Bucs take slogfest
In the aftermath of Sunday's 16-13 loss to Tampa Bay, Dolphins cornerback Sam Madison couldn't understand why the media was asking their questions so quietly. "I don't see why you're moping," a surprisingly upbeat Madison said. "We still can do something."
Madison, though, should be well aware that the Dolphins' chances of reaching Super Bowl XXXV may have started to go down the drain like the rain that deluged Pro Player Stadium and the fans in attendance. Unable to overcome five turnovers by quarterback Jay Fiedler, the Dolphins (10-4) failed to qualify for the playoffs and no longer control their destiny when it comes to home-field advantage throughout the postseason. The only way the Dolphins will secure a playoff spot before next Sunday's game against visiting Indianapolis (7-6) will be if the Colts lose tonight to Buffalo (7-6) at the RCA Dome.
Oakland (11-3) and Tennessee (11-3) also moved ahead of the Dolphins in the race for home-field advantage by winning Sunday. And in even more bad news for the Dolphins, there also is a question about Fiedler's availability for next Sunday's game against the Colts. Fiedler suffered a left shoulder injury with 2:43 remaining before halftime and was briefly forced to the sideline. Fiedler then left the field in the third quarter to have his shoulder retaped and proceeded to complete what was the worst outing of his first season as the Dolphins' starter. "He fell on his left shoulder and jammed his shoulder into its socket," Dolphins head trainer Kevin O'Neill said. "As we looked at it, he began to move it easier and felt he could go back in. We're not sure the extent of the injury, whether it's a rotator cuff contusion or an injury to the bone. We will evaluate it further to find out."
Said Fiedler, who threw four interceptions and fumbled once while completing 13 of 28 passes for 175 yards: "Any loss stings, especially one where we played our a---- off. I take a lot of it on my shoulders with the turnovers and a couple of bad decisions. We kind of gave them 13 points out there because of offensive mistakes."
But the turnover that decided this game wasn't reflected on the scoreboard. With 21 seconds left and the Dolphins having possession on the Buccaneers' 30, Fiedler tried connecting downfield with wide receiver Oronde Gadsden. Buccaneers free safety Damien Robinson slid over to assist cornerback Brian Kelly in coverage and intercepted Fiedler's pass at his team's 9, effectively clinching a Tampa Bay victory that puts the Buccaneers (9-5) back in the thick of the NFC playoff race. "It was the same corner route I had been running the past two weeks," said Gadsden, referring to big receptions he made against Indianapolis and Buffalo. "I'm pretty sure they had been game-planning for that all week."
The Dolphins originally had planned to play for an Olindo Mare field goal to send the game into overtime, but coach Dave Wannstedt said that strategy changed after Fiedler was called for an 11-yard intentional grounding penalty on first down from the Buccaneers' 19 with 39 seconds left. Wannstedt said kicking against the wind and the rain were his deciding factors. "Once we had the penalty, that kind of forced our hand a little bit," Wannstedt said.
Said Mare, who was never asked by Wannstedt about attempting the kick: "That's just how it is. Fifty [yards] and in is comfortable. Other than that, you're starting to push it. The ball's a little heavy."
Tampa Bay's Martin Gramatica was able to overcome the elements, making three of his four field-goal attempts. Gramatica's winning 46-yarder with 8:12 remaining was set up when Fiedler fumbled a snap from center Tim Ruddy and Buccaneers linebacker Jamie Duncan recovered on the Dolphins' 30. Mistakes like that were maddening for the Dolphins' defense, which allowed only 221 yards of total offense and four second-half first downs. The unit also didn't allow Tampa Bay's lone touchdown, for Duncan snagged a poorly thrown Fiedler pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown 59 seconds into the second quarter.
That play marked the first return for a score against the Dolphins this season compared to 10 in 1999. Overall, the only Tampa Bay score that didn't come off a turnover was a 30-yard Gramatica field goal with 10:36 remaining. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't really frustrated," said Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor, who shook his head in disgust after looking at the statistics for Sunday's game. "There's no place in this world for losers. This is a tough one to take."
Said Dolphins strongside linebacker Robert Jones: "Offensively, they couldn't do anything on us. To answer their question about who has the better defense, we do. I think if Tampa was put into situations like we were today with five turnovers and a short field, the score would have been out of reach. Our offense would have put the points on the board. We gave our offense opportunities to score. Tampa got the turnovers. When you turn the ball over as many times as we did today, chances are you will lose."
For some fans, Sunday's loss may have evoked memories of the late-season slides that have marred the franchise in recent seasons. But for a team that already has exceeded preseason expectations, attitudes like Madison's were more prevalent in the Dolphins locker room than those expressing a sense of impending doom. "To have five turnovers and still have a chance to win says something about this team," said Dolphins middle linebacker Zach Thomas, who had a team-high 10 tackles. "We are not the same old Dolphins. We are not going to start losing at the end of the season. We've got great guys with character on this team. We're going to bounce back, I promise you that."
Alex Marvew The Miami Sun Sentinel 11 December 2000