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JOHNSON SCRAPS DOLPHINS' TIMETABLE MIAMI COACH DENIES SETTING SUPER BOWL GOAL

Jimmy Johnson apparently has abandoned the three-year timetable to reach the Super Bowl he established shortly after becoming the Miami Dolphins' coach two years ago.

On Monday, Johnson denied ever setting such a goal.

"The only thing we've said is we're going to have our best team the third year," he said.

Actually, Johnson predicted a super season for 1998 shortly after taking the job. But the Dolphins' dismal December has left them behind schedule.

Miami concluded the year with three consecutive losses, including a 17-3 defeat Sunday at New England in the first round of the AFC playoffs. The feeble finish -- one touchdown in the team's final 39 possessions -- underscored a need for drastic changes this offseason.

Quarterback Dan Marino will be back, Johnson said. But it appears he will be working with a new offensive coordinator and system. Johnson admitted making a mistake two years ago when he kept the playbook inherited from Don Shula and left the offense in the hands of coordinator Gary Stevens.

"I screwed up," said Johnson, now 17-16 at Miami. "I went with the system the way it was, even though I was uncomfortable with it. I should have stepped in on Day One."

Johnson blamed the offensive system for the Dolphins' chronic inability to run. They finished next-to-last in the NFL in yards rushing and averaged just 3.1 yards per carry, a franchise low.

"I felt like if we kept the system the same with my emphasis on trying to run the ball within the system, we could get it done," Johnson said. "I was wrong.

"The Dolphins haven't been able to run the ball for a long time before I got here. The system doesn't fit into what I want to do."

Following Sunday's loss, Johnson told his players he was sorry they weren't better prepared offensively.

Lions confident in Ross

PONTIAC, Mich. -- So the Lions bombed in the playoffs again. What else is new? It's like a tired old song around Detroit.

Still, there was one major difference between Sunday's loss in Tampa Bay and all those other first-round exits. That difference was Bobby Ross. The Lions think he has them pointed in the right direction.

"He covers everything," says center Kevin Glover, who played college football for Ross at Maryland. "He's so organized. Nothing is left to chance."

That is a marked contrast to Wayne Fontes, the coach Ross replaced after the Lions finished 5-11 in 1996. Fontes appeared to be a master of crisis management. Still, the crisis was frequently of his own making.

Ross is just the opposite. After he was introduced at a Jan. 13 news conference, Ross immediately made plans to redesign the Lions' locker room, meeting rooms and weight room. After that, he grabbed a plane for Mobile, Ala., to scout some college all-stars.

"I'd hate to go to war against him," wide receiver Johnnie Morton says. "He's so meticulous. He covers every scenario."

Mitchell, Brown better

PONTIAC, Mich. -- Lions quarterback Scott Mitchell spent Sunday night under observation at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa after suffering a concussion late in the third quarter of the Detroit Lions' 20-10 first-round loss to the Buccaneers.

"Scott Mitchell's fine," Ross said. "He had a concussion. He should be fully recovered. He's got a headache, basically that's it."

Mitchell was on the ground for several minutes after scrambling for a two-yard gain and being hammered into the ground.

At one point, Mitchell tried to sit up but had to be eased back to the ground while doctors and trainers checked him out.

Ross also said he received information from doctors at Henry Ford Hospital indicating linebacker Reggie Brown has been pleased with his improvement since having surgery that fused his first and second cervical vertebrae Dec. 22.

Ross quoted neurosurgeon Dr. Russ Nockels as saying that Brown "is making promising improvement and he is undergoing daily therapy for hand and foot coordination as we speak."

Ticket sales second-best

NEW YORK -- The NFL sold nearly 15 million tickets to regular-season games in 1997, the second-most in its history.

The 14,966,294 tickets sold represented 90 percent of capacity. That was second only to 1995, when 15,043,562 people bought tickets.

Average attendance this season was 62,360, up almost 1,500 a game from 1996.

Bengals make stadium threat

CINCINNATI -- The owner of the Cincinnati Bengals says an agreement to keep the team in Cincinnati is in danger of falling apart.

Mike Brown, the team's president and general manager, said the Bengals will be forced to walk away from the deal if the city and Hamilton County can't resolve disputes over land acquisition by the end of January.

The city and county are debating the county's contribution to the project.

Injury updates

New England Patriots running back Curtis Martin, who finished the regular season with 1,160 rushing yards, is questionable for Saturday's divisional playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, possibly leaving the defending AFC champions without their leading rusher. Martin has missed the past four games. While he was initially sidelined with a slightly separated right shoulder, he sat out on Sunday with a groin injury. "It's going to be a long shot unless he makes improvement," Patriots coach Pete Carroll said.

Garrison Hearst's broken left clavicle isn't fully healed, and the San Francisco 49ers will be without their top running threat in Saturday's game against the Minnesota Vikings. Hearst has been sidelined since Nov. 30, when he broke his collarbone at the end of a 45-yard run against Kansas City that also put him over 1,000 yards for the season. The 49ers, the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, had a bye last week. They hoped to have Hearst back for their first playoff game, but a bone scan Monday showed the fracture needed more recovery time.

Forty-eight hours after bruising his ribs, Terrell Davis was confident of playing in Sunday's divisional playoff game at Kansas City. Davis was injured in the Denver Broncos' 42-17 win over Jacksonville on Saturday, leaving the game late in the third quarter after rushing for 184 yards and two touchdowns. "It feels a lot better," he said. "I'm going to play, regardless. This is it."

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