Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler entered the new millennia in an unenviable position. He wasn't just replacing a local legend, he was taking the reins from a transcendent, 17-year fixture who re-wrote NFL record books.
Fiedler answered the call.
After Dan Marino retired in 1999, the Dolphins captured the 2000 AFC East crown under the guidance of the first quarterback other than No. 13 to start an opening day game in 16 years.
Leading the Dolphins to an 11-5 record, Fiedler's 2000 season also marked the most starts at quarterback in a single season by any Ivy League product.
Undrafted out of Dartmouth, the road to the NFL wasn't smoothly paved for Fiedler.
"It was a long road for me to get to a position where I was a full-time starting quarterback in the league," Fiedler said. "I worked myself up, grinded it out from being out of the league for a couple of years, coming back in Minnesota for a year, getting my first start in 1999 in Jacksonville, then coming in with the Dolphins in 2000 with a chance to compete for a starting job."
Upon seizing the job, Fiedler and the Fins stormed out of the gate to a 5-1 start ahead of a primetime showdown against the rival New York Jets. A 6-1 start was all but in the bag as Miami captured a 30-7 lead on a 3-yard plunge into the end zone by running back Lamar Smith to wrap up the third quarter.
But the Jets would not go quietly into the Gotham night.
New York capped off the 23-point comeback on the leg of John Hall with a 40-yard walk-off field goal in overtime.
"That wasn't an easy one to get over," Fiedler said. "It went until about two or three in the morning by the time we were done with it and getting out of there, which was an awful plane ride. It was a tough one to get past, but we were all professionals. We took the next day off and by the time we got back to work on Wednesday we were past it. We knew we were still in good position."
The Dolphins would maintain their footing with three consecutive wins after the Monday Night Monstrosity, and five of the next six for a 10-3 mark coming down the stretch. Despite losing the next two home games to Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, Fielder and the Dolphins were a victory away from the club's first division title in five years.
Though Miami's Week 17 opponent had a converse record (10-5 for Miami, 5-10 for New England), the champagne would have to stay on ice until the final buzzer. Even then, the corks were temporarily reinserted.
Future Hall of Fame Defensive End Jason Taylor found himself in a familiar place – the opposition's backfield – as the final seconds ticked down on the Patriots' season, and Miami's division championship celebration. With three seconds on the clock, Taylor hit the arm of quarterback Drew Bledsoe forcing what looked like a division-clinching fumble.
The party began as Miami ran off the field to hear Head Coach Dave Wannstedt address the team in the locker room. Just as the first-year head coach was beginning his speech, referee Johnny Grier interrupted the festivities to inform the Dolphins that the officials would put three seconds back on the game clock and the teams had to return to the field to finish the game.
"We were in the locker room celebrating," Fiedler said. "Dave (Wannstedt) was just starting up his congratulations speech and just as he's getting into it Johnny Grier interrupts him. We see him leave the locker room with the referees, not really sure what's going on, and he comes back in and tells us we have to go back out for another play."
The additional play would call for a last-ditch effort for the Patriots to find the end zone from their own 40-yard-line.
"The defense had to get themselves ready. Guys came out just in their towel, there were guys in the shower," Fiedler said. "Equipment was off, they were starting to get packed up and just had to pull everything back out. We were thankful that it didn't get extended after that because we would've had to go back into the locker room and get a few more guys dressed."
New England made a quarterback switch to attempt the 60-yard desperation heave, but Michael Bishop's throw came up 20 yards shy of the goal line and the celebration resumed.
"They put Michael Bishop in there at quarterback," Fiedler said. "Drew (Bledsoe) probably said 'screw it, I took a shower and don't wanna go back out.'"
"It was kind of anti-climactic," Fiedler continued. "We were a lot more excited at the end of the first regulation than the second regulation."
After the game, linebacker Zach Thomas joked with reporters at his locker about the late-game indecision, referencing the 2000 presidential election.
"It could only happen this year," Thomas said. "The Florida recount and now this recount."
The Dolphins won the game on a 49-yard field goal off the leg of Olindo Mare who, for nearly two decades, was the most-accurate kicker in team history. Mare avenged a miss from 28 yards earlier in the game by drilling the game-winner.
"Never in doubt," Fiedler said about the lengthy game-winner.
Lamar Smith powered through a difficult day statistically (20 carries for 26 yards) to find the end zone twice. Another Mare field goal and a Hunter Goodwin reception from Fiedler rounded out the scoring in Miami's 27-24 division-clinching victory.
The Dolphins would go on to win the following week in the AFC Wild Card round. This summer, we interviewed Dolphins tight end Jed Weaver – who caught the game-tying touchdown at the end of regulation from Fielder against the Indianapolis Colts – and you can find that episode of the Drive Time Podcast wherever you get your podcasts, in addition to Fiedler on today's episode.