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J.J.'S STILL TRYING TO CATCH UP TO HIS REPUTATION

As time was transforming the New York Jets' playoff hopes to hopelessness Sunday evening in Detroit, I thought of the book about another transformation laying somewhere on my desk: "Shark Among Dolphins . . . Inside Jimmy Johnson's Transformation of the Miami Dolphins."

The book was published after the 1996 season, Johnson's first with Miami.

The fans in South Florida were tired of Don Shula, even though he was a Hall of Famer on the hoof. Shula kept bumping into Buffalo's Marv Levy and his hole card, Dan Marino, kept bumping into the Bills' ace, Jim Kelly. Consequently, Miami was bumped right out of Super Bowls throughout the '90s.

J.J. had won a national championship with the University of Miami before jumping to the NFL, where he won two Super Bowls at Buffalo's expense. When he got a business divorce from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, it just added to his reputation. "Best coach in the NFL," proclaimed a fawning media.

The "best coach in the NFL" took a team that had finished 9-7 under Shula in 1995, losing to the Bills in the first round of the playoffs, and broke even at 8-8, losing six of eight critical games in November and December.

Some transformation.

Tonight, Johnson gets a chance to validate his reputation as a coach. If the Dolphins defeat the New England Patriots in Pro Player Stadium, their home field, they will be champions of the AFC East. Better yet, they will be host to a first-round playoff game.

Currently, they are 6-1 at home. Three victories were by the margin of three points, one by six points, another by seven. The only blowout was the 30-13 victory over the Bills. It's what home-field advantage is about.

If they lose tonight, the Dolphins must travel to New England next week for a rematch. El Nino winter or not, the Dolphins don't do well at less than room temperature. In fact, they don't do well at all on the road. A week ago, they were smoked, 41-0, by the hapless Indianapolis Colts.

Imagine, "the best coach in the NFL" getting smacked by a bad team in a game that might have put them in command of the AFC East. What made it worse was that Jimmy had explained to his team "how easy it is to make it to the Super Bowl. Just win the division championship, win two playoff games and you're there." Presto.

Forty-one to nothing. Double presto.

A year ago, Johnson had begun the season by predicting the 1996 Dolphins would make it to the Super Bowl. By midseason, it was clear that he was hallucinating over his own hype.

Now it's put up time or Shula's record is going to look a whole lot better to those fickle South Florida fans. It could have been worse. Thanks to Detroit's Barry Sanders, or maybe a horrible call by the zebras, the Jets were eliminated. If that hadn't happened, Miami would have missed the playoffs again if it lost tonight.

In fact, there is more at stake tonight for J.J. than a playoff spot. What if he does lose? The only reason the Dolphins are a playoff possibility is not because of his coaching genius but because Dan Marino occasionally reaches back into his prime, as he did in the 33-30 thriller over Detroit two weeks ago.

It's realistic to expect that Marino, at 37, will have more nightmare games like the ones he experienced in the RCA Dome at Indy, or in Buffalo Nov. 2. Before Marino got hot this season, Craig Erickson, J.J.'s old Hurricane quarterback, looked as if he would be elevated to the starting job. But somewhere along the way, Erickson seems to have lost favor with Johnson.

It would not be surprising to find Miami in a situation similar to Buffalo's when Kelly went into decline. It's difficult to be a coaching genius when there isn't a good quarterback available to steer your team.

It would have been interesting to watch Johnson match wits with Bill Parcells in this game, which would have been the case if the Tuna hadn't jumped the Patriots' ship to join the Jets. Of course, if Parcells were still their coach, something tells me the Patriots would have clinched the division championship weeks ago.

Instead J.J. matches gray matter with Pete Carroll, which is like sending an aircraft carrier against a dinghy. Carroll replacing Parcells is like remaking "The Godfather" with Woody Harrelson replacing Marlon Brando as Don Corleone. Compounding the problem is the low-rent staff of assistant coaches put together by Carroll.

But that makes Johnson's task all the more delicious. Granted the Patriots have the superior talent, but the Dolphins have that great home-field advantage and Jimmy, who is, after all, Jimmy.

In some marina in Biscayne Bay, Johnson lives on a yacht named "Three Rings," named for the spoils of his two Super Bowl championships and the national collegiate title won with the Hurricanes. I doubt he'll be planning a re-christening anytime soon.

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