The Miami Dolphins are playing the New York jets at giants Stadium on the last Sunday in September, and Dan Marino is dodging the pass rush—moving his shoulders, making the little bobs and weaves and contortions of a toreador who is not too fleet of foot but who has been gored a time or two and knows all about momentum and the blind side and frothing animals with nasty hearts. He's clasping the ball tightly in his right hand, looking downfield. One wide receiver, Mark Duper, is streaking along the right sideline, and another, Mark Clayton, is running some herky-jerky thing out to the left. In the middle of the field are a bunch of offensive linemen and a running back trying to keep the enemy at bay.
Marino's arm lashes out, cobralike, with more force than seems possible without a windup, and the ball whizzes through the air to Duper's outstretched palms in the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown and a 10-7 lead. It's a terrific throw and a nice catch. But it's the—ho hum—246th TD pass of Marino's nine-year career, and the Dolphins are going to lose 41-23 on this day. Besides, Duper can remember other Marino passes that make this one look like a wild pitch.
"Last year, against Cleveland, I was running a fly against Frank Minnifield, and I turned back," Duper says. "When I turned, my hands were at my hip—I was 40 yards downfield—and the ball just stuck there. Right there. Minnifield was only a foot away. You know?"
The Dolphins were 12-4 in 1990 and seemed to be back in the groove after four years of hanging around .500 and missing the playoffs. But then they lost 44-34 to the Buffalo Bills in the AFC divisional playoffs, and this season 12 starters have missed games because of holdouts or injuries. Now, coming off a bye last week, the Dolphins are 3-5 and seemingly back down in the pit with the other barking dogs, pulling one of the great NFL quarterbacks down with them.
It has not been a vintage year for a vintage passer. Burdened by an offensive line that has yielded as many sacks of Marino in eight games (15) as it did all of last year, a running attack that averages 81.8 yards a game and a defense that ranks 24th in the league and can't protect a lead, Marino is on course to have the worst season of his career, in a year when quarterback play in the NFL on the whole has been uninspiring (preceding story). The most telling stat: Marino, who has never finished a season with fewer than 20 touchdown passes—even when he started only nine games as a rookie in 1983—has eight at the midpoint of the '91 campaign.
All of which makes one wonder: Will the Dolphins get it together again in time for Marino to give them another shot at a Super Bowl championship? Will the quarterback with the best stats in pro football history put the finishing stroke on an illustrious career by winning the Big One before he retires? Just where does Miami think it's going to find another Marino, a hard-core Pittsburgh guy who stands 6'4", weighs 224 pounds and can will a ball from his hand to your hands almost faster than you can think of it happening?
In their ninth season together, Marino's Dolphins should be at their apex. The rumblings out of Miami in recent years that had Marino at odds with an offensive coordinator, unhappy with his contract and wanting to go to a Super Bowl contender died last season, when he accepted his role in a more balanced attack, signed a five-year, $25 million contract that makes him the highest-paid NFL player and led a young team into the playoffs. Will all that progress go to waste?
"I'd like to win a Super Bowl every year," he says. "I think we'll win one. I do. When? I don't know. I don't know."
Marino probably has a lot of good years left, but he has had surgery on his left knee four times, and he says he's not sure he'll play beyond 1996, his 14th pro season, when he'll be 35 and his contract will have expired. When told that Sonny Jurgensen, Fran Tarkenton and Johnny Unitas each played 18 years, Len Dawson 19 and George Blanda 26, Marino hoots. "Play 18 years?" he says. "Into the 21st century?" But ask him if he's planning something for his post-football career, and he laughs again and says, "And do what?"
"You hate to see any great player miss a Super Bowl win," says former Miami wideout Nat Moore, thinking of Marino, who threw him 24 touchdown passes in four years and led the Dolphins to a Super Bowl appearance after the 1984 season (a 38-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers). Marino's stats are so overwhelming that they deserve the sort of attention that usually comes only with winning the Big One. He owns or has tied 24 NFL records, including most yards passing in a season (5,084), most touchdown throws in a season (48), most consecutive seasons with 20 or more TD passes (eight) and most games with 400 or more yards passing (10).
His biography, statistics and comparisons to other quarterbacks take up 22½ pages of the Dolphin media guide, revealing one of the most detailed background searches on a public figure this side of a CIA dossier. "I told my intern, 'Take all these numbers and games—I don't even want to see you for a week—and show me what you get,' " says Dolphin director of media relations Harvey Greene. "It's how we found the Marino-Clayton record for touchdown passes and the durability record. The stuff in there is not for trivia. It's there because it's so damn amazing."
Marino and Clayton have hooked up on 69 scoring passes, more than any other quarterback-to-receiver combo in league history, including Unitas to Raymond Berry (63), Joe Montana to Jerry Rice (55) and Jim Zorn to Steve Largent (43). As far as quarterback durability, well, nobody else comes close. When Marino plays against the Indianapolis Colts next week, it will be his 117th consecutive start (excluding the three strike games in 1987)—61 more than second-place Jim Everett of the Los Angeles Rams (among active quarterbacks) and more than any other signal-caller since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970.
The guide has other remarkable Marino stats: He has led Miami to 17 victories after trailing in the fourth quarter; he has attempted more passes in one season (623 in 1986) and completed more passes in one season (378 in '86) than anyone else; he has a better touchdown-to-interception differential (plus 105) than any quarterback in the Hall of Fame; he threw for more yards (31,416) in his first eight seasons than any Hall of Fame quarterback did in his first eight, with the closest to him being Unitas, who is more than 10,000 yards behind. At his current pace, Marino will become the league's leader in career TD passes, with 343, in the eighth game of the '94 season.
There must be a record that means the most to him: "The consecutive game thing, I'm really proud of that," he says. "Lining up and playing every week—your teammates knowing you're going to be there. The rest of the records just come from playing every week."
However, because he is in there every week, Marino feels the frustration of losing more deeply than most. His fire burned out of control briefly in that game earlier this season against the Jets, when safety Erik McMillan intercepted one of his passes and ran past him for a TD. Marino yelled obscenities at McMillan, who responded by giving Marino the finger. Against the Detroit Lions two weeks earlier, Marino hadn't seen wide-open tight end Greg Baty for what could have been the winning score in a 17-13 loss, and afterward he had been unusually disconsolate. "Right after the game, I've never seen him feel so bad," says Miami coach Don Shula.
With the banged-up offensive line, the punchless ground game and a dubious defense, it sounds like old times in Miami. While Jim Kelly is up in Buffalo pushing the buttons on the Bills' no-huddle scoring machine and Warren Moon is over in Houston firing away in the Oilers' run-and-shoot, Marino is ducking and dodging for his life. Still, he doesn't covet another quarterback's role as much as he wants Miami to get the players that will make it a Super Bowl contender again.
"We need a guy like Thurman Thomas, a guy you can throw to on first down and who can run it on third," says Marino. "But any offense will work; it just comes down to having the right people in it. The Chiefs line up with three tight ends and run at you. That's an offense, too. It works for them. I mean, they sure aren't going to do the run-and-shoot with Christian Okoye."
Even though Marino threw fewer times (531) last year than in any other lull season in his career, the Dolphins' return to the upper ranks of the NFL made that irrelevant. "Last year he had his best season so far as leadership, making big plays, moving around in the pocket and toughness are concerned," says Shula.
Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope has watched Marino since he came into the league, and Pope agrees with Shula. "There is no doubt in my mind that Marino is the greatest pure passer ever to play the game," says Pope. "I've seen them all, back to Sammy Baugh. Graham, Waterfield, Van Brocklin, Unitas, Starr, Jurgensen, Namath, Staubach, Bradshaw, Montana. No question. None of them had that God-given skill to just throw, to flick the ball like he does. He's never had to think about it, but in the last couple years he's learned to love the game, to appreciate how much fun it is to go out on Sunday and do what he does. I think he took it for granted before. Now he can sec the end—if only dimly."
Marino can see the chicken wings just fine on the bar at D.T Riots in the Miami suburb of Pembroke Pines, and he digs in. Practice is over, and Marino and receiver Jim Jensen—one of his best friends among the Dolphins—and a few other players are chowing down and drinking beer. "Jake the Snake tonight at the Arena, Dan," says Jensen. "Somebody killed his snake, you know. Now he's got a bigger one. I'm taking my father-in-law. Interested?"
Marino shakes his head no, he has his TV show to do later. "Claire used to like wrestling," says Marino. "In Pittsburgh. She waved a rebel flag for somebody."
Claire is Marino's wife, mother of his three young sons (a fourth child is due in the spring) and a chum from his Pittsburgh days. Claire's O.K., just as these guys and these wings and these brews are O.K. He's a stylish guy who doesn't go for pretense; Marino likes old friends, simple things, loyalty. He went out with Jensen recently and didn't like the out-of-it clothes Jensen was wearing, a "Bob Griese outfit," as such things arc known among the Dolphin players. A couple days later Jensen found two $500 suits hanging in his locker, courtesy of Marino. When Marino went to Hawaii in February to compete in the made-for-TV Quarterback Challenge, he took along equipment manager Bob Monica and Monica's wife, Donna, for the nine-day trip, all expenses paid. "Danny's the greatest," says Monica. "They don't make 'em like that anymore. When he's gone, I'm gone."
A kid comes into the joint, selling chocolate bars to raise money for his grammar school. "What is this for?" Marino asks. "PTA," says the kid. "I don't know. Something."
Well, the boy is honest and cheerful, and he's not sugar-coating things just to make a sale. Marino buys five bars. He was a happy kid, too, an altar boy who got up only 15 minutes before school started each morning because St. Regis, which he attended through the eighth grade, was only 10 seconds from his house. "He's still the same way as when he was little," says his mom, Veronica, who lives with Dan Sr. in the same small house in Pittsburgh where they raised their three children. "He was always sensitive and giving. He used to watch Lassie, and every week he'd end up crying. He always cared about other people's feelings."
The soft touch now asks Jensen for a dip of snuff "for the ride home" and heads for his car, a family-sized sedan. The rear window on the driver's side is missing, smashed in a recent forced entry by Marino after he locked the keys inside. Oh, well, he has a lot more distractions these days than he did when he arrived in Miami from Pitt, the sixth quarterback taken in the 1983 draft, behind Todd Blackledge and Tony Eason, both of whom are out of the NFL now; Ken O'Brien, who has found moderate success starting for the Jets; and All-Pros Kelly and John Elway of the Denver Broncos. Marino was an All-America as a junior, but not as a senior. Pro scouts thought he threw too many interceptions that year, forced the ball and maybe had a bad attitude. Of course, none of those things turned out to be true.
Now, in the driveway of his home in Fort Lauderdale, Marino steps out of the car and is surrounded by distractions. Two small boys race up, followed by four more, and then Claire comes out of the garage holding another. Three of the children are the Marinos'—Dan, 5; Mike, 3; Joe, 2—and the rest are neighborhood kids. There is a great deal of commotion as somebody tries to get a battery-powered car to function. Little Dan holds a Pittsburgh Steeler umbrella and wears soccer shoes and seems to run in circles.
"Danno had an excellent soccer practice," says Claire, and Marino nods through the tumult. He wonders if his boys, with all their toys and comforts, will have any kind of athletic hunger whatsoever. "If you looked in my garage back home, what was there?" Marino will say later. "A bat, a glove, some balls. No wonder these kids don't play catch."
The family dog, Touchdown, trots up, a tennis ball in its mouth, its fur filthy from sitting in the pond in the backyard. A neighbor's dog arrives, a smaller one with an electronic device on its collar that is supposed to keep the pooch from crossing an invisible electric fence bordering the neighbor's yard. Claire screams, "Colors!" as the dog walks in the front door of the Marino house. The Marinos' housekeeper steps out onto the driveway and surveys the scene. A child shoots another child in the chest with a plastic arrow from a crossbow. Colors enters the house again and Marino stands where he has taken root since he stepped out of his car. "It's hectic," he will say, "but I guess that's the fun part. It makes me feel proud to have a family."
A few hours later, in a limousine on the way to the taping of the weekly Dan Marino Show, at a Hooters restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Marino and his marketing agent, Ralph Stringer, discuss some of Marino's endorsements. The steadiest of them all is his deal with the makers of Isotoner gloves, an arrangement that calls for Marino to do an annual TV commercial that runs before Christmas. Typically, Marino hands out gloves to teammates off-camera and then gets bombarded with snowballs. "We did this year's in June in just two takes," he says. "The snow was fake, but the crew really drilled the snowballs at me. The director said, 'Act like they're not coming.' Yeah, right."
Marino has gotten nibbles from some really big accounts, the fast-food gang and the soft-drink types, but all have implied that he needs to win a championship before they can get serious. As the highest-paid player in his sport, Marino can survive without ancillary revenue. But the recognition would be nice because it would mean he has reached the pinnacle.
Marino arrives at Hooters at 8 p.m., just about the time that Dan Sr. gets ready to hop into his truck and deliver bundles of newspapers through the night for the Pittsburgh Press, a job he has held for 14 years. Before that he installed vending machines, and before that he delivered furniture. He loved getting the night job, because it meant he never had to miss any of his kids' afternoon activities. "I got another eight years until I retire at 62," says Dan Sr. proudly.
Couldn't his only son take him away from all this, buy him and Veronica a big house somewhere and feather the nest with lots of appliances and cash? Dan Sr. looks shocked. "We're perfectly happy," he says. "What would we do with all that stuff?"
At Hooters, Marino has Clayton as his guest for the show. The two players banter easily with the show's host, Tony Segreto; it's a far cry from the yelling and finger-pointing they sometimes engage in during the heat of battle, when patterns come apart and balls are misfired. Of those sideline arguments, which can include Duper, too, Marino says, "Sometimes they're right, and sometimes I am." But what Marino's posture and tone say is, "I haven't been wrong yet."
Miami's backup quarterback, Scott Secules, watches from the crowd in Hooters, slightly in awe of his practice partner. "Three years ago he amazed me," Secules says. "Now he doesn't. But then he'll throw one that'll make me say,' I could never do that. Nobody could. Nobody ever will.' "
Marino sticks around at Hooters after the taping, talking to people in the crowded back room, signing autographs, shaking hands. Claire is there, and so is her brother Michael, who shares an apartment with Marino's youngest sister, Debbie, just a few houses down from the Marinos' place. Claire's brother Dan—are there enough of these Dans or what?—is also down from Pittsburgh, living in the Marinos' house, but he didn't come to Hooters tonight. He's at home, resting after another day as a house painter. One other friend from Pittsburgh who has relocated to South Florida, Billy Sabo, works as a waiter in Fort Lauderdale. He is short and animated, and he stands in front of Marino now.
"Watching that Jet game I was so mad at [New York defensive end] Jeff Lageman!" Sabo says. "God, Danny, I wanted to grab his ponytail, pull his head back and pound him! But I was mad at you, too. You were throwing those bad passes."
Sabo is sweating, clearly in pain over the Dolphins' misfortunes. He comes not quite to Marino's shoulder, and he looks as though he wants to hit something. Marino nods. He opens his smartly tailored blue suit and exposes his midriff. "Go ahead, Billy," he says. Marino looks at his pal, waiting for the blow. Sabo has his fist balled, and he's trembling slightly. He looks at Marino's white shirt, at the silk tie, and then un-clinches his fist. He reaches up, and he and Marino hug. Marino smiles. They're just a couple of Pittsburgh guys, hoping to win the Big One before too long.