Q&A: Former Dolphins QB Jay Fiedler
By the time Jay Fiedler hung up his cleats – six years after unenviably following in franchise icon Dan Marino’s massive footsteps – only Marino and Bob Griese had won more games, thrown for more yards or tossed as many touchdown passes in Dolphins history.
For an undrafted free agent who’d been cut by two NFL teams in the span of a month, served as a volunteer assistant coach at Hofstra University and suited up for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe – all before attempting his first official NFL pass with the Vikings in 1998 – seeing his name among the all-time greats remains especially humbling.
“To be in the company of those two Hall of Fame names – to have the longevity of being the starting quarterback for the Dolphins for five years – means a lot to me,” says Fiedler. “Certainly, the road that it took me to become a starting quarterback made it even sweeter. Every time you get a chance to overcome challenges and come out on top at the end, it’s a heck of a lot more rewarding than being given that job.”
Ironically, the lopsided score of Marino’s final NFL game presented an opportunity for the then-Jaguars second-stringer to showcase he was ready for a starting role – and as it turned out, No. 13’s eventual replacement.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think it was definitely an audition for Miami,” recalls Fiedler, who completed 7 of 11 passes for a game-high 172 yards and two scores in a relief appearance on Jan. 15, 2000. “I think the thing that certainly helped me sign with Miami that following year was the fact that I not only came in that game and played well, but that I started the last regular-season game for Jacksonville. The Dolphins didn’t know who was going to start the game that week – we kind of kept it hush-hush whether (Mark) Brunell was going to come back or not – so it forced the Dolphins to scout me … and really opened up the eyes of the scouting department and the personnel.”
After helping guide the Dolphins to the AFC East division title in his first season in South Florida, the Dartmouth alum – who amassed a 36-23 record along with 11,040 passing yards and 66 touchdowns in aqua and orange – submitted his best year in 2001, notching 20 TDs (10th in the NFL), 3,290 passing yards (14th) and 7.3 yards per pass attempt (sixth) en route to leading Miami to a second consecutive 11-5 finish and playoff appearance.
In a recent phone interview, Fiedler reflected on his long road to NFL stardom, the challenges of succeeding Marino, Ryan Tannehill’s development and much more.
As a multi-sport athlete growing up, what ultimately led you to pursue a football career?
“I did every sport imaginable growing up. I remember when I was six or seven years old, I was into soccer, football, baseball, basketball, track and field – you name it. I did three sports in high school – football, basketball and track and field – and then football and track and field in college. Of course, being a multi-sport guy, I ended up doing the decathlon in track and field.
“I spent two years doing both at Dartmouth, and eventually, the idea of putting weight on for football and taking it off for track and field, (plus) the grueling non-stop competition, became too much. I’ve always loved football, I had some great success in Dartmouth my first couple of years, and I decided that was what I was going to keep pursuing.”
Which players did you admire growing up and model your own game after?
“My favorite quarterback growing up was probably John Elway. He was a guy who I tried to model my game after – just his versatility, his escapability out of situations. Although I couldn’t get up quite to his arm strength, I felt like I was able to do a lot of things out on the football field just like he was able to do.”
As an undrafted free agent, what were the keys to landing your first NFL contract with the Eagles?
“As an undrafted free agent, it was really just a matter of making the team. I had about four or five teams that offered me contracts right after the draft ended. I decided on going to Philadelphia because of two factors. One, Rich Kotite was the coach there, and he convinced me that he was going to give me a shot to really compete for the job and to make the team. And two, at the time they weren’t so set on their three quarterbacks. So, it looked like an opportunity for me to have a chance to make the team and to move my way up the depth chart as things went along.”
After being cut twice and out of the NFL for nearly two years, what did it take to make it back to the pros?
“That was probably the most difficult time in my career. Getting cut by the Eagles, it was really a situation of coaching and ownership changes – they were just going in a new direction, where they were kind of cleaning house. By the time they actually cut me, it was already a couple of weeks into training camp, so even though I got picked up by Cincinnati, I only had a very short window to try and prove myself. I was actually the fifth (quarterback) on the roster out there, so it was an uphill battle.
“I found myself out of the game for the first time in my life. It was a frustrating time, but I also knew from playing for two years, seeing how guys practiced and seeing the games up close, that I was talented enough to make it. I didn’t let it discourage me and I didn’t give up on the game.”
How did you train and what did you focus on during that time?
“I decided to keep myself as close to the game as possible. I went home and became a volunteer coach at Hofstra University. I’d known a couple of the coaches over there, and they gave me an opportunity to use the weight room and work out with the team. I’d go out, throw to wide receivers and keep my arm loose. It helped me stay sharp and stay in the game.
“Then, I ended up going out to Europe for a season, and played in NFL Europe at Amsterdam. I was teammates with (current Chargers Head Coach) Mike McCoy at the time, and I saw all the way back then that he would be a coach. Even though I didn’t get an (NFL) opportunity again coming into (next) season, it kept me focused and kept my mind on the game.
“Finally, after another year of coaching at Hofstra, it took one last-ditch effort to get back into the league. I got together with my agent and my high school coach – who was a big mentor of mine throughout my career – and we came up with a game plan to put a package together, send it out to every single team and start calling up every quarterback coach, offensive coordinator and head coach. We got one response from Minnesota, and that’s all I needed. Chip Myers was the quarterback coach, and he gave me an opportunity to try out for the Vikings. I went out there, they signed me, and from that point forward, I just kept climbing the ranks until two years later, I was the starting quarterback in Miami.”
In addition to Chip Myers, which other coaches helped prepare you for a starting role?
“All the coaching I got was the biggest thing from playing on all those different teams. I played under Jon Gruden as a coordinator and quarterback coach in Philadelphia. In Minnesota, Brian Billick was the offensive coordinator. Down in Jacksonville, Tom Coughlin was the head coach and really ran the offense, and Bobby Petrino was the quarterback coach. I was able to pick the brains of each of them and mold their teaching to what I felt comfortable with and what I was able to do physically on the football field.”
How would you describe following in Marino’s footsteps as the Dolphins starter?
“I never looked it as a challenge to replace Marino. I had success every time I played – from high school, college and during the times that I was able to get into games in the pros prior to that. I did it my way. I wasn’t going to come in there and do it the way Marino did it. There are a lot of ways to win games – that’s really the way that I looked at the position.
“Certainly, there were challenges just from an off-the-field standpoint – having to deal with media and fan scrutiny as the next guy after Marino – but I always felt like I had thick skin and never let outside distractions or influences change the way that I approached the game. In that respect, just from a mental and psychological standpoint, I was the perfect guy to come in and do that.”
What are some of your favorite memories from your Dolphins tenure?
“There are two that stand out the most. The first playoff victory in the 2000 season against the Colts (on Dec. 30) – coming back and scoring the game-tying touchdown on the last drive of regulation, and then Lamar Smith breaking out that big run in overtime. Winning that playoff game was tremendous.
“The following year, the Raiders game (on Sept. 23, 2001) – diving into the end zone on a last-minute drive to go win the game – that was probably the next-biggest memory of my time down there.”
Do you still have any copies of the Sports Illustrated cover?
[Laughs] Oh, of course!
In addition to those two games, you led the Dolphins to numerous other comebacks. What was your mindset with the game on the line?
“I think one of my biggest strengths of playing the game was I always stayed pretty even-keel – I never got too high, I never got too low. I was always able to keep perspective of where we were in the game. I never let the game and the moment get the best of me. I think in those situations, I always had an ability to calm down and really focus on what needs to get done to go out there and play the game.
“My dad always had a saying – ‘Big players play big in big games and big moments.’ I always felt that I was able to do that.”
How much does it mean to you to be ranked among the all-time Dolphins leaders in most passing categories?
“I was never one who looked at or worried about stats. I don’t even know what my stats were. I always tell people who ask me, ‘Go ask my dad because he’s the one who keeps track of all that stuff.’ To me, it was all about winning games, no matter what it took. If I had to run for a first down or throw the ball out of bounds – whatever it was – the stats at the moment never worried me. I just had such a great time throughout my years in Miami. I had some great teammates and coaches. Really, that’s what I remember.”
21 of your first 53 touchdown passes in Miami went to Chris Chambers. What kind of rapport did you establish?
“We had a great rapport. He was kind of a raw receiver coming in … he came in with all of the physical tools to play the position, but still (faced) a learning curve. I think Chan Gailey did a great job as coordinator of simplifying the game for him and putting him in a position where he did things that played to his strengths – a lot of downfield throws, a lot of slant routes, a lot of just getting the ball in his hands and letting him run with it after the catch. He was really the guy who came in and stretched the field for us. He was a guy who not a lot of teams knew about early on, but after six or seven games of him catching a number of fly routes and post routes over the top of the defense, they started to take notice.”
Chris is still hoping to get back that Turkey Award from Thanksgiving 2003.
[Laughs] I thought he has it, to be honest! I think maybe the equipment guy must’ve taken it. It got lost somewhere in the shuffle – who knows.”
You weren’t known as a running QB, but you rushed for over 800 yards and 11 touchdowns. Do you feel that was an underrated area of your game?
“I think so. I think just with my background – coming out of the Ivy League – everyone just looked at me as the cerebral quarterback. They didn’t realize the type of athlete that I was. I ran the second-fastest (40-yard dash) time in the combine the year I was there and put up top numbers for all the quarterbacks at the combine. Certainly, I felt, athletically, I was amongst the top quarterbacks throughout the league.”
During your playing days, how much did you appreciate fan support on the road, especially in New York?
“Growing up in New York, I always felt I had fan support from my family. I always had to get a heck of a lot more tickets at the Meadowlands than any other stadium that we visited. Certainly, seeing the Dolphins jerseys at all the away games – especially at (Giants Stadium) – it was really great to see that kind of support. As much as guys say they don’t know what goes on in the stands, everyone is aware of it. You’re aware when you’re getting support and you’re aware when you’re on the road and you’re getting booed. It’s always nicer to have (fans) cheer for you!”
Mike Tannenbaum was the Jets General Manager during your N.Y. stint. How will his addition to the Dolphins executive staff help the organization?
“I think it’s a good hire. I always enjoyed Mike. I know his background is a little bit more as a numbers and cap guy. I think if he has some good support from (Dolphins Head Coach Joe) Philbin and some of the scouting staff down there, he can do a really good job of just overseeing the culture of the team, making sure they sign the right guys and get the right deals for the right players.”
What have been your impressions of Ryan Tannehill’s development?
“I’ve always been impressed by Ryan. I thought he was a great pick for them in the draft, and I think he has a great skill set to take his game to another level. Working with (Dolphins Offensive Coordinator) Bill Lazor now, you can see the development that happened as the season went along. He struggled a little bit early on, but I think they kind of hit their stride mid-season and he had a stretch from mid-season into December when he was playing as good as any quarterback in the league. I think that was the product of good coaching and of him getting a great feel for the offense and for the players around him. Going forward, having that second year in the new system is going to (lead to) another leap forward for him.”
How much does it mean to you to be a member of the National Jewish Museum Sports Hall of Fame?
“That was a tremendous honor and a privilege to be among those names. I’d been connected with the people who’d run the Hall of Fame for a long time, and for them to give me that honor and elect me meant a lot. I remember one of the years that I was at the ceremony, I met (former Giants Head Coach) Allie Sherman. I learned a lot through my relationship with the Hall of Fame about a lot of the Jewish athletes in all different sports.”
You’ve had close ties with former NBA star Anthony Mason over the years. How would you describe your relationship?
“We’re brothers. My dad was a high school basketball coach, and that’s how we met. He grew up with a single mom and my dad ended up becoming really his father figure through the years. We became his second family, and we’ve stayed extremely close all the way throughout. I talk to him on the phone, and he calls me his little brother. I watch his son, Antoine, play at Auburn, and hopefully he’ll be the next Mason to make it to the (NBA).”
You’re currently the owner of The Sports Academy at Brookwood Camps. What are the goals of the program and how much are you enjoying the experience?
“I love it. I love working with kids. I’ve been running football camps ever since I got back into the league in Minnesota in 1999. It’s been a family operation for us – my dad bought Brookwood Camps back in 1986 and we’ve been running it as a football camp ever since. My brother, Scott, and I took over the operation and we changed our motto a little. We still have a lot of traditional summer sleep-away aspects, but we molded it into a little bit more of a sports camp. We attract some of the top professional athletes and coaches to come up and run weekly plans for our campers.
“You mentioned Chris Chambers – he came up for a few days last year and coached our campers. We had Scott Brunner, who was a former quarterback for the Giants, come up for a week to do a quarterback camp with me. We had Leo Mazzone, who was the Atlanta Braves pitching coach, coach our kids in baseball. We have coaches who work with Manchester United youth development programs. We bring in the best of the best coaches out there to work with our kids and run our program all summer long.
“If anyone has kids out there and is looking for a great summer sleep-away camp, that’s the place for them. You can find information on BrookwoodCamps.com.”
Tags: Allie Sherman, Anthony Mason, Bob Griese, Bobby Petrino, Brian Billick, Chip Myers, Chris Chambers, dan marino, Jay Fiedler, John Elway, Jon Gruden, Leo Mazzone, Mark Brunell, miami dolphins, Mike McCoy, Mike Tannenbaum, Rick Kotite, Ryan Tannehill, Scott Brunner, Tom Coughlin