The Pro Bowl berths, the assured niches in NFL history, the
swollen statistics and the division titles--none of those are
balm for their hearts anymore. The Miami Dolphins are tired of
making excuses. Fed up with having to make allowances for
injuries. Sick of starting each season with talk about going to
the Super Bowl, only to flame out by year's end.
After a flurry of bold off-season changes, the buzz is that the
Dolphins are looking like the team to beat in the AFC. Not so
fast, say several Miami veterans who have learned that talk is
cheap. It is lingering hurt and disappointment, not just runaway
optimism, that pulled nearly all the Dolphins back to voluntary
workouts this March and kept them coming back to their training
complex in April and May, through the steadily building heat of
June and into the suffocating humidity of early July. "Some days
we'll be out there working," says eighth-year defensive end Jeff
Cross, "and the heat makes you think you're going to die." But
by 7:30 or 8 the following morning, scores of Dolphins are
trudging back onto the practice field anyway.
"Fed up with talking? We should be," cornerback Troy Vincent
says after another crowded workout. It's a sweltering 95-degree
day in late June, and training camp is still weeks away. "The
attitude here is changing--you can feel it," says nosetackle
Chuck Klingbeil. Weights clang in the background as he talks.
Rock music is blaring from the weight-room stereo.
"You can do more, you can always do more," quarterback Dan
Marino says. He frowns. Marino has been among the regulars at
the off-season workouts. He can still see Pete Stoyanovich's
48-yard field goal attempt drifting right ... drifting right ...
drifting forever wide right in the dying seconds of the
Dolphins' 22-21 playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers in
July 16, 1995
For that, Marino blames himself. "Even now I'll be driving in my
car somewhere, and all of a sudden I'll just start thinking
about it," he says. "I had [three] touchdown passes in that
game, but the thing that sticks out was what I could have done
differently at the end. We had 32 seconds. We moved the ball.
Then I had two downs to put Pete at least 10 yards closer. And I
threw two incompletions."
His eyebrows spike down. His disgust is still fresh. "These
things are harder for me to take than they were years ago," he
Marino will be 34 in September. This will be his 13th season as
a Dolphin. But he is still without a Super Bowl title, and time
is running out on his partnership with coach Don Shula. It was
Shula, though, who had critics baying outside his window by the
end of the 1992 season and again after the Dolphins' late-season
slides of '93 and '94. Shula will be 67 when his contract
expires after the '96 season, and none of his tormentors allow
him to forget that for the past 15 months former Dallas Cowboy
coach Jimmy Johnson has been biding his time in the nearby
Florida Keys, waiting for the "right opportunity"--hint, hint--to
lure him back to coaching in the NFL.
Whether he is feeling the pressure or not, Shula took an already
good Dolphin team and made it better during an off-season of
wheeling and dealing. He lavished a six-year, $12 million
contract on free-agent tight end Eric Green, traded for Chicago
Bear defensive end Trace Armstrong and Green Bay Packer
cornerback Terrell Buckley, and signed free-agent wideouts Gary
Clark and Randal Hill. Tight end Keith Jackson and wideout Mark
Ingram were traded, but the Dolphins will get back their
starting backfield of Terry Kirby and Keith Byars. Both were
lost to season-ending knee injuries in 1994.
"We control our own destiny here," Vincent says. "It's time to
line up and play some real football. We can't say we don't have
this on the offensive line or that on the defensive line or in
the secondary--it's all here. Now. The players are here. The
coaches are here. Most everyone is injury-free. No more excuses
this time around."
If it's Super Bowl or bust for the Dolphin players, for Shula it
will be another season of enduring the critics crying Super Bowl
or else. Shula is too proud to admit it, but the constant
remarks about Johnson's availability irk him considerably. The
irritation shows in Shula's occasionally curt answers and in the
way his famous jutting jaw clenches when the subject of his
future is broached. It pops up in the droll stories Shula
sometimes tells--like the one about the second-guessers who
confronted him outside the Dolphins' draft room in 1983 and
asked, "Why did you draft Dan Marino in the first round when you
already have David Woodley at quarterback?"
Shula told that anecdote to a Newsday columnist at a luncheon
this spring held to promote a management book--Everyone's a
Coach--that he cowrote. Shula owns a golf resort and another
restaurant in Florida, and he has had a Miami expressway named
after him. After six trips to the Super Bowl (one of them with
the Baltimore Colts), Shula's place in NFL history is assured,
and his life off the field is full. In 1991 Shula's wife of 32
years, Dorothy, died of cancer. In October '93 he remarried, and
he has spent the past two off-seasons attending Wimbledon and
exploring Paris with his new wife, Mary Anne. Last week the
couple was cruising the Mediterranean, blissfully incommunicado.
It's tempting to say that Shula doesn't need to coach anymore.
Not at this stage of his life. But he keeps coming back. Tough
as ever, committed as ever. With no hint of slowing down or
mellowing. At the Dolphins' minicamp in late May, Shula was
asked three times in one sitting if he intended to stay with the
Dolphins through the next season. Twice he said yes. When
prodded the last time, Shula bit off each word as he said, "I
... told ... you, I have every intention of fulfilling my
When Wayne Huizenga bought the Dolphins from the Robbie family
in 1994, Shula was given equity in the team and the additional
title of vice president. When free agency and then the salary
cap came to the NFL during the last three years, Shula pored
over the rules until he had made himself into a capologist. To
Shula, it was as if free agency was another game to win.
When Shula tore his Achilles tendon last Dec. 7, he had surgery
on a Friday morning, was home by midafternoon and got up at 5:30
a.m. the next day to prepare for the Dolphins' pregame
walk-through. "I think it would have been a bigger surprise if
he hadn't shown up," Marino says with a laugh.
Shula coached the rest of the 1994 season from a golf cart. When
the Dolphins traveled to San Diego for the playoff game, Shula
and Charger general manager Bobby Beathard, a former Miami
personnel boss, engaged in a two-day exchange of salvos. First,
NFL director of officials Jerry Seeman told Beathard that Shula
could hold the Dolphins' final practice on the field at the
Chargers' Jack Murphy Stadium. "Anything he wants he gets!"
Beathard shouted. "He runs the ---- league!" When game day
arrived, the Dolphins asked that the sideline crews not be
allowed to dress in the visitors' locker room. The Chargers said
no to that request. Then the stadium general manager asked Shula
not to drive his golf cart on the grass field to avoid rutting
it. Shula did anyway. When the Dolphins returned to their
dressing room at halftime--lo and behold, none of the lights
That Miami lost was galling enough. But worse was the way in
which the Dolphins lost, after having led 21-6 at halftime.
After the game in San Diego, the litany of complaints from Miami
fans was long and bitterly recited. Why had the Dolphins tried
only eight running plays against the Chargers, the fewest ever
in the history of the franchise? A few unnamed Dolphins publicly
questioned Shula's insistence on working them out in pads on
three of the five days before the game--especially since San
Diego was coming off a bye week.
The 1994 season was quickly lumped in with the Dolphins' swoon
against the visiting Buffalo Bills in the '92 AFC title game and
the '93 season in which Miami surged to a 9-2 start only to
finish 0-5 and slide out of the playoff picture. Anyone notice a
pattern here? Shula's critics asked.
The Dolphins finished the 1994 regular season with a 3-4 stretch
run. But it could easily have been 1-6. The four losses included
a 10-6 defeat at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts in which
Miami had seven cracks at the goal line from inside the 10 on a
series late in the game and failed to score.
To this day many Dolphins believe that their 1994 season turned
on that one failed set of downs against the Colts. The loss came
on the next-to-last weekend of the season and cost Miami an
opportunity to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs and the
home field advantage against San Diego--an especially tough blow
considering the Dolphins had not won a playoff game on the road
By the time the Chargers had extended that streak to 20 years,
the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel was calling Shula "Teflon Don,"
and The Miami Herald's Dan Le Batard, in a column headlined
BLAME SHULA, HE'S MAKING THE DECISIONS, wrote, "Shula bristles
every time he hears Jimmy Johnson's name, but he shouldn't.
Shula is a bottom-line guy, and those people calling for Johnson
to replace him are using bottom-line logic: There is a coach
available who has gotten better results than Shula, a coach who
won as many Super Bowls in five years as Shula did in 25.... If
you are going to fire Shula, Johnson is just about the only man
you do it for."
Huizenga insists that he has no intention of firing Shula. The
two are fast friends. But the Johnson rumor won't go away. That
irks some Dolphin players as much as it annoys Shula. Guard
Keith Sims says, "The whole subject should just die." Klingbeil
pulls a hand across his Schwarzenegger-like flattop and says,
"I've got too many other things to worry about, like playing in
the 95-degree heat out there with some 300-pound guys leaning
all over me, to think about Jimmy Johnson--especially when he's
off floating around on his boat, eating shrimp with a rum runner
in his hand and one of those little umbrellas in the side of his
As the criticism of Shula's coaching has grown, so too has fan
sentiment for the veteran Marino and his quest for a Super Bowl
The record book isn't the only evidence that 12 NFL seasons now
unfurl behind Marino. His left leg, when strapped into its
foot-long protective knee brace, seems to unfold in cantilevered
sections as he walks. Around his right knee he wears a smaller
brace. Around his right ankle he lashes on yet another hinged
contraption--this one needed to bolster the Achilles tendon he
ruptured against the Cleveland Browns in Game 4 of the 1993
Marino has now had nine operations on his knees and his right
foot. But it's the Achilles that still bothers him the most. For
all of Marino's diligent rehabbing, his atrophied right calf
remains about a half-inch smaller around than his left. As
spectacular as he was last season--throwing for 4,453 yards and
30 touchdowns, completing 62.6% of his passes--Marino had to
alter his delivery ever so slightly. He couldn't stand on the
toes of his right foot. "I still can't," he says.
During the 1994 preseason Marino performed badly, and on the eve
of Miami's season opener against the New England Patriots, Shula
wondered aloud if Marino had lost some quickness in the pocket.
There were even rumblings that Shula ought to start backup
Bernie Kosar instead.
Marino heard it all. And he stewed. "It was the same way [in
1993] after Scott Mitchell had a couple of good games," Marino
said. "It's like, 'What have you done for me lately?'"
Marino's final stats against New England were stunning: a
23-for-42, 473-yard passing day that featured five touchdowns.
But there was magic in the details, too. He threw three
touchdown passes of 50 yards or more, one off a flea-flicker. On
a third-and-seven, he took off running--ignoring his bad leg and
receiver Irving Fryar's panicked shouts of "Don't do it!"--and
made the first down. During a third-quarter timeout, Marino
guaranteed that a play would work, persuaded the Miami coaches
to call it and then fired a 26-yard touchdown strike to Jackson.
As Byars later said, "It was like Babe Ruth calling his shot."
But Marino's gall still hadn't crested. The Dolphins were
trailing 35-32 with 3-1/2 minutes to play. On fourth-and-five
from the Patriots' 35, Marino told Fryar in the huddle that if
he got bump coverage from the cornerback, Marino would go to
him. Sure enough, the cornerback bit, Fryar blew by him, and
Marino coolly led the receiver with a perfectly placed touchdown
pass. Marino shambled off, his teeth bared triumphantly. Miami
Other memorable performances would follow, but of all the 1994
games, the opener might have been the most important.
"Well, Dan's back," Shula said dryly after the win.
Was there ever any doubt? "Until I did it, yeah, there was
always a question," Marino says. "You try to visualize what it
will be like--to move, to get hit. And am I going to be able to
move to avoid hits? You try. But you don't know." Even Marino
wasn't sure what he had lost because of his Achilles injury. But
his success has never depended on rolling out like Joe Montana
or scrambling like John Elway. Marino is a classic drop-back
passer. And he still has a gunslinger's mentality, the
confidence to think that he can rifle a ball into double
coverage and it will thread its way to his receiver's arms.
Most remarkable is Marino's lightning ability to decide where to
throw the ball. He's so good at predicting touchdowns before
breaking the huddle that even grizzled veterans like Byars and
Sims feel a ripple of awe, as if Marino really is Ruthian in his
ability to call his shot.
Marino says he emerged from his Achilles rupture with a powerful
feeling of having been robbed of precious time. Before the
injury, says Marino of his career, "I thought it would go on and
on...." And Marino thought he alone would decide when it would
While he is reluctant to characterize a Super Bowl win as some
grand obsession, he concedes, "It starts to hit you: Next year
you might not be playing. Obviously, I think I'm going to be.
But one day you're a little kid, seven years old, and then all
of a sudden the thing you love to do is over."
Marino has long played games in a near comical, unshakably bad
mood--eyebrows knit, blue eyes ablaze and mouth drawn in a taut,
angry line. And teammates say that his blast-furnace intensity
has increased even more in the last few years. He says he would
like to play at least three or four more years, but Marino
shares his teammates' conviction that their time to get a Super
Bowl title is now. Lately he has begun saying that no matter how
hard he tries, a Super Bowl victory "just might not happen for
me." But the concession is unconvincing to anyone who has
watched him play, or watched him persevere through those nine
leg operations, or listened to how that playoff game against the
Chargers still bothers him when he's in his car, by himself,
late at night.
Marino says that he watched 33-year-old Clyde Drexler's recent
run to his first NBA title with the Houston Rockets. Marino says
that he also watched as the New Jersey Devils dissolved into
sobs at mid-ice after winning the Stanley Cup last month. "To
see how much it meant to them all to win it together, man, that
was good stuff," he says. He smiles fondly. And he sighs.
When asked if he ever allows himself to imagine what he would do
if he were to finally win a Super Bowl, Marino smiles again and
jokes, "I'll probably cry. Laugh. Jump around and dance. Get a
tattoo--all of it."
He swears he doesn't need a championship ring to make his
storied career complete. Shula would probably say the same thing
about his third title.
You can buy that if you like.