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Miami Dolphins season preview

INTRODUCING...

Head coach Dave Wannstedt. The former Chicago Bears mentor takes over the reins in Miami after serving as the assistant head coach under Jimmy Johnson in 1999, a title he'd held with the Dallas Cowboys from 1989-92. The Pittsburgh alumnus went onto the Chicago Bears in 1993. One season later, he earned NFC Coach of the Year honors, leading the club to a 9-7 regular season finish and a wild-card win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Wannstedt, who compiled a 41-57 record in six seasons in the Windy City, becomes the fourth head coach in the Dolphins' 35-season history, following George Wilson (1966-69), Don Shula (1970-95) and Johnson.

ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL...

Thurman Thomas didn't see much action his last two seasons with the Buffalo Bills, especially in 1999 when he missed most of the campaign after suffering a bruised liver in the first game of the season. However, he's at full health now, and so far, the early returns on Thomas are good, especially after he turned a screen pass into a 17-yard game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Aug. 10.

NFL INSIDER POWER RATINGS

Ratings based on analysis of 1999 team and individual statistics, offseason personnel moves and feedback from respected experts (from NFL Insider's Season Preview) Rushing offense: 7.2 Passing offense: 7.2 Rushing defense: 9.0 Passing defense: 9.0 Special teams: 8.5 Coaching: 7.7 Intangibles: 8.0 TOTAL: 56.6 Scale of 1-10; Perfect score=70

More important than what he'll bring on the field is what the 13-season veteran can contribute in the locker room. The future Hall of Famer's résumé and leadership skills, developed while helping the Bills to four AFC championships and 10 postseason appearances, will be necessary as he nurtures a young cadre of backs that includes J.J. Johnson, Rob Konrad and rookie fullback Deon Dyer.

IMPACT NEWCOMER...

Wide receiver Bert Emanuel was signed to give Huard another target, but against his former team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he managed to contribute in another way - as an option quarterback. "I've got a couple of trick plays in the bag," Emanuel, an option quarterback in his college days at Rice University, said. "It was fun getting back into it and showing the fans that we've got some wrinkles in the offense and that we've got a chance to be exciting this year. It's always fun to be in a position where you can make plays for the team."

Emanuel never quite got untracked in his two years with the Bucs; he suffered an ankle injury in his first regular season game with the club in 1998 and, as a result, never quite lived up to the hype that surrounded his signing. Miami hopes he can recapture the form he showed with the Atlanta Falcons; he caught 214 passes for 2,951 yards between 1995 and 1997.

DON'T OVERLOOK...

Defensive tackle Damian Gregory, a rookie free agent from Illinois State, has demonstrated a penchant for making big plays early in his professional career. The former Illinois State star shone in the preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, making two sacks in the Dolphins' 13-10 victory. One week later against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he picked off an Eric Zeier pass at the Buccaneers' 42-yard-line in the third quarter of an eventual 15-13 win.

DOLPHINS AT A GLANCE

Head coach: Dave Wannstedt (first year with Miami). 1999 record: 9-7 (3rd in AFC East) 1999 rankings: Offense - 20th overall (308.6 yards/game), 22nd run (90.8), 13th pass (217.8) Defense - 5th overall (275.3 yards/game), 8th run (92.3), 5th pass (183.0).

KEY COMINGS

WR Bert Emanuel (Bucs) QB Jay Fiedler (Jaguars) OL Heath Irwin (Patriots) CB Terrance Shaw (Chargers) RB Lamar Smith (Saints) RB Thurman Thomas (Bills)

KEY GOINGS

CB Terrell Buckley (Broncos) TE Troy Drayton (Chiefs) G Kevin Gogan (Chargers) WR Yatil Green (Jets) LB Dwight Hollier (Colts) QB Dan Marino (retired) FB Stanley Pritchett (Eagles) DB Shawn Wooden (Bears)

TOP DRAFT CHOICES

OL Todd Wade (2nd round) DB Ben Kelly (3) FB Deon Dyer (4)

BREAKING THROUGH...

Running back Lamar Smith, a free-agent acquisition from the New Orleans Saints, has spent most of the last few seasons as a fill-in running back. Over the course of his seven-season career, he's only started 50 percent or more of a season's games once - in 1998 - after which only started more than 50 percent of the games in a season in 1998, after which the Saints saw fit to supplant him with first-round selection Ricky Williams. But after gaining 72 yards on 17 carries in extended action in the Dolphins' preseason win over Tampa Bay, Smith likes his situation, and his chances of success as he shares backfield time with Thomas. "As I was out there, normally you would see the other teams' jerseys," Smith said. "I didn't see that. I just saw turquoise. That instills confidence in me and in the offensive linemen because they know I'm going to run it up in there."

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING...

Damon Huard started five games in 1999, completing 216 passes for 1,288 yards and eight TDs. ... The Dolphins managed just 1,410 yards as a team rushing in 1999. ... Wannstedt went 5-3 against the AFC East while serving as the Bears' head coach, including 2-0 against the Dolphins ... The last five times the Dolphins have started a preseason 2-0, they've made the playoffs.

CAN'T MISS...

The opening game against the Seattle Seahawks on Sept. 3. Miami knocked them out of the playoffs last season and they'll be screaming for vengenace. Another big game is Monday, Oct. 23 against the New York Jets. The rivalry has never let up, so look for a tough battle under the lights. The second-to-last game against the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 17 should prove to be a great game as well. The last two meetings between the clubs have been decided by a total of six points.

TO BE ANSWERED...

Can the Dolphins swim without Dan Marino?

The glue that held the Dolphins together for 17 seasons has retired. Huard, one of many in a lengthy line of University of Washington quarterbacks that includes Warren Moon and Chris Chandler, is a very capable quarterback and so is the injured Jay Fiedler, but does either one have what it takes to pick up where Marino left off?

Can Wannstedt take the Dolphins further than Johnson?

It's hard to say. Wannstedt had some success with the Bears, particularly in 1994. He is a student of Jimmy Johnson and knows how to win, but can he do it with the team that he has been given?

What about the rushing game?

Miami has always been able to throw, but the running game has never been able to catch up. With Marino gone, the rushers have to step up so the offense isn't solely relying on an arm. Newcomers Smith and Thomas will need to step into the offense and run.

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