Sunday In The Park With Dan

Dan Marino was unstoppable as the Dolphins dominated the Steelers in the AFC's championship game
January 14, 1985

Come back, John Stallworth. Come back to the ball. Pittsburgh quarterback Mark Malone's release was the tip-off. It wasn't as quick as Dan Marino's. Malone's first money pass was not hard and true. The Steelers had punched their way to the Dolphins' 30-yard line on the opening drive of the AFC championship game, pulling, trapping and driving for nine tough plays. Now, off a fake screen pass to Louis Lipps, Malone had Stallworth streaking to the post with poor William Judson in his hip pocket. Malone should have had six. But the ball was short, just short enough for Dolphin safety Lyle Blackwood to recover and arrive at the goal line simultaneously with Stallworth and the football. Judson, trailing the play, intercepted. If Marino had thrown the pass, it would've been a touchdown. If Marino played for the Steelers.... But the Steelers passed him up in the '83 draft, and he quarterbacks the Dolphins. Oh boy, does he.

The day before the game, Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll had been asked about the decision not to draft Marino. It angered him and he snapped, "Scouts aren't perfect. They make mistakes."

Never has Marino been better than on Sunday in the Orange Bowl. His passes were unstoppable as Miami beat Pittsburgh 45-28 to earn a Super Bowl berth—and go 5-0 in AFC championship games. Two minutes and nine seconds after Judson's interception, Marino planted the point of the ball on Mark Clayton's chest, and Clayton, escaping Dwayne Woodruff, took it 40 yards to open Miami's scoring. Marino closed shop on his memorable four-touchdown performance with a six-yard lob to Nat Moore with 11:09 left in the game. Marino had 421 yards by then. The NFL playoff record is 433 yards, by Dan Fouts, who benefited from an overtime period while compiling it in 1981 against the Dolphins. If pressed, Marino could have thrown for 600. He was that hot. "We were all over them sometimes," Woodruff said, "but Marino was right on, as right on as a man can be."

There's no time for indecision, no margin for error when Marino's hot. The Steelers won the first half physically, but Malone threw three interceptions, and Frank Pollard fumbled on Pittsburgh's second possession. "We had to take it from them to have a chance," said Steeler safety Donnie Shell. "They took it from us instead."

Wait a minute. Hadn't the Steelers manhandled the Dolphins up front, where it used to count most? Early on, yes. But Marino's arm would more than compensate for that.

Marino had strutted onto the field two hours before the kickoff in shorts and a T shirt, his belly already beginning to take on some of the spreading opulence of a Sonny Jurgensen. Marino laughed as he watched TV personality Terry Bradshaw get antsy. Clearly, Marino was enjoying the feel of the day; he wore his confidence like a tuxedo. Why not? As Noll said following Marino's 21-for-32 afternoon, "He's the best we've seen, no question.... We gave it our best shot; it's tough to overcome Marino and their passing game. Our offense ran well, the big plays they hit were the difference." Noll had seen a confident Bradshaw, mind you. Now he and the Steelers had seen an extremely confident Marino. "If he's just a little off, just once or twice, maybe we can get an interception," said Tony Dungy, the defensive coordinator for Pittsburgh. "But he was not off. It was his day."

It was his day and he knew it. "I've done my thing," Marino said. "It's time to go home." He also said of his performance, "It's all according to coverage." Marino apparently saw no need to mention his arm, which was beet-red from the workout. "The speed of our outside receivers makes the decision one way or another," he went on. "We knew we could go upfield. It was there. It's always there."

Indeed. With Miami down 14-10 with 2:43 remaining in the first half, four Marino completions took the Dolphins 77 yards in 73 seconds. The clincher was a 41-yarder to Mark Duper, on a blitz pattern up the left sideline over Chris Brown. Blitzes were quite futile against Marino. He was not sacked once, as much a testimony to his ability to get the ball away quickly as to the Miami offensive line. Marino had called an audible on the Duper TD play, and his throw was a work of art, coming in on a low trajectory. Duper had only to extend his hands and keep running. Brown wasn't beaten badly, he was beaten good.

The basic Steeler defensive scheme called for occasional blitzing and two-deep zone coverage by the safeties, who took half the field apiece. The corners had to protect short and deep if possible, but neither had a hope of staying with Duper and Clayton, who ran the outside deep streaks, giving Marino just a bit of angle either inside or outside. Tight end Joe Rose or Moore or running back Tony Nathan ran upfield on the hash marks. Nathan averaged 14.25 yards on eight catches, almost unheard of yardage for backs. Duper and Clayton averaged 27 yards per reception.

Two plays after that Marino-Duper TD, Lyle Blackwood intercepted another Malone pass—and Marino was back in business at the Steeler 35 with 1:09 on the clock. Moments later, Steeler corner-back Sam Washington threw up his hands in despair after Marino beamed one to Rose for 28 yards to the Pittsburgh one. Washington had decided to cover Rose. He reached to bat the ball away as it thunked against Rose's chest. "Four receivers go down, and the one who's covered man-to-man wins," said Rose. "The Steelers didn't want us running crossing patterns. We ran long outs and streaks all day." Call it Miami's Marino vise. "His throws leave you no reasonable reaction time," said Shell. Nathan scored from the one, and it suddenly was 24-14 Miami at the half.

Just 1:40 into the third quarter, with the Dolphins on the Pittsburgh 36, the Steelers put linebacker Bryan Hinkle over Duper's head for a play. But Hinkle then left Duper unattended, Marino read Eric Williams's slow safety blitz—and Duper sidestepped Washington's futile attempt to cut him off his feet as he caught the easiest of TDs, a 36-yard walk in the park.

The Steelers closed to 31-21 on their next possession. Then, after two Marino completions for 61 yards, Shula called a trick halfback pass from Nathan to Marino, who caught the ball, cut back to the inside and felt the wrath of linebacker Jack Lambert. Number 58 had missed the Steelers' last four games with a foot injury and had played infrequently all season but was activated for this one. He probably thought Marino was crazy for ever leaving the pocket.

The play was brought back because guard Roy Foster was illegally down-field. On third-and-18 Marino steamed one down the middle to Moore for 28 yards to the Pittsburgh one. "Danny has the uncanny ability to know what he wants and execute," said receiver Jim Cefalo. "Not once today did he have a lucky throw." Woody Bennett scored three plays later for a 38-21 lead.

"The Dolphins' best running play is when Marino trots to the center," said Shell. "We thought we'd get around 30 on 'em," said Malone, who found his receivers often enough to finish 20 of 36 for 312 yards and three touchdowns. "We thought, with our defense and our ball control, that might be enough." Malone smiled to himself and chuckled at those thoughts. The Steelers did score 28, but still were 17-point losers to the incandescent Marino. "Danny just had a field day," Malone said. "I'm not talking about a normal offense. They scored so quickly, they ran away from us."

The Steelers came to Miami with Palo Alto on their minds. On Saturday, Stallworth had said, "We think we can get deep on them." He certainly did, combining with Malone on a 65-yard touchdown play to give the Steelers their very brief 14-10 lead. And it was Stallworth and Malone who brought the Steelers to within 31-21 on a 19-yard hookup the next time Marino let them up for air. Stallworth and fellow wideout Lipps had combined for 22 touchdowns during the season to Clayton and Duper's 26. The Dolphins had thrown the ball 572 times, the Steelers 443, yet Stallworth still led the AFC with 1,395 yards, and his 80 catches were the most for any of the four. Lipps, with Stallworth double-covered, had turned Denver's All-Pro Louis Wright inside out and beaten the Broncos with a churning 10-yard catch and run in the AFC semifinal a week earlier.

Stallworth is an alltimer. On Sunday he set a career playoff record for most postseason touchdown catches (12). He also topped 100 yards for the fifth consecutive time in postseason play (he caught four passes for 111 yards). He had his first big postseason game on this very field, in the 1979 Super Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys, going 28 yards for a score on his first reception and 75 for another touchdown later in the game. On his 65-yard play against the Dolphins, Stallworth was split right, covered by Paul Lankford and Lyle Blackwood. Blackwood peeled off to take Lipps as Stallworth blew by, running a variation of 60-slot hook and go, the play that won the 1980 Super Bowl for the Steelers against the Rams.

While Duper and Clayton had better pregame stats than Stallworth and Lipps, the AFC rookie of the year, one interested analyst preferred the Pittsburgh pair. "I'll take Stallworth and Lipps every time," said 49er defensive back Ronnie Lott, who was burned by Stallworth for the winning touchdown in San Francisco's only loss of this season. "That was no sin. Stall beats everybody. And from what I've seen, Lipps is a better athlete than either Duper or Clayton. Marino makes the whole thing work down there."

Clayton suffered a sprained right shoulder in the first half and didn't play in the second. He was examined Monday and the Dolphins' team physicians said he could practice by week's end. The week before, against Seattle, Duper had been knocked out of the game in the first half. It didn't matter either time. On Sunday the fleet Miami receivers didn't catch Marino's passes so much as they were impaled by them. Duper and Clayton are good, very good, but great takes a while baking. Whether or not, as card-carrying Smurfs, they would have been able to prosper before the no-contact rule was established in 1978 will always be open to debate. Their numbers won't be. "Their group is probably as good as our old group [Frank Lewis, Lynn Swann, Stallworth and Jim Smith]," Stallworth said modestly. As good, but not as big. "But when you have confidence like they do, you're hard to stop."

"You don't break all the records Dan Marino has broken this season without doing something right," said Miami coach Don Shula. "Teams have tried all kinds of schemes against him—drop eight men and rush only three, or blitz everybody, or combinations. Pittsburgh tried the combinations today. Dan had the answers."

Shell stripped the ball from Nathan in the first half, causing a fumble the Steelers recovered, and had Pittsburgh's only interception of Marino, off a deflection in the second quarter. Lambert, playing sparingly, blitzed Marino once in the third quarter, but the quarterback released over the top of Lambert's descending left arm as he was being leveled. He even completed this one, 20 yards down-field to Nathan. Shell, Stallworth, Lambert and center Mike Webster, the final survivors of the last pro football dynasty, acquitted themselves honorably, but Marino, the hometown kid from Pittsburgh, was too much.

"We could've run all day," said Webster. "But Dan put the game out of our reach. I enjoyed watching his performance. I applauded. He's explosive. We wanted to possess the ball, and we had to convert the possessions. Make it impossible for him to win. But he got in front and didn't look back." Inevitably, the Steelers were asked how Marino compared with Bradshaw. "Give Danny a chance," said Webster. "He hasn't had time. It takes time. You don't win four Super Bowls in one year."

Forgive Marino's admirers if they seem to be of the opinion he'll do just that, this year.

"God, it's a madhouse in here," Marino said as he looked over the media horde into which he was about to descend. You ain't seen nothin' yet, Danny. Wait till Super Bowl week. Marino jerked the tape off his knee brace and yawned. "That's all right," he said. "I think I can handle it."

PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNMarino was off and winging early to Mark Clayton, whose fancy footwork was good for a 40-yard touchdown, Miami's first score. PHOTORONALD C. MODRA[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSGEORGE TIEDEMANNJudson snared this pass meant for Stallworth to launch Miami's initial scoring drive PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNDuper left his mark on Chris Brown (23) with the first of two TD catches, this one a 41-yarder. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe swift Duper's second scoring play covered 36 yards of vacant Miami real estate. PHOTOJOHN IACONOStallworth hiked his playoff TD haul to 12, scoring on a 65-yard play (top) and making a nifty grab for 19 yards to keep Pittsburgh close for a while in the third period. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANN[See caption above.] PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNGlenn Blackwood (47) sent a message to Walter Abercrombie and to several others. PHOTORONALD C. MODRA[See caption above.] PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Now the wonderworker has time to prepare for the 49ers, who loom out West.