoming the league's first 0-16 team.
Put it this way: Can you imagine the words "first-place Detroit Lions" being uttered a year from now?
I didn't think so.
How did this happen? How did a franchise that was so downtrodden that its one true star, defensive end Jason Taylor, felt compelled to force his way out of town last summer to play for a winner, set itself up for a December to remember?
On Sunday, the Dolphins seemed to seize control of a division in which the other three competitors had been previously anointed king.
Heading into the '08 opener it was the New England Patriots, coming off a fifth consecutive AFC East championship (not to mention the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history and a conference title), who served as the presumptive bullies. But Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury in Week 1 shook up the snow globe, and even after rallying impressively on Sunday to pull out a 24-21 comeback victory over the lowly Seahawks in Seattle, the Pats (8-5) are far from secure. If New England (at Oakland, Arizona, at Buffalo) and Miami (San Francisco, at Kansas City, at Jets) both win out, the Dolphins would capture the division based on better conference record.
The Bills (6-7), who won their first four games and five of their first six, are in the midst of an atrocious collapse that leaves them with little more than scant mathematical hope. And while their fans are obviously steamed that Sunday's money-driven excursion north of the border, played in a dome in front of 52,134 mostly non-invested fans, deprived Buffalo of a pair of perceived advantages, it seemed like a dubious argument after the Bills got rolled so decisively.
"Be serious," Buffalo tackle Langston Walker said afterward. "Yeah, we could've played in the cold in front of screaming fans, but would that really have changed anything? They just beat us. They were better."
The Jets (8-5), now coming off back-to-back losses, are probably grateful that the reeling Bills are coming to town next week. If New York can get it together in that game, and the following week in Seattle, that would set up a season-ending showdown with the Dolphins that would likely mean playoffs for the victor and elimination for the loser.
If you don't think Miami quarterback Chad Pennington might be a tad fired up about that scenario, you've been missing one of the great comeback stories of 2008.
Released in August by the Jets after eight seasons when New York traded for Brett Favre, Pennington has had an impact with his new team that transcends statistics. For all of the obvious catalysts for Miami's culture change – starting with vice president of football operations Bill Parcells, who brought in 29 new players and a long record of turning around franchises in his former coaching life, and Tony Sparano, Parcells' hand-picked rookie coach whose no-nonsense, anti-schmoozer persona removed the stench of overmatched predecessor Cam Cameron – the third member of the holy trinity may be the biggest reason the Dolphins have done so much, so soon.
"Getting that guy," linebacker and NFL sack leader Joey Porter said after Sunday's game, pointing across the locker room to Pennington, "was the main thing."
Pennington, 32, was coming off a miserable season of his own. Benched midway through the Jets' crash-and-burn 2007 campaign, the ultra-driven quarterback pulled back on the relentless intensity, restoring a semblance of balance to what had long been a football-obsessed existence.
"I learned that football can't be your god," Pennington said Sunday. "Because I wasn't starting, I took stock of everything, spent time with my family [his wife, Robin, is pregnant with the couple's third son] and figured out a healthier way to approach my job."
If this is Chill Chad, some of his new teammates might have a hard time believing it. Immediately following a team meeting the night before a preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars shortly after his arrival, Pennington told the offensive skill players to stay behind for a private cram session.
The responses ranged from eye-rolls to double-takes to clenched fists.
"At first we were like, 'Ughhhhhhhh,' " recalled halfback Ricky Williams, who rushed for 40 yards on 11 carries in his return to Toronto (where he played for the CFL's Argonauts during a season-long suspension from the NFL two seasons ago). "Then, after awhile, we started understanding. He just likes to know. He likes to know what we're thinking in every situation, and ultimately that's good for us."
Soon Pennington had created a weekly schedule of extra meetings for players only: Wednesdays with his receivers, Thursdays with the linemen and Fridays with all of Miami's skill players.
"It's a chance for all of us to talk and get on the same page," Pennington explained. "There are a lot of things we discuss, and I think it serves as a calming influence for each guy. With the receivers, we talk a lot about splits and alignments and ball placement – 'Where exactly would you like to receive the ball?' And I'll do my best to throw it there."
Sunday's lone touchdown, Pennington's 20-yard pass to tight end Anthony Fasano between a pair of Bills defensive backs with 6:48 left in the first quarter, was a direct result of an adjustment made in last Friday's meeting.
"In Wednesday's practice when we ran that play, I had thrown a pick to the safety," Pennington said. "So we talked about the angle, and we decided to run it skinnier."
Translation: Fasano made a less dramatic cut from right to left in front of strong safety Donte Whitner, and Pennington (23 of 29, 181 yards, no interceptions) got the ball to him before free safety Ko Simpson could break up the pass from the other side.
Defensively, Miami was flat-out suffocating, with cornerback Will Allen's third quarter end-zone interception squelching Buffalo's best chance to make it a game. Porter, a free-agent disappointment in '07, continued to thrive after switching sides to take over Taylor's former role as a weak-side pass-rushing menace. He now has a career-high 16½ sacks and is a legitimate candidate for NFL defensive player of the year.
Late as he was on Sunday night, to the chagrin of the team official trying to hustle him out of the locker room, Holliday made the buses wait while he answered one last question: Did he find it strange that his friend Taylor, who wanted out of Miami because of a yearning to play for a contender, was now on a Redskins team that has a worse record (7-6 after Sunday night's 24-10 defeat to the Ravens) than the one the six-time Pro Bowler left behind?
"He's not here," Holliday said, "but if JT was a part of this he'd be a guy that certainly would help us. In his absence, other guys are stepping up, like Joey Porter. I'm sure it has to be weird for him. I'm sure in hindsight he'd like to have seen this play out a little differently. But we can't dwell. We can't cry over spilled milk."
There's no point – none at all. Because, honestly, who knew?
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Kurt Warner was home Sunday night in Scottsdale quietly celebrating with his family the Cardinals' first division title in 33 years, expressing his gratitude to the organization that gave him an opportunity he didn't think he'd ever see. "It's definitely sweet," the 37-year-old quarterback said by phone hours after leading Arizona to a 34-10 victory over his former team, the St. Louis Rams, to clinch the NFC West and secure a home playoff game for the long-struggling franchise. "Thinking about this whole scenario, after wondering if I'd ever get another chance to lead another team, to accomplish this was special. It felt good. Maybe 31 other teams wouldn't have given me that opportunity, and now we've taken a big step for the organization. But it's not the final step. We're playing for something bigger." Warner is the first to concede that the Cardinals, who benefited from playing in an exceptionally weak division, haven't yet ascended to a level that would make them a legitimate threat to win a playoff game on the road. But that doesn't mean they can't get there before January, with a game against the Pats at Gillette Stadium in two weeks serving as a huge litmus test. "We've tapped into something here at home," the MVP candidate said. "Now we have to find a way to travel with it. I'm glad our next two games are against Minnesota and New England, two teams fighting for a playoff spot. That's what we need to stay engaged and to keep building on this."
• When Steelers halfback Gary Russell was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage with 12:26 remaining in Sunday's game at Heinz Field, completing an emphatic goal-line stand by the fired-up Cowboys, it looked like Pittsburgh had been overpowered in an interconference clash of perceived powers. But the Steelers, trailing 13-3, fought back to tie the game with consecutive scoring drives, then secured a 20-13 victory when cornerback Deshea Townsend picked off Tony Romo's pass to Jason Witten and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown. That, quite simply, is what great teams do, and I'm starting to wonder if Mike Tomlin's crew might be as special as the one Bill Cowher coached to a championship three seasons ago. One thing I know: Come playoff time, no team will be more battle-tested than Pittsburgh (10-3), which has road games against the Ravens (9-4) – a clash that could decide the AFC North – and Titans (12-1) over the next two weekends. The Steelers may not win both of these games, nor do they have to. But I can virtually guarantee they won't go down quietly to anyone.
• Meanwhile, on the other side of Pennsylvania, there is renewed hope that the Eagles (7-5-1) can somehow sneak into the NFC playoff field. I know I've been highly skeptical of Philly this year, but how can anyone not be impressed by what went down at Giants Stadium Sunday? The Eagles thoroughly outplayed the defending champion Giants (11-2), who are rightfully perceived as the league's most complete team, on both sides of the ball. Philly's defense stopped New York on all three of its fourth-down attempts while the Donovan McNabb-led offense converted 12 of 18 third downs. Can the Eagles overcome their earlier inconsistency and beat Cleveland and Washington over the next two weeks, which would set up a season-ending game against the Cowboys that could push the winner into the postseason? Will that tie at Cincinnati come back to bite them? Is there any way that both McNabb and coach Andy Reid will return next season for another run? After Sunday, there's a lot to ponder.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• After gutting out a 20-16 victory over the Lions Sunday to clinch a tiebreaker advantage over the second-place Bears (7-6), the Vikings (8-5) are two victories away from winning the NFC North. Unfortunately for Minnesota, its next three opponents (Cardinals, Falcons, Giants) are all formidable – and starting quarterback Gus Frerotte, who suffered a painful lower back injury in the second quarter, may not play in some or all of those games. Frerotte, who was due to get an MRI Monday morning, hurt himself late in the first half while making a tackle following his second interception, a deflected pass that ended up in the hands of Lions defensive end Corey Smith. Frerotte dutifully took down the 6-2, 250-pounder, then spent the second half in the locker room, feeling "loopy" from pain medicine, as backup Tarvaris Jackson (8-for-10, 105 yards, one touchdown) performed admirably in his absence. On a positive note, Frerotte's father-in-law, Harry Beckwith, called to compliment him on his tackling form. Beckwith, who was Frerotte's coach at Ford City High School (west of Pittsburgh), is the man who taught the lanky quarterback/cornerback how to wrap up. "I had to play both ways in high school," Frerotte recalled Sunday night from his Minneapolis apartment. "We only had 19 players. (Beckwith) called earlier and said, ‘You made a good tackle. But quit tackling from now on.' He also said he has a cane I can borrow. The whole thing makes me mad. I was angry about the interception, and I wasn't just trying to bring the guy down – I was trying to rip the ball out."
• I don't want to make too much out of one defeat, because I still think the Giants will be exceptionally tough to beat in the postseason. But Sunday's performance against the Eagles must have been somewhat disheartening for New York coach Tom Coughlin, who has to wonder whether there was a delayed-distraction effect from the Plaxico Burress saga that sunk in after the previous Sunday's rout of the Redskins. If so, the Giants need to snap out of it, with games against the Cowboys, Panthers and Vikings still remaining. Depending on what happens in Monday night's battle for the NFC South lead between Carolina and Tampa Bay (both 9-3), that Giants-Panthers game could be for homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The only positive development for the Giants on Sunday? The Jets' dismal effort in San Francisco will likely keep them off the back pages. And even though Brett Favre didn't have one of his better days, I am not going to rag on him because …
• … I'm too preoccupied with pummeling his former team. Yes, I picked the Packers to go to the Super Bowl this year. No, I was not sniffing glue at the time. That sound you hear is me smacking myself upside the head, over and over again, for being so wrong. (Well, not really. I'm actually doing it to stay awake, and I don't spend a whole lot of time worrying about how my predictions play out. But it somehow seems a lot more dramatic if I pretend that I do.) Up until the latter stages of Sunday's game with the Texans at Lambeau Field, I held out hope that the Packers' potential would kick in and they'd at least start to resemble last year's team that went 13-3 in the regular season. Uh, no. In a game-ending sequence that said it all, Aaron Rodgers got the ball with the score tied at 21 and drove the Packers (5-8) into field goal range … but a holding call and a nine-yard sack on second down blew that opportunity. Then, after a punt pinned the Texans at their 3 with 1:49 remaining, a Green Bay defense that gave up 549 total yards – Five hundred and forty nine! – allowed Houston to advance to the Pack's 22 before Kris Brown banged home a game-winning 40-yarder as time expired. At that point the 2008 Packers, 0-5 in games decided by four points or fewer, essentially expired as well. The good news is they're young and have a chance to come back strong in 2009. The bad news is that, by writing the previous, I've already set myself up for another glue-sniffing moment.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. Why the local hockey team is called the Maple Leafs … instead of, you know, the Toronto Maple Leaves. Did one of my frequent emailers name the franchise, or what?
2. Why the Bills don't give the ball to Marshawn Lynch in the red zone. Though the Dolphins did a good job of bottling up Lynch (13 carries, 31 yards) on Sunday, the physical halfback is one of the league's most determined and insistent runners near the goal line – yet offensive coordinator Turk Schonert calls plays as if he's got some slow, shrimpy ballerina in the backfield who runs like post-MVP Shaun Alexander. This was true in the previous week's 10-3 defeat to the 49ers when Lynch gained 134 yards on 16 carries but mysteriously vanished whenever paydirt loomed. Buffalo's players privately fumed, and Schonert obviously learned nothing: In the first quarter of Sunday's game, the Bills reached the Miami 20-yard line and called three passes. In the third quarter, on first-and-goal from the Dolphins' 3, Schonert called a fade, and J.P. Losman's pass to Lee Evans was picked off in the corner of the end zone. Beast Mode? Schonert's all about Least Mode. If Dick Jauron survives to coach a fourth season in '09, and he retains Schonert, there may be some very unhappy people in his locker room.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
First of all, congratulations to the fan who, on the weekend O.J. Simpson was sentenced in Las Vegas to up to 33 years in prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, showed up at Sunday's game at the Rogers Centre rocking the throwback jersey of the former Bills star. That was a smooth move, akin to wearing a Rae Carruth uniform to a Panthers game or, perhaps, a shirt with Mark David Chapman's likeness to a Paul McCartney concert. Even more impressive was the stadium scoreboard operator who decided to give the attention-seeking idiot his moment of glory on two separate occasions, allowing him to turn his back to the in-stadium cameraman and display the "Simpson" stitching for all to see. Later, with things looking increasingly grim for the nominal home team, the scoreboard operator elected to show footage of bummed-out fans leaving their seats and streaming for the exits in droves. All in all, a proud three hours in North American marketing history. Look, I have a very high opinion of Canada, and of Toronto in particular, and I like the idea of coming up here for games. But maybe next time they need to go with dot racing, the Kissing Cam and other scoreboard standards at the expense of showing a human feminine hygiene product paying tribute to a notorious criminal.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
– Text Friday night from newly signed Pats linebacker Junior Seau, pulling out his signature phrase to commemorate his return to the NFL
"It took 10 years but I think they have lost their fans"
– Text Sunday afternoon from veteran Vikings center Matt Birk after beating the Lions at Ford Field
"All I gotta say is MINDBOGGLING"
– Text Sunday evening from Jags halfback Fred Taylor after returning home from a 23-10 defeat at Chicago that dropped his team to 4-9