The sun was baking the Miami Dolphins' practice field at St. Thomas University, 15 miles north of the Orange Bowl, and Don Shula stood behind the offense, his arms folded, frowning as he watched the motor that runs his team sputtering and creaking.
Dan Marino, his sore left thigh heavily wrapped, did a little stiff-legged half-rollout and tried to get the ball upfield to Mark Duper, who, because of a broken left tibia, hadn't seen a down of action since Game 2. The pass went long. The acceleration wasn't there for Duper, who caught 1,306 yards worth of passes last year but as of Friday was still on injured reserve. Shula frowned and clapped his hands. "Let's go!" he shouted to no one in particular. The Jets, with the best record in the AFC East (7-2) and a chance to put the Dolphins away for keeps, were only 48 hours away.
"He's keeping within himself; he hasn't tried to turn it loose," Shula said of Duper after practice. "I'll activate him if he says he's ready. How much he plays depends on how he feels."
On Saturday Duper was activated as a situation receiver, a spot-duty player. Shula was asked if he was 100%.
"No," he said.
Duper said, "If I step on the field I'll be ready to get something going...you watch." But the next minute he told an observer in confidence, "I'm 60 percent, maybe 70."
No one knew for sure what they would see when the bell rang on Sunday. Duper's broken bone was first diagnosed as a six-to-eight-week injury. He came back a couple of weeks early and pushed it, and other problems arose—muscle spasms, strained hamstring tendon—nothing you would care to have in a guy who gets paid to run 50 yards downfield and pluck a hurled object out of the sky.
Without Duper in the lineup, enemy defenses could gang up on Mark Clayton on the other side. Clayton's a terrific little receiver, a Pro Bowler in '84 along with Duper, but not much of a long ball threat when confronted with mob coverage. Without Duper, the Dolphins were 5-4 and fading going into the Jets' game. In 1984 Miami was 9-0. One statistic that jumps out is total wideout production: After nine games in '84 the Dolphins' wide receivers had accounted for 1,861 yards and 20 TDs; this year they had almost 600 fewer yards, and the TDs were down to seven. When Marino is launching rockets, Miami is something special. When he's not, well, they're 5-4.
Against the Jets in the Orange Bowl on Sunday, Duper came in on the Dolphins' third offensive play as an extra wideout on third-and-long. He didn't see the ball. On their next possession he was in for Nat Moore as the regular split end, lining up against a rookie, Kerry Glenn. Duper left Glenn 10 yards behind and caught a Marino bomb for 44 yards. The last time he had caught anything that deep from Marino was in January.
The next pass to Duper was good for 12 yards. Glenn slipped on the play. The kid was coming apart, and Jets coach Joe Walton replaced him with Davlin Mullen, a third-year pro, a sound cover guy. Duper caught a 20-yard slant-in on him, and on the next play he shifted to the right side, working against Bobby Jackson, the Jets' best pass defender, who was coming off a pulled hamstring. Jackson cheated up in a bump-and-run, trying to force Duper to the inside, where he had linebacker help.
"I didn't get a good enough bump," Jackson said afterward. "He got inside me, then he took off."
Took off for 60 yards and a touchdown, the first TD bomb Marino had thrown this year. Duper was back. He wasn't gripping his leg or limping. On this incredible day he caught the first seven passes Marino threw to him, and dropped the eighth after he beat Glenn on another fly pattern. The sun was shining in Miami.
By the fourth quarter the Jets, crippled by penalties and half a dozen dropped balls, were apparently going nowhere. The Dolphins were up 14-10, they had second-and-short on the Jets' 16, and they were going to put the game away. But now the sun wasn't shining so brightly; Marino got greedy. He audibled to a fade pattern to Clayton, but Jackson read it all the way, grabbing the ball in the end zone. The Jets then put together their best drive of the day—80 yards for a touchdown in eight plays, the last a 20-yard pass from Ken O'Brien to tight end Rocky Klever. It was 17-14 Jets, with 1:06 left.
The Dolphins got a good kick return and took over on their 44 with 58 seconds on the clock. Marino hit Clayton for six yards, and there was 0:49 showing.
"On the next play Dan called a flanker square-in to Clayton across the middle, to clear things out," Duper said later. "Then he checked off at the line. I couldn't hear the number, but I knew it had to be a nine route, a go pattern to me, because Jackson was in single coverage. So I took off."
The' Jets blitzed an inside linebacker, Lance Mehl, and the free safety, Johnny Lynn, leaving Jackson alone with Duper. Purists might scratch their heads at this, but it's New York defensive coordinator Bud Carson's way. Action defense. Force things, make something happen. The Jets had already intercepted Marino three times Sunday, and when they crushed the Dolphins 23-7 in New York last month, they held him to his lowest yardage total as an NFL starter, 136. They did it with pressure. Carson is not the kind of man who sits back in a prevent defense and lets enemy quarterbacks chew his guys up, and that philosophy had produced the NFL's second-ranked defense going into the Miami game.
This time Carson lost. The Dolphins picked up the blitz. Marino stood back and launched his pass, which looked overthrown at first. But Duper, with a great closing burst, settled under the ball, juggled it for a moment and then put it away for a 50-yard touchdown that closed the game out at 21-17 with 0:41 left. In just two plays Marino had turned defeat into victory and the 5-4 and fading Dolphins into 6-4 contenders, a game behind the Jets and the resurgent Patriots (page 60) in the AFC East.
"What can I say? I was running with him, then Duper just ran away from me," Jackson said. "I take my hat off to him. If it had been a no-name who beat me I'd be embarrassed, but he's a great player.
"The funny thing is, when we were changing sides for the fourth quarter I asked him how he felt, and he said he wasn't 100 percent, he was having spasms and stuff. I said, 'Well, I'd hate to see you at 100 percent, then.' "
The final figures on Duper's superday were eight catches for 217 yards, breaking the alltime Dolphin record for receiving yardage in a single contest. Sometimes this game isn't so hard to understand. Are you having trouble getting your team going? Put in somebody who can catch the ball 50 yards downfield and you're in business.
"It's obvious," Shula said, "why we've missed Duper so much. It was evident from the beginning that he had the jet today. No, I didn't talk to him in the warmups. I was afraid he'd say he didn't feel good."
So at least for now Miami is celebrating its return to the ranks of the living. The Dolphins have their twin Marks back in the lineup; Clayton scored one TD against the Jets on a 27-yard pass play. And they get another crack at the Patriots on Dec. 16—in the Orange Bowl, where New England is 1-17. But when Shula sits down and looks at the films, he's going to do a lot of frowning, despite the pretty fireworks show. He hates penalties. The Dolphins committed 10 of them, the most in 13 years. He hates turnovers. The Dolphins had five, the most since 1983. The Miami defense gave up 491 yards, 371 of them passing, to a team that came in ranked 21st in the NFL at throwing the ball.
The key to the Dolphins' defensive operation was stopping halfback Freeman McNeil, who has eaten them up in the past, and they sacrificed some pass defense to accomplish that purpose. They slanted their line toward McNeil and brought their linebackers up to plug the gaps, forcing him to bounce the play outside, where they were waiting for him. McNeil, who plays with a flak jacket protecting a cracked rib, took some ferocious hits, but he still got 107 yards. It took him 26 carries to do it, though, and his 4.1 average was well below his lifetime 5.6 against the Dolphins going in.
The Jets had plenty of problems of their own: 13 penalties, two lost fumbles, three missed field goals, five sacks given up and, of course, those six dropped passes. Three of them got away from Wesley Walker, their deep threat, their answer to the Duper-Clayton combo. Two drops short, one long. Finally the Jets pulled Walker out of their base offense, going with JoJo Townsell and No. 1 draft pick Al Toon, who responded to his first NFL start with 10 catches for 156 yards. Three of his receptions produced first downs on the long TD march in the fourth quarter, and he showed an impressive ability to break tackles after the catch. Mark him down as a future.
Defensively, the Jets didn't worry much about getting outside containment on Marino. They funneled their rush to the inside, lining up ends Mark Gastineau and Barry Bennett in the tackle-guard gap, pinching them inside and running their blitzes behind them. This created a great traffic jam to the inside and gave Marino time to go deep.
And so the Dolphins are back in the hunt—and their horses are back, too. Boy, what horses!