Last Hurrah? Dan Marino flashed his old brilliance but couldn't save Miami from a crippling loss to the Colts that further dimmed his fading hopes of a Super Bowl title

December 13, 1999

He was William Tell with a hellion's heart, and when he ran out
of human targets, 13-year-old Dan Marino would stand outside his
family's modest home in Pittsburgh's Oakland district and whip
footballs at anything that moved. "Every 20 minutes the bus
would come down my block," Marino says, "and I'd pick a spot and
nail that sucker every time."

The bus drivers never stopped; neither, in the quarter century
that followed, would Marino. With a chilling blend of accuracy
and velocity, Marino, the future Hall of Fame quarterback of the
Miami Dolphins, went on to redefine the NFL passing game,
becoming the only player to throw for more than 60,000 yards. On
Sunday at Pro Player Stadium, as he had so many times before, he
bulldozed Miami through one crisis after another with a few
dozen cocksure flicks of his right arm. Yet in a recurring story
line that seems destined to serve as his epitaph, Marino's
magic--24 completions in 38 attempts, 313 yards and three
touchdowns, a comeback from a 14-point third-quarter
deficit--wasn't enough to carry the Dolphins to their desired
destination.

Jacked up for an AFC East showdown that Marino and his teammates
believed they had to win, Miami dropped a 37-34 decision to the
Indianapolis Colts on Mike Vanderjagt's 53-yard field goal as
time expired. After engineering a stirring rally that tied the
game with 36 seconds remaining, Marino watched as Peyton
Manning, the Colts' 23-year-old whiz kid, killed the buzz among
the home fans by driving his team 33 yards in three plays to the
Miami 35. When Vanderjagt's kick cleared the crossbar, Marino
looked lost, at first starting off the field alone, then
venturing back toward the players who had congregated near
midfield and finally, after another abrupt pivot, ducking his
head and trotting into the end zone tunnel. Manning came running
by, and Marino stopped him and extended congratulations. Then
Marino told Manning, "I hope we see you again." Speaking for
sentimentalists everywhere, Manning replied, "I hope we see you
again, too."

It looks more and more as if we're watching the final, desperate
days of a legend's futile quest. Beginning with Sunday's road
game against the New York Jets, Marino's margin for error will
be slimmer than a Friends actress. This may well be the
38-year-old Marino's last chance to avoid going out as the NFL's
Ted Williams--the greatest player never to have won a
championship.

After watching his friend John Elway punctuate a classic career
by winning the past two Super Bowls, Marino felt it was his time
to shine in 1999. But age, a scary neck injury and pressure from
Miami coach Jimmy Johnson to perform better have plagued him,
and on Sunday all of Marino's fight wasn't enough to overcome
the prolific Colts, who improved to 10-2 with their eighth
consecutive win.

The Dolphins (8-4) lost for the third time in four games. If the
season were to end now, they would be the AFC's sixth and final
playoff seed and would need to pull off road victories over the
Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars just to reach the
conference title game. One person familiar with Marino's and
Johnson's thinking believes that unless Miami makes it at least
that far, Marino won't be asked back for an 18th season. (Marino
also has the right to become a free agent, but he'd probably
retire rather than play for another team.)

Marino hasn't been to the Super Bowl since 1984, his second
year, but when the Dolphins started the season 7-1 they seemed
positioned to make a title run. Now it appears the young Colts
have caught and passed them. While Manning (23 completions in 29
attempts for 260 yards and one touchdown on Sunday) and
Indianapolis's rookie running back, Edgerrin James (23 carries,
130 yards, two touchdowns), are the NFL's freshest offensive
faces, Miami's act looks increasingly tired. For all of
Johnson's attempts to reshape the franchise since he replaced
Don Shula following the '95 season, the Dolphins, in their
biggest games, seem to revert to their old identity--a team with
a shaky defense and an unimposing running game that must rely on
Marino's hot hand to overcome those shortcomings.

After calling Sunday's showdown "the biggest game we've played
in three years," Marino rose to the occasion. This was quite a
twist given his turkey of a performance on Thanksgiving Day--he
tied a career high by throwing five interceptions in a 20-0 loss
to the Dallas Cowboys, causing many coaches and players around
the league to wonder if he had fully recovered from a pinched
cervical nerve root that forced him out of an Oct. 10 game
against the New England Patriots and sidelined him for five
weeks. During that wait Marino was forced to confront his
football mortality. He lost partial feeling in the ring and
pinkie fingers of his throwing hand for several weeks, and
Marino feared the injury might be career-threatening.

Marino had plenty of trying moments during those weeks, and the
frustration filtered down to his three sons, Danno, 13, Michael,
11, and Joey, 10, whose daily games in the backyard of the
Marinos' plush compound in suburban Weston temporarily lost
their luster. Says Dan, "It really sucked when my kids wanted me
to go out back with them and play quarterback, and I had to tell
them, honestly, 'I can't throw.'"

On Sundays, while Marino watched anxiously from the sideline,
third-year passer Damon Huard--who used to pretend he was Marino
during his childhood pickup games in suburban Seattle--stood
tall at a tense time. He led the Dolphins to five wins in six
games, fanning the flames of a quarterback controversy that
Johnson helped create. After Marino struggled in an Oct. 4 loss
to the Buffalo Bills, Johnson criticized him and suggested that
he might bench him if another subpar effort ensued. Marino, as
is his custom, responded with a marquee performance the
following Sunday against the Colts, throwing for 393 yards and
guiding Miami to a 34-31 last-minute victory.

Johnson, 56, has treated the season with a sense of urgency
following the midlife crisis he experienced in the aftermath of
the Dolphins' 38-3 divisional playoff loss at Denver last
January. Reeling from that defeat and the death of his mother,
Allene, last December, Johnson resigned for a day before being
talked into staying by owner Wayne Huizenga. Though his
relationship with Johnson has been far from chummy, Marino
agreed that the coach, who won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys,
gave Miami its best chance to go all the way.

Though Johnson stood by Marino following the Thanksgiving Day
debacle, the issue of whether Marino should be the starter
remained a sensitive one for the normally brassy coach in the
days leading up to the Indy game. Last Friday, Johnson sat in
his office at the Dolphins' training facility, nervously
twirling his glasses while extolling the virtues of Huard, an
undrafted star at Washington who three years ago was visiting
Rotary clubs throughout the nether regions of his home state as
a public relations staffer for the campaign to build the
Seahawks an open-air stadium. "When the season's over, I think
people will look back and realize what Damon accomplished,"
Johnson said. "He pulled out some very tough games, and his
third-down passer rating is the best in the AFC. I don't think
anybody has taken a close look at what he has achieved."

Still, benching Marino remained problematic. "It's not something
you would do lightly," Johnson said. "It's not just X's and O's.
You have to look at everything--how it affects your team
chemistry, the players' attitude and focus."

Johnson knows that there's only one faction in the Miami locker
room, and it's all in number 13's corner. Even Huard, who last
Friday signed a two-year, $2.1 million contract extension
through 2001, said it would be "ridiculous" to consider not
playing Marino. On Friday veteran defensive end Trace Armstrong
sat at his locker and said, "Damon has done a great job, but if
you ask anybody in here who gives us the best chance to win,
we'd all pick Dan."

On Sunday, as if on cue, Marino drove the point home. The man
bounces back from adversity like President Clinton, and his
teammates saw it coming. When Marino jogged through a line of
Dolphins during pregame introductions, he was flashing a
defiant, I'll-show-you smile, and several players said they knew
a big game was in the offing. Perhaps Marino's reemergence
served as a crutch for the rest of the team. The normally stingy
Dolphins defense surrendered a season-high 370 yards; James, a
former University of Miami star, gained more yards against the
Dolphins than had any runner in two years. And the 37 points
that the Colts scored were the most surrendered by a
Johnson-coached team at Pro Player.

James's success was all the more glaring given the choppy
performance of Miami's rookie running back, J.J. Johnson, who
committed two brutal gaffes. The first came after Indy had taken
a 10-3 lead late in the first quarter. On the next play from
scrimmage, Johnson swept around left end and fumbled the ball
after a six-yard gain. Colts strong safety Chad Cota fell on the
ball and, when no Dolphin touched him, got up and ran an
uncontested 25 yards into the end zone. Rather than trying to
tackle Cota, Johnson remained prone on the grass and gestured
(incorrectly) that the play should have been whistled dead
because the ground had caused the fumble.

Johnson's second mistake occurred after Vanderjagt nailed a
48-yard field goal to give Indy a 34-31 lead with 4:24 to go.
Marino, who has launched 35 fourth-quarter comeback
victories--second alltime to Elway's 43--took over at his own 20
and did his thing. He completed five consecutive passes, for 58
yards, and suddenly, Miami had a first down at the Colts' 20
with 1:54 left. The headlines were all but written for Marino,
who had already thrown touchdown passes to wideouts Tony Martin
and Oronde Gadsden and to fullback Stanley Pritchett, as he
faced a third-and-four at the Indy 14 with 44 seconds left. The
Dolphins called Pass 8, a play in which Marino fakes a handoff
to Pritchett and hits him on a short flare or, if he's not open,
finds slot receiver Yatil Green on a medium-range curl. The line
slides to the left, leaving exposed the left defensive end, in
this case the Colts' Mark Thomas. Johnson, who followed
Pritchett out of the backfield, was supposed to block Thomas.
Thomas brushed past Johnson, leaped and deflected Marino's pass,
which was intended for Pritchett.

Olindo Mare's 32-yard field goal tied the game with 36 seconds
left--too much time for Manning, who connected with wideout
Marvin Harrison on slant passes of 16 and 18 yards to set up
Vanderjagt's winning field goal.

After the postgame exchange with Manning, the stress of the past
two months overcame Marino. Four questions into his press
conference, he was asked how tough it was to watch Vanderjagt's
kick sail between the uprights. Marino, who has seldom, if ever,
lost his cool under such circumstances, snapped. "These
questions are ridiculous," he scoffed. "I'll tell you how tough
it is--you work your butt off all week, and then you lose a game
like that. But you wouldn't know, would you?" With that he
walked out of the room.

Nearly an hour later, several Colts officials hustled Manning
through a stadium parking lot. "If you're a football fan,"
Manning said, beaming, "you had to love this game." He was still
smiling seconds later as he boarded the team bus, which, with
its leader safely aboard, paraded through a sea of crestfallen
tailgaters and into the misty Miami darkness.

The adolescent Marino would have beaned the bus. But on this
pivotal night, he and his golden arm were long gone.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER COVER Dan's Last Stand At 38 and under siege, Dan Marino refuses to go down without a fight COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Dan the Man Marino did his part against the Colts, throwing for 313 yards and three touchdowns. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES No contest In a matchup of rookie running backs, Johnson (opposite) was no match for James, who ran for 130 yards and two scores. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Bombs away The Dolphins pulled within seven points after Martin hauled in a 33-yard strike from Marino late in the third quarter.

Johnson knows there's only one faction in the Dolphins' locker
room, and it's all in number 13's corner.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)