A sense of history, along with a cold winter mist, hung over
Seattle last weekend. For the home folks, Sunday's AFC wild-card
playoff between the Seahawks and the Miami Dolphins would be the
final football game in the NFL's loudest and ugliest stadium,
the dump known as the Kingdome. The place is scheduled to be
demolished in March, and a new football palace will be built in
its place, ready for play in 2002. For the visiting team, the
game had the potential to be even more momentous. Jimmy Johnson
might have been coaching his last game, and more significant
still, 38-year-old Dan Marino might have been licking his
fingers for the last time, trying to pick apart a defense for
the last time, glowering at the officials for the last time.
"Can you imagine what Marino must be thinking?" Seattle
cornerback Shawn Springs said 24 hours before kickoff. "Here he
is, the old lion, maybe suiting up for the last time. He's got
this dream to win a Super Bowl, and this is probably his last
chance. His coach is doubting him. The fans are doubting him.
I'm dying to know what's going through the old lion's mind."
So last Saturday night, as he was heading into a team meeting,
Marino was pulled aside and Springs's thoughts were relayed to
him. What was going through his mind? "That I'm gonna play
well," Marino replied.
It wasn't exactly Ted Williams homering in his last at bat or
Michael Jordan hitting the last shot of his career to win a
sixth NBA crown, but Marino gave a performance in the dreary
Kingdome that he'll remember as long as he lives. In the middle
of this star-crossed, contentious season, he played like the
Marino of old.
The decibel level inside the Kingdome was something akin to
dueling 747s on a runway at SeaTac when Marino stepped under
center with about eight minutes to play, trailing by four and
facing third-and-17 at the Miami eight. Unfazed, Marino lasered
a 23-yard completion to wideout Tony Martin and commenced a
clutch touchdown drive that was as sharp as any he has led in
years. Call it "Ninety-two Yards to Jacksonville" because after
their 20-17 victory over the Seahawks, the Dolphins--the AFC's
sixth playoff seed--head north on I-95 to face the top-seeded
Jaguars in a divisional playoff on Saturday. "I know we've got
to take 'em one at a time," Marino said afterward, "but we win
two more and we get a shot."
Of course, he's talking about a shot at a Super Bowl victory,
the Holy Grail that has eluded him. Dare he dream? Jacksonville
is banged up, and Miami beat the other two AFC semifinalists,
the Indianapolis Colts and the Tennessee Titans, in midseason.
Marino, who in a turn-back-the-clock second half against Seattle
completed 12 of 21 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown, appears
to be getting a second wind after missing five games and most of
another in the middle of the year with a cervical nerve injury
and after struggling for the rest of the regular season to get
back into game shape. He said he felt as good throwing the ball
in practice last week as he had all season. "I just needed to
build my strength back up after the injury," Marino said.
Though he's going through a phase of his career not unlike the
one Roger Clemens is enduring--Marino's lost something off the
fastball, so he's got to hit spots and be smart--he showed in
the fourth quarter that he can still be a playoff winner.
Johnson, who hinted to SI last Saturday night that he might be
finished coaching regardless of how the Dolphins fare in the
postseason, also had a banner week. He told his assistants early
on that he'd "be the best head coach you've ever seen." Johnson
told his players they'd win the game if they ran the ball well,
didn't panic if they fell behind and didn't let the crowd affect
them. "Jimmy wrote the script," said Miami trainer Kevin
O'Neill, "and these guys followed it to a T."
The Dolphins stuck with the run, grinding out 108 yards on 37
carries, and controlled the ball for 34:48. After Marino capped
a 60-yard, third-quarter drive with a one-yard touchdown bullet
into wideout Oronde Gadsden's gut to tie the score at 10,
Charlie Rogers returned the ensuing kickoff 85 yards for a
Seattle touchdown. But Miami remained calm and stayed with its
game plan, and Seattle didn't threaten the rest of the game.
Trailing 17-13 with 9:09 left, the Dolphins took possession at
their 15 knowing one touchdown might be enough to pull out a
The game-winning drive got off to an inauspicious beginning.
Running back J.J. Johnson was stuffed for a two-yard loss,
Marino threw incomplete, and then left tackle Richmond Webb was
whistled for a false start. Just like that, it was third-and-17.
The crowd got so loud that Marino had to hold his hands over the
ear holes of his helmet so he could hear offensive coordinator
Kippy Brown radio in the next play. "Sixty-six Ricky!" Brown
said. "Sixty-six Ricky!" Good, Marino thought; Seattle was
playing zone, and maybe he could find a crack big enough to
throw through on the right, where Martin would be running a
Marino's teammates weren't as confident. "It's hard to say
this," guard Kevin Gogan said later, "but at that point you're
just hoping for a few yards to get you out of that hole."
Springs played Martin soft, trying to avoid giving up a big
play. Marino threw a rope, and Martin made a magnificent diving
catch six yards beyond the first-down marker. Suddenly the crowd
got so quiet you could hear a ceiling tile drop. Now Marino had
his scalpel out. He hit Martin on a 17-yard out pattern, then
handed off to Johnson for three. Marino cut the heart out of the
Seahawks' defense on second-and-seven at the Seattle 49. Seven
pass rushers came after him, but he stepped up in the pocket
and, with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy bearing down
on him, threw a sidearm dart to avoid having it blocked. Twenty
yards downfield, the ball nestled into Martin's arms.
"Incredible throw," Martin said. "I can't believe it got there."
On third-and-10 from the Seattle 29, Marino hit Gadsden for a
24-yard gain. Two plays later Johnson's two-yard burst behind
Webb put Miami ahead to stay.
Last Saturday, Marino seemed as if he could see all this coming.
Though he doesn't want to retire, he is well aware of the
criticism of his recent play and knows there's a good chance
that the Dolphins will release him after the season to make way
for cap-friendly youngster Damon Huard. Marino is sick and tired
of being called mediocre. "I'll tell you this: I'm not average,"
he said pointedly the night before the game. "When you play this
position, there are going to be some bad times. I came back
[from the injury] too soon, so I'm still getting my timing and
rhythm back. I can feel it getting there now. I'm ready to play
So well that Gogan said he couldn't wait to get to work on
Monday to watch film of the winning drive. "The sad thing about
being in the middle of a drive like that is that you don't see
it," Gogan said. "That was a clinic, man. Vintage Marino. Just
to be on the field with the man for a drive like that is
something none of us will ever forget."