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Iron Triangle is No More - Can We Recover?
You may call me NYFCat, but anyone who has shot me an E-Mail or Instant Message knows me as NYFIrnT13. “What does the ‘IrnT’ mean”, many people ask. INFL’s Len Dawson gave the nickname “Iron Triangle” to Bowens, Gardener, and Thomas after a 14-0 blanking of the Rams in ’98 where Robert Holcombe was held to 12 yds on 11 carries. Who could blame him? The three edges of the triangle were a mere 26 years of age and the centerpiece of a 3rd ranked rush defense. That was 1998. This is 2002 and the run defense is now a mere shadow of its former self.
50 million dollars is a lot of money, especially for a player that never made a trip to Hawaii when he signed it. Many labeled the decision odd, but hey, this was a 6-6, 320 pound DT that was dominant against the run and capable of registering double didget sacks. It was a symbol of faith that Dave Wannstedt showed toward the self-proclaimed “modern day gladiator” even though Gardener had yet to play a snap for him. High expectations followed the contract: pro bowls, team leader, and great player. It may as well be an attachment to such a contract. Gardener scoffed when courted to restructure his contract after falling short of those goals while Taylor, Surtain, Thomas, Bowens, Marion, and Madison opened up their wallets and did what was best for the team. Gardener eventually agreed but the damange was already done. The re-signing proved to be a disaster and many toes were stepped on in the process.
That’s not it.
Gardener stated in a local Florida newspaper, in laymens terms, that he was Jimmy Johnson’s guy and he was still getting used to his new head coach. That’s fine; he’s entitled to his opinions and to his feelings. But at least Dave Wannstedt can say with a straight face that he tried to mend the relationship by switching Gardener to DE and allowing him to take time off to heal his back. He also invited Daryl and his wife over to his house in attempt to develop a cohesive bond. How did Gardener repay his coach? By ignoring his calls and failing to show up for “voluntary conditiong”. Even moderate NFL fans know the word “voluntary” means BE THERE OR BE SQUARE.
Still, that’s not it.
His quotes were taken about seriously as Jimmy Johnson’s assurances of a running game. While Madison and Surtain were figuring out how to stop the Manning-to-Harrison connection, DG was predicting a shutout. While Thomas and Taylor were saying “put up or shutup”, DG pre-game predictions became bulletin board material for the Rams, Ravens, and Raiders. He preached, “I’m going to the pro bowl” midway through last season. He got into a fight with O.J. McDuffie. He sat in the air conditioning while the team prespired through 95-degree temperatures in mini-camp. He bullied teammates, notably rookies, and reportedly is a very moody person and sometimes a terrible teammate to be around. According to a source, “It has been one thing after another.” To restate the obvious: DUH!
Gardener did not perform up to expectations because of injuries and his antics became old in the eyes of his teammates and coaches. Make no mistake about it: had it been one or the other, he would still be on the team. Daryl Gardener is no longer the promising 26 year old that showed signs of being the Warren Sapp of this defense. Instead, he is nearing 30 and may be one setback away from retirement. Add it all together and you have the obvious decision that Dave Wannstedt reached on Friday.
Does the evaporation of the Iron Triangle signal the end of a once dominant defense? To many, the answer may be yes. But there are reasons to hope. Perhaps our run defense did collapse when Gardener went down for the count, but keep in mind that the front 7 had many unfortunate occurences to deal with at roughly the same time. Zach Thomas was playing at 75% down the stretch, Jermaine Haley played through a series of nagging injuries that negated his ability to use leverage, Derrick Rodgers missed the last 3 games, and Morlon Greenwood looked, well, green. If Larry Chester returns to full health, he could give the run stuffer they badly needed last season to team with Tim Bowens. I fully expect Greenwood to become the complete LB that he showed glimses of being last season, Haley to play like he did in ’00 when subbing for Gardener, and for Zach Thomas to at least start the season at 100%. And even though I did cross my fingers and hope that Gardener would start at RE, I don’t think Jay Williams (but for a 4th rounder??) and Rob Burnett will have much trouble replacing Kenny Mixon and Lorenzo Bromell. However, all this will mean nothing without health and an altered game plan from Jim Bates that focuses on committing more players to the LOS and trusting our CB’s. This is what the deterioration of Gardener from an interior dominator to an oft-injured headcase does to this defense. Suddenly, seemingly for the first time in 4 years, we have major questions on this side of the ball. The Iron Triangle is no more and these questions have to be answered if the 2002 Miami Dolphins are to avoid another blowout playoff loss.