When they changed the rules of the National Football League and opened up the passing game, he was out there, waiting. It was in March of 1978 and the NFL was meeting in Palm Springs, and the Competition Committee decided the game needed more passing, so it changed the rules and opened up the lanes. The members with foresight knew they were setting a time bomb, that out there, somewhere, was a young quarterback with a cannon for an arm and the guts to throw the ball anywhere. They didn't know where—Texas, California, Florida—but they knew he was waiting, and if their new rules would do what they were supposed to do, he would lift the art of throwing the football to a new level.
Actually, he was in western Pennsylvania, the Cradle of Quarterbacks, a lanky, gawky junior at Pittsburgh's Central Catholic High School named Daniel Constantine Marino. In two seasons as the Miami Dolphins' quarterback, Marino has done everything the more prescient members of the Competition Committee expected. He is their monument. He has broken almost every passing record. And while Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers have won 17 of 18 games this season, Marino goes into Super Bowl XIX as the story. He has made these the burning questions of Sunday's game in Palo Alto: Can the 49ers stop Dan Marino? Or control him? Or outscore him? Answer these and you'll have the answers to the Super Bowl. Everything else is window dressing.
Oh, Marino has been controlled on occasion—for a quarter, a half maybe. Then things seem to explode in what defensive coaches have come to call The Frenzy. The ball comes off Marino's hand like a rocket. The Marks Brothers, those two fine wideouts Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, start gobbling up the yardage in huge chunks, 20-yard turn-ins, 30-yard fades, ups, goes. The defense drops off in double coverage and one of the tight ends, Joe Rose or Bruce Hardy, breaks one down the middle, or halfback Tony Nathan catches a little circle pass and races for 20 yards through a deserted zone. Everything is timed, everything delivered in rhythm in an incredibly short time, and right on the money. The defense becomes unhinged, glassy-eyed—zone, blitz, double zone, it doesn't matter. The Frenzy is on and every drive produces a score. It's like an adding machine gone wild, and a tight game becomes a blowout. Afterward you ask the defensive coach, "How do you stop Marino?" He'll tell you that the rush has to get to him...or you have to disrupt his rhythm and make him wait too long and choke on the ball...or your linebackers have to pop up in unexpected places. And then the coach will give a wan smile and say, "We sure as hell couldn't do it."
The silliest thing you hear is that someone's offense has to control the ball and keep Marino off the field. This is like facing a tennis player with a devastating serve and saying, "Well, I have to have a long service game myself to keep him from serving to me."
Nope, you can't escape him. Marino and the Miami offense will have the ball for the same number of series the 49ers' offense will, unless some punts and kick-offs are run back for TDs. Whether that is eight series apiece or the NFL average of 12, to win San Francisco has to put more points on the board in its possessions than the Dolphins do in theirs.
Teams have noted the Dolphins' weakness against the run (4.71 yards per rush, the worst average in the NFL) and have come up with the obvious idea of grinding the ball on them and keeping Marino and the boys off the field. Fine, say the Dolphins, you take a long time on your drive, we'll take a short time, but you'd better not have any mishaps during your turn, such as a penalty or a three-yard loss, because you'll never catch up.
"Our idea of a two-minute offense," says Marino's veteran backup, Don Strock, "is two scores."
Pittsburgh ran the ball very effectively at the Dolphins in the conference championship; the Steelers won the battle in the trenches. O.K., bring in the air force. It was a close game for a while, then late in the second quarter The Frenzy hit. Miami scored touchdowns on five straight possessions, and 14-10 Steelers became 45-21 Dolphins. The first three TD drives of The Frenzy were accomplished in 1:22, :33 and 1:48. Even scarier was the time it took Marino to get off his passes. Short, long, it didn't matter. Each pass completion was released from 1.4 to 2.65 seconds after Marino took the snap. They used to say that Joe Namath, who had the quickest release of his day, threw 2.2 to 2.7 routes on the quickies, but took longer for the deeper patterns. Consider this: On one Marino pass, a 24-yard TD on a fade pattern to Jimmy Cefalo that was called back, the ball was out of Marino's hand in 1.5 seconds.
"One-point-five seconds? That's incredible. I didn't realize he was that fast," says Tony Dungy, the Steelers' fine young defensive coordinator. "You know, it's almost a waste of time to blitz in a situation like that. I mean, you pull a stunt, like a deep loop, and you can get a guy coming in completely unblocked and he still can't reach the quarterback in 1.5 seconds.
"We had guys hitting Marino," Dungy says, "but late. Just as he delivered the ball. He'll hang in the pocket until the last moment, but the big thing about Marino completing a pass in 1.5 to 2.0 seconds is that he knows immediately who's going to be open. He doesn't waste time figuring out who to go to."
The Steelers, in desperation, tried some zones, they tried rushing only three men and dropping everyone else back into coverage. Marino burned that alignment with a 41-yarder to Duper in the third quarter.
"You're in trouble playing zone against him," Dungy says, "because he gives your backs no reaction time. Marino knows right away who the open man will be and he'll shoot it in there, and Duper and Clayton are really dangerous against a zone. They'll catch the ball in the middle of the field and make one tackier miss, and then they'll run a long way."
Two classic Marino games stand out this year. Dallas, the master of the blitz in 1984, managed to get rushers free up the middle against Marino, little guys mostly, safeties and nickel backs, so he stood up on tippy-toes and stretched to his full 6'3" and threw over the blitz, flicking his wrist as if he were handling a flyswatter. When Marino was a schoolboy, his father taught him to throw the ball without bringing his hand behind his head and that flick technique paid off in a 28-21 Monday night victory.
In New England, the Patriots pressured Marino plenty. They forced him out of the pocket, which people have said is the key to stopping him. He can't scramble, they say, the way Montana can. He's a big guy who's got a bum left knee and is not that nimble. He sure was in Foxboro. He threw passes on the run, left or right. His receivers, as talented a group as there is in the NFL, read him perfectly and were always there. The Frenzy hit in the second quarter and a tight game became a 44-24 blowout.
So what do the 49ers do to stop this monster, this point and yardage machine? Counting the playoffs, Marino has thrown for more than 400 yards five times this season. Marino tied the NFL record for touchdown passes in late November and by the end of the regular season he had 48 and had beaten it by 12. How do you stop him?
"You play the best game you've ever played in your life," says George Seifert, the 49ers' defensive coordinator, "and make the right guesses—and pray."
The biggest thing the 49er defense has going for it is the fact that it finally has everyone together. Fred Dean, San Francisco's premier pass-rushing defensive end, missed 11 games in a contract holdout. The day he came back, Ronnie Lott, the All-Pro cornerback, dislocated his right shoulder. When Lott returned to duty, Dwight Hicks, the All-Pro free safety, sprained an ankle. They were all together, in somewhat battered condition but still on the field, when the 49ers shut out the Bears 23-0 in the NFC championship, giving the defense a run of 10 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown. Now, with the two-week rest, the 49ers should be healthy.
"The Dolphins beat us last year [20-17], but they didn't beat us with their wideouts," says 49er right cornerback Eric Wright, who'll be covering Duper most of the day. "They ball-controlled us and Dan checked off to the tight ends and running backs a lot. Clayton wasn't a starter then, but now they're a wide receiver-oriented team, which means that our secondary's going to have to be on them tight and really stick them. We can't afford to give them a cushion.
"We can't do it alone, though. Fred [Dean] is going to have to have the game of his life, and Pee Wee [left end Dwaine Board] and Big Hands Johnson. We've got to get people in Marino's face."
Seattle, which beat Miami in the playoffs last year, did it basically with a six-and seven-back set. They gave the receivers the short stuff, then closed on the ball quickly and knocked it loose. An older and wiser Marino plus Clayton was the new element this year against the Sea-hawks. The result: 31-10 Dolphins.
The 49ers don't use seven DBs; in fact, they very rarely go to six. They might for this game. They might try to rough up the Dolphin receivers, as Pittsburgh, and especially Seattle, did. Duper was knocked cold in both games, although he came back each time. Clayton banged up his right shoulder against the Steelers, and didn't return.
San Francisco probably will start out with four down linemen instead of its usual three, conceding the run and using its four best pass rushers—Dean at right end playing next to his former San Diego teammate, Johnson, who made one sack and inherited another against the Bears; with Board, the team's second-best pass rusher, at left end, and either Jeff Stover or Michael Carter at left tackle. If Dean has trouble with the Dolphins' left tackle, Jon Giesler, who rendered the Steelers' Keith Gary practically invisible in the AFC title game, then he'll switch to left end, where he'll work against Cleveland Green, the weakest of the Dolphins' five offensive linemen. The Niners probably will try some loops or stunts to break someone over the middle and get quick "gut pressure" on Marino, but that's almost a hopeless cause, with an improving Roy Foster and All-Pro Eddie Newman at the guards and All-Pro Dwight Stephenson at center.
The 49ers' pass-defense linebackers, Keena Turner, Todd Shell and Jeff Fuller, will see the most action, but they might not blitz much early. Turner is especially valuable in underneath coverage, and they might want to see if their front four can generate enough pressure on its own.
The Los Angeles Raiders beat the Dolphins (45-34 on Dec. 2) on two big plays by Mike Haynes, an interception for a 97-yard touchdown early in the game, and another interception late, but Haynes is the best cornerback in football and he guessed right both times. As a Patriot he went against Don Shula's offense twice a year for seven years. That helped. San Diego beat the Dolphins by outscoring them (34-28 on Nov. 14), but it took a Charger team record of completions (37) by Dan Fouts to do it.
And that's how the offense of San Francisco, with its own western Pennsylvania All-Pro quarterback, Montana, might win the game.
San Francisco is capable of putting 35 points on the board against anybody, but it has been four games since the Niners went over 30, which is Miami's average. The Niner offense has been two-tiered of late. When they run their scripted plays at the beginning of the game, the 20 to 25 plays coach Bill Walsh calls ahead of time, the Niners come out of the box fast. But when that script has run out, they've had a tendency to settle. It's been herky-jerky. One 49er had an explanation. Practice.
"Our scripted plays are polished," he said, "but then we fall back on a list of 100 or so. Some of them haven't been practiced as much, or even at all, during the week. Other teams might have a short list, a game list of 40 plays, and they've worked on all of them. That's why the two-week break is so crucial for us. You'll see a more polished offense in the Super Bowl."
"The most predictable thing about Bill Walsh," said Miami's defensive coach, Chuck Studley, who ran the 49ers' defense under Walsh for four years (1979-82), "is his unpredictability. I've broken down films of five of his games and he's used 130 different formations, and I'm sure if I broke down five more, I'd find another 130. His script? You can't predict it. I've seen him do it while we were riding in his car to the game.
"One thing is certain. They'll run Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig at us from the strong side, with both guards pulling, out of the Red Formation, or split backs, and defy us to stop it. If we don't, we'll see an awful lot of it. After that? It's anybody's guess. I know they've got a damn good quarterback."
So do you, Chuck. So do you.
The prediction? San Francisco's damn good quarterback, on experience, over Miami's damn good quarterback, who's likely to set several Super Bowl passing records. The score: 34-31.
BREAD AND BUTTER PLAYS TO WATCH FOR AT PALO ALTO
The Niners' 4-2 Nickel Defense: The 49ers will attack Marino (13)—who was sacked only 13 times all season—with this basic formation, rushing linemen Dwaine Board (76), Jeff Stover (72) or Michael Carter (95), Ron Killen (97) and Dean (74), while linebackers Jeff Fuller (49) or Todd Shell (90) and Keena Turner (58) drop into short coverage. If that isn't enough, San Francisco will blitz one or both linebackers. The 49ers may even show a 3-4 alignment and rush all seven men.
San Francisco's Stunting 4-2 Nickel: Look for this defense when Miami is in a four-wide-receiver set with no tight end or fullback. On the 49ers' left side, Board contains the inside (Miami's right guard) while Stover or Carter loops around to the outside, trying to get a shot at Marino. On the 49ers' right side, Killen cracks down on Miami's left tackle and Dean stunts to the inside, heading straight to the pocket. Turner blitzes outside, and Fuller or Shell drops into the hook zone.
Miami's Two Tight Ends: Joe Rose (80) goes in motion to the left, bringing the strong safety with him. Bruce Hardy (84) hangs in to provide blocking. Clayton (83) and Duper (85) run slants eight yards downfield and five to eight yards inside. If the defense is in zone coverage, the wideouts turn on the gas and stretch their patterns to find a seam. In blitz situations, they'll stay short. Marino counts on Rose's freezing the safety in the flat. That leaves Clayton open on the left.
Miami's Tight End Goes Long: This is one of Marino's favorite plays when the defense goes into double zone coverage. He sends Clayton and Duper downfield on 12- to 15-yard stop patterns while Hardy goes for the bomb on a deep inside post pattern. If Marino is under a heavy rush, he'll look for Hardy and wing the ball as far as he can; if Hardy can't reach it, probably no defender can either. But with time in the pocket Marino will go to Clayton or Duper in the outside flats.