In July 2003, Dan Marino will be standing at a podium in Canton, Ohio, for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the sport's most prolific passer. He will tug at the traditional mustard-yellow jacket, he will fidget with his tie. He will stare at the bust of his curly head and feel a tingly rush. He will think back on his 55,000-yard career. And when the writers ask him later about the highlights of his 16 years with the Miami Dolphins, he will talk about playing for Don Shula, playing in a Super Bowl at 23 and being the first quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards in a season.
And he will remember one play more vividly than all the others. "The Clock Play," he will say, smiling. And everyone will know exactly what he is referring to, because he will have told the story over and over at the rubber-chicken banquets.
"It was November of '94," he will say. "We're playing the Jets at the Meadowlands for first place in the AFC East. Whoever wins this game probably wins the division and has a decent shot to get to the Super Bowl. Well, we'd been down 24-6 late in the third quarter, but I threw a couple of TDs to Mark Ingram, and now we're down 24-21 with half a minute to go in the game. We've moved the ball to their eight and time is running, and I hear my good friend Bernie Kosar—he's my backup—on the speaker inside my helmet. He's telling me, 'Call the Clock Play! Call it right here! Run it at the rookie!' So I go to the line. I yell, 'Clock! Clock! Clock!' The Jets are hanging around the line, thinking I'm going to spike the ball and stop the clock. I give Ingram the stare. He knows what that means. He's in single coverage with their rookie corner, Aaron Glenn. Ingram sprints into the end zone and turns around. Zzzzip! I just fling it. I put it right in his gut. Touchdown. We win 28-24, and you can hear a pin drop in that place. After the game, I've never seen Shula so excited. I thought he was going to start bawling."
Marino's audience will chuckle appreciatively, knowing that it happened just the way Marino remembered it. No, you simply couldn't make up what occurred at the end of Sunday's game between Miami and the New York Jets.
Coming into the game, the Dolphins' season was headed south faster than Miami tourism. They had needed a 34-yard field goal by Pete Stoyanovich at the final gun to beat the Indianapolis Colts 22-21 on Nov. 6, and the next two Sundays saw dreary losses to the Chicago Bears and the Pittsburgh Steelers in which the Miami offense scored two touchdowns. With the sky-high Jets and those nemeses the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs looming on the schedule, the 7-4 Dolphins were in their customary late-autumn swoon.
Heading in the opposite direction were the Jets. A game behind Miami at 6-5, they were a team on the rise, coming off a rousing win over the Minnesota Vikings after having completed a season sweep of their division rival the Bills. Defensively, New York had become brutal, intimidating. There was a feeling among the Jets at their training complex last Friday that no matter what Miami threw at them, it wouldn't matter. New York, the only team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger never to have won a division title, was in position to control its destiny.
Two minutes into the second half, the Jets led 17-0 and quarterback Boomer Esiason already had 240 passing yards. After an exchange of touchdown passes—a 10-yard strike from Marino to Ingram and a 14-yarder from Esiason to tight end Johnny Mitchell—New York still had a 24-6 lead with 18 minutes to play.
Miami went to its hurry-up offense, eating up 67 yards in three minutes. Marino hit a diving Ingram for a 17-yard touchdown and followed it with a pass to Irving Fryar for a two-point conversion. The Jets' lead was cut to 10. On the next series, cornerback Troy Vincent intercepted Esiason.
Five plays later the Dolphins scored again, and this one was a thing of beauty, a tight, 28-yard spiral from Marino to Ingram, six inches from the reach of cornerback James Hasty. With 10 minutes left, Miami was within three, 24-21.
That Marino would lead a rally was hardly a surprise, but the fact that Ingram would play a key role was absurd. Had the Dolphins succeeded in signing Deion Sanders in September, Ingram probably would have been released. Disgusted at having had only one pass thrown to him in a win over the New England Patriots on Oct. 30, Ingram went AWOL from Miami's Monday meetings and practice. On Nov. 13, after Ingram had lost his starting job to O.J. McDuffie, he and Marino got into a shouting match on the sidelines.
Ingram desperately wanted to play and play well on Sunday, because he was returning to the scene of his prime. The first-round pick of the New York Giants in 1987, Ingram made the biggest Giant play of Super Bowl XXV, turning a third-quarter, third-and-13 pass into a twisting 14-yard gain, breaking four tackles in the process. The play led to a go-ahead touchdown, and the Giants beat the Bills 20-19.
Marino accommodated Ingram. The past be damned: If you are wearing a teal-and-white-and-orange jersey with a number in the 80's, you're Marino's guy. So when he moved the Dolphins to the Jet eight with 38 seconds left, all Marino saw was Ingram flanked wide right, isolated on Glenn. Here came the Clock Play. Kosar ran it once in training camp, freezing the unsuspecting defenders, and the chicanery intrigued Shula. When Kosar suggested running the play in a preseason game the coaches told him: We can only run this once, because after that every team will be looking for it. So let's save it for the right game, the right spot. Kosar thought late Sunday afternoon that the eight-yard line at the Meadowlands was precisely the right spot, and he told only one person, Marino, through the quarterback's headset.
Immediately Marino acted his part, yelling, "Clock! Clock! Clock!" while chopping with his right hand as though he were spiking a ball. While he did this, his eyes bore a hole through Ingram. "The stare," Ingram said later. "There's nothing like it. When he gives you that stare, you know he's coming to you."
What, Ingram was asked, is this stare?
Ingram turned to the questioner, opened both eyes about as wide as he could, leaned forward and looked intense. "That," he said, "is the stare. He stares you down like that, and you start to get all this adrenaline, and you know he's coming to you."
Ingram sprinted toward the end zone, covered halfheartedly by Glenn, and spun around just inside the goal line as Marino threw him a pea. For the fourth time in one half the Marino-to-Ingram connection had worked wonders.
In the moments after the play, Marino cavorted at midfield like a dog in a Frisbee-catching contest. By contrast, Ingram and tight end Keith Jackson knelt in prayer in the end zone for the fourth time in the game. "Thank you, Lord," said Ingram, the unlikely hero. "I give you all the glory. I am only a vessel for you on earth, working for you."
Afterward, in the locker room, player after player stopped by Marino's locker to thank him and touch him, as though hoping some of his magic might rub off on them. "When the last drive started," Marino said, "I was just thinking about taking my best shots. What do you have to lose? Only the game, right?"
Instead, the Dolphins lost the stench from a rotten stretch of football that had threatened to make this season like so many others before it. Last year Miami turned a 9-2 start into a 9-7 debacle, giving up an average of 33 points over the last five games. In 1992 the Dolphins lost to Buffalo by 19 points in the AFC Championship Game, and in the six years before that Miami could muster but one playoff win as its defense consistently let it down.
This season could be different, mainly because the Dolphins have one of the best defensive rookies to enter the league in years. Defensive tackle Tim Bowens has been the key to a defense that has allowed only 15 points a game over the last seven weeks. Miami took a big chance on the 21-year-old Bowens, a 6'4", 330-pounder from Mississippi, who had appeared in only nine games in his one season at Ole Miss after transferring from a junior college. "He played great on the films," says defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti, "and [defensive line coach] Joe Greene really liked him when he scouted him."
Bowens has since rewarded the Dolphins' faith in him. Midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday, with the Jets at their own 45 and clinging to a three-point lead, Bowens slashed through the New York line on first down and crashed into Esiason as he tried to hand off. Esiason fumbled, but the Jets recovered. On second-and-17, Bowens came crashing through again, sacking Esiason for a loss of eight yards and forcing another fumble; the Jets again recovered. On third-and-25, linebacker Bryan Cox steamed around left end, sacked Esiason and forced a third fumble that the Jets recovered. The series changed the flow of the game and set the stage for Marino's heroics.
"Now," said Cox in the locker room, "we can shake the ghosts of last year and get rid of them forever." After all, if you can pull off the Clock Play, anything is possible.