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This has been an erratic season for Miami's Jimmy Johnson. Now he's the Dennis Rodman of the NFL, minus the marriage to Carmen Elektra.

Phil Simms, the ex-Giant quarterback now broadcasting for CBS, says "Jimmy is going to be examined like never before. At the first sign of adversity, people will begin speculating if Jimmy is ready to walk away again. That could be just enough to take a little edge off the players."

Remember all those calls and letters in Buffalo a few years ago campaigning for J.J. to be the successor to Marv Levy? This season, in Miami's second game against the Bills, he gambled on fourth down at his own 36 in the first quarter. Gabe Northern dropped Karim Abdul-Jabbar for a 2-yard loss, Buffalo took over and scored the tying touchdown.

It turned the game around and the Bills went on to win.

In the wild-card game in Florida, Johnson called for an onside kick early. The Bills recovered and scored their first touchdown of the game. The zebras took J.J. off the hook in what should have been a Buffalo victory.

Had Johnson, as the Bills' coach, made those calls, the Buffalo fans who called for his hiring would have led the lynch party.

Remember Johnson's classless act after the playoff victory, smashing a box of Flutie Flakes and spreading them all over his dressing-room floor so his players could stomp on them? It's caused him a lot of headaches and cost him fan support. He's been denounced in newspapers all over the nation, including a couple of letters to the New York Times.

The worst part for J.J. is that he has been suffering heavy criticism in Miami. The bloom is off the rose for him in South Florida.

That's one of the main reasons he hired Dave Wannstedt, the ex-Bears' coach, as his top assistant. Wannstedt is Johnson's best friend, maybe his only friend. "He needs Wannstedt to hold his hand and tell him how great he is," says a Miami source who has known the two since they coached together at the University of Miami in the '80s.

The Dolphins' success this season was due to their defense, which was coached by 65-year-old George Hill, Woody Hayes' defensive coordinator at Ohio State. Wannstedt's specialty is defense. Where does that leave Hill, who just performed the triumph of his career? "George will still be running the defense," vows Johnson. Sure.

Apparently Larry Beightol, the veteran offensive line coach, didn't feel comfortable about J.J.'s assurances. He signed with the Green Bay Packers. The expectation is that Johnson will bring in Tony Wise, his offensive line coach at Dallas who was on Wannstedt's staff with the Bears.

Yet Wise told Chicago Tribune columnist Skip Bayless that once he left the Cowboys, Johnson didn't return his calls and "friendship with Jimmy is a one-way street." Wise has a standing offer from George Seifert to join the Carolina staff.

The prospect of Wannstedt taking over the top job from Johnson in a year or two is not pleasing to Dolphin fans, especially if Dan Marino, 38 by next season, is gone. Johnson has failed to find a successor to Marino so far.

Rams may McNabb Orange QB

It looks as if Donovan McNabb, the Syracuse quarterback, is going to be a top 10 draft pick. St. Louis, with the sixth selection, indicates it wants to take McNabb.

Niner situation a minefield

The San Francisco situation is a mess. Bringing back Bill Walsh to run the football operation was a good idea, although the coach, Steve Mariucci, may not agree with that observation. The new No. 2 and 3 men in the organization have been entirely out of the loop. Gene Washington has been prefect of discipline for the commissioner's office in New York. Terry Donahue, the ex-UCLA coach who will run the personnel department, has no pro football experience.

Eddie DeBartolo, the team's owner whom NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue ordered removed from day-to-day operations of the 49ers as a result of his federal indictment on a Louisiana gambling scandal, hired Walsh.

Eddie D. remembered that Walsh, then a consultant to the team, wanted to use the Niners' first-round draft choice to take quarterback Jake Plummer of Arizona State. In his report on Plummer, Walsh compared him to Joe Montana five times. Instead, the team picked quarterback Jim Druckenmiller, whose style is out of synch with the current need for mobile quarterbacks.

Plummer was left in the second round for the Arizona Cardinals, for whom he recently produced the franchise's first playoff victory since 1947.

The day after the draft, Walsh cleaned out his office and left.

This is an old team and the era of automatic double-digit victory seasons is close to an end. Steve Young, whose physical condition sagged late this season, will be 38 by mid-October.

As if they didn't have enough problems, the 49ers have a sticky situation with their legendary pass receiver, Jerry Rice, whose birthday is two days after Young's. He'll be 37.

If you think Rice is the same sweet guy you see in the TV commercials, you are a candidate for a sales pitch for a building lot in the middle of the Everglades. He won't accept the fact that he now has a reduced role on the team. Rice threw two major tantrums in the 49ers' locker room late in the season because Terrell Owens was getting the ball more than he was.

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