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DOLPHINS' JOHNSON SAYS AFC EAST WILL BE IN THE RUNNING IN '98

Jimmy Johnson sees a major philosophical change in the AFC East.

In Johnson's view, it no longer will be the NFL's air-it-out division, where teams look mostly for the quick strike on offense and the big sack on defense.

The Miami Dolphins' coach expects something more along the lines of 3 yards and a cloud of dust during the 1998 season.

"One thing that's going to happen now is you're going to see this become a more run-oriented division," Johnson said Tuesday, during the AFC coaches' breakfast with the media at the league's annual meetings.

His outlook is based primarily on two coaching changes -- Jim Mora replacing Lindy Infante in Indianapolis and Wade Phillips replacing Marv Levy in Buffalo.

Infante tried to run an exotic passing attack in Indianapolis, but he didn't get very far with an average quarterback in Jim Harbaugh and a horrible offensive line. The arrival of Mora -- who believed in strong defense and a power-oriented offense while at the helm in New Orleans -- should mean a re-emergence of top-flight running back Marshall Faulk, who saw his carries significantly reduced during the Infante regime. It should also result in more work for talented backups Zack Crockett and Lamont Warren.

Levy always preached "run and stop the run," but most of his success came from having Jim Kelly at the controls of a pass-happy, no-huddle, three-receiver attack. Last year, Levy hired Dan Henning to install a two-tight-end scheme, which proved disastrous. Levy retired after the season.

Phillips, a former defensive coordinator who understands the importance of ball-control, hired a new coordinator, Joe Pendry, who brings a two-back approach and a far stronger commitment to the ground game. That should make for an especially busy year for running backs Antowain Smith and Thurman Thomas, and newly acquired fullback Sam Gash.

"With Jim Mora at Indianapolis, you know they're going to run the ball," Johnson said. "With Wade and then bringing in Joe Pendry as offensive coordinator, you know the Bills are going to run the football, too."

Then there are the New York Jets, with Mr. Power Football, Bill Parcells, approaching his second season as coach. The Jets have taken a major step to improve their running game by signing New England superstar back Curtis Martin, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet. The Patriots have decided not to match the offer. They will instead get the Jets' first- and third-round choices in next month's draft.

And what about the Dolphins, who have lived -- and died -- by the passing arm of Dan Marino?

Since replacing Don Shula two seasons ago, Johnson has been trying to implement the dominant rushing attack he had as head coach in Dallas. So far, he has failed miserably, mainly because Karim Abdul-Jabbar does not give him a back remotely as talented as the one he had in Dallas, Emmitt Smith.

But Johnson thinks another reason Miami continued to be a pass-happy team after his arrival is that he mistakenly tried to reshape the system he inherited from Shula rather than tear it apart and start from scratch. In an effort to remedy that, he fired offensive coordinator Gary Stevens and replaced him with former running backs coach Kippy Brown.

Johnson promises, once and for all, the Dolphins will have a stronger running game.

"I think it's going to happen because we've committed ourselves as far as changing the offense," he said. "We tried to do it within the framework of the offense that had been run at Miami for a long, long time, and it didn't work.

"More than anything else, it's play-calling. More than a philosophy change, it's taking indecision out of the players' mind."

Johnson said he is looking for the Dolphins' run-pass ratio to be much closer to 50-50 than it was in his first two seasons in Miami.

"We were more like 60-40 (in favor of the pass)," he said. "I don't know that we're going to get to where we run it more than we pass it, but it's going to come a little closer than what we have in the past. We may still throw it more than we run it, but it won't be as distorted as what it's been the last few years."

Johnson said he would not have to "sell" Marino on the concept of becoming more run-oriented.

"Dan knows that for him to be successful, we need to run the football," he said.

If Marino had any doubts, all he had to do was watch the Denver Broncos' run to Super Bowl glory last season.

"What Denver did, especially in the Super Bowl but really all season long, showed that a quarterback of John Elway's status or Dan Marino's status can have success if their team's able to run the football," Johnson said.

Mora agrees with the view that AFC East teams no longer will put finesse ahead of muscle.

"It's going to be a physical division," he said.

That doesn't bode very well for the Pats, who seem on the verge of losing Martin and have no one who comes close to his enormous talent. But they do have a new offensive coordinator, Ernie Zampese, who believes in a balanced attack. And they have a good fullback in newly acquired Tony Carter. And they still have one of the league's best quarterbacks, Drew Bledsoe, and other effective weapons in tight end Ben Coates and wide receiver Terry Glenn.

"The Patriots are probably going to throw the ball, although with Ernie, they might run a little bit more than they did last year," Mora said.

Developing a strong rushing attack is even more critical for the Colts, according to Mora, because they will have a rookie quarterback -- either Ryan Leaf of Washington State or Peyton Manning of Tennessee -- after executing the top overall pick of next month's draft.

"I think it's a tough job for a young guy to come in because there's so much going on over on defense," Mora said. "So I think it's going to be important that we do a good job, as coaches, of making it as easy as possible on him by not putting a lot of pressure on him, not making him have to win the game. And I think we've got a good situation at our place because we'll be able to run the ball. We've got good backs."

And in a division where offenses will be running so much, it is vital for teams to have run-stoppers.

"You'd better be able to play good run defense in this division," Mora said, "or you won't be able to win."

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