On the Miami Dolphins' first play from scrimmage last Saturday
at Alltel Stadium, Dan Marino threw a sideline pass in the
general direction of wide receiver Tony Martin. That's when
everything went to hell. Not just the play, which resulted in an
interception by Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Aaron Beasley.
Not just the Dolphins' offense, which for the remainder of an
endless afternoon would look as if it were being directed by
Homer Simpson. Not just the game, which would conclude with a
score of 62-7 and send the Jaguars into this Sunday's AFC
Championship Game against the Tennessee Titans. And not just
Marino's brilliant 17-year career, which might have ended in
sore-armed, sore-shouldered, sore-legged and sore-egoed ignominy
No, what also went to hell was an eventful, though not fruitful,
four-year wranglefest between Marino and coach Jimmy Johnson. Any
thought that Miami could turn in one more magical performance--as
it had done on the previous Sunday in a 20-17 road victory over
the Seattle Seahawks in an AFC wild-card playoff game--was
squelched by Marino's terrible throw to Martin. The play was
emblematic of a Dolphins season that, the victory over the
Seahawks notwithstanding, had really ended weeks earlier. By the
time Johnson announced his retirement on Sunday at a press
conference at Miami's practice facility in Davie, DM and JJ were
sharing only one thing: bronzed countenances.
Shortly after Johnson stepped down, assistant head coach Dave
Wannstedt was named his successor by Dolphins owner Wayne
Huizenga. The elevation of Wannstedt appears to signal the end of
an era in South Florida: Wannstedt believes, as Johnson did, that
the 38-year-old Marino can't get it done anymore and that the
Miami offense would best be quarterbacked by 26-year-old Damon
Huard, who in December signed a two-year extension.
Dolphins fans certainly recognized that it was the end of one
era, if not two. As Johnson's 11 a.m. press conference was pushed
back, pushed back and pushed back again, about a dozen cars
passed through the practice facility's parking lot, their
occupants pointing video cameras at the bland stucco
headquarters. This was where Jimmy quit. This was the day that
Dan stopped being quarterback. Neighborhood kids on bicycles
called their friends on cell phones to discuss what might be
going on inside. The press conference finally began at about 1
p.m., presumably after the party line had been set and details of
Wannstedt's three-year contract had been worked out.
It's a pity that the Sunshine State soap opera stole headlines
from the Jaguars, for rarely did a team look more ready than they
did on Saturday. Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin prepares for
games the way Montgomery prepared for battles. The Jaguars piled
up 520 yards of offense, with running back Fred Taylor accounting
for 135 on the ground--including an NFL postseason-record 90-yard
dash for a touchdown--and another 39 on a touchdown reception in
which he broke no fewer than five tackles. On defense
Jacksonville limited Miami to 133 yards, forced seven turnovers
and had five sacks.
In contrast, rarely had a team looked less ready than the
Dolphins. Johnson fell on his sword, saying he had overworked his
players during the short week of preparation between Sunday in
Seattle and last Saturday in Jacksonville, but tired legs alone
couldn't account for Miami's horrid performance.
At the postgame press conference a deflated Johnson made a short
statement before leaving without taking questions. On Sunday,
after speaking briefly at the proceedings in Davie (again he
didn't entertain questions), he looked relieved. He climbed into
his black Corvette and kissed his wife, Rhonda. The couple's
beloved seven-pound Yorkie, Buttercup, was there, too, of course.
"High tide is at two o'clock," Jimmy had said as he left the
building, looking at his watch. "I've got to get out there."
If you believe in omens, Johnson's future--which may include
working as a TV analyst but will certainly include a lot of
chilling on his 54-foot yacht, Three Rings--will be as bright as
the sunshine that broke out after that gray Miami morning. The
Florida Keys, where he has a refurbished oceanfront house on
three acres, were just a two-hour drive away. At least Johnson's
immediate future looked less stressful than that of Wannstedt,
who must rebuild a team that suffered the second-worst playoff
loss in NFL history. Johnson liked to point out that the Dolphins
were one of only three teams to have made the playoffs in each of
the last three seasons, but what does it say about a club that it
has been outscored 100-10 in its last two postseason losses?
Wannstedt, not Johnson, will have to play the heavy in unloading
Marino if the quarterback, who's only slightly less popular in
Florida than $9.95 senior-citizen specials, doesn't quit
But one wonders how many times over the next months Johnson will
agonize about how it all went wrong in Miami: how, after
announcing that he had a three-year plan to get Miami to its
first Super Bowl since 1984, he had only a 36-28 regular-season
record and no AFC East titles in four years; how, with all his
motivational and organizational ability, he was humiliated in the
playoffs; and, most important, how the main reason that he took
the job became his undoing--Daniel Constantine Marino Jr.
One January day in 1996, Johnson, two years removed from his
second Super Bowl win with the Dallas Cowboys, sat at his home in
the Key Largo town of Tavernier. In front of him were the
salary-cap sheets of the Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,
invaluable information to a man whom both franchises saw as their
hope for the future. Johnson, who also had won a college national
championship at Miami, put on his reading glasses, furrowed his
brow and studied the numbers. The Bucs were well under the salary
cap, and the pieces of a defense that would become the best in
the NFL were in place. The Dolphins were up against the cap, and
their players were aging. Tampa Bay seemed a much surer long-term
"But I just can't get past one thing," Johnson said later.
"Dilfer and Marino." Johnson believed that Marino's arm could
get Miami to the mountaintop, while Bucs quarterback Trent
Dilfer's arm couldn't get Tampa Bay up a hill. On that afternoon
the Bucs called. Johnson said, Thanks, but no thanks. The next
day the Dolphins called. Johnson said, Where do I sign? Shortly
after taking the job, he met with Marino. "Coach, I've broken
all the records," Johnson remembered Marino telling him. "I
don't care if I throw 10 passes a game. I just want to win."
If Johnson were a prophet, he would've seen that a
defense-oriented team with a caretaker quarterback (now Shaun
King, not Dilfer) could get further than a superannuated team
with a Hall of Fame quarterback. But Johnson isn't a prophet. How
many coaches are? And how many coaches wouldn't have leaped at
the chance to hook up with Marino, whose title of BPNWSB (Best
Player Never to Win a Super Bowl) is seemingly secure.
When Johnson's support of Marino, which had been weakening in
recent years, grew even more lukewarm this season, it was only
because he believed that Miami was a better team with Huard
behind center than with Marino, who was battling neck and
shoulder injuries and the effects of almost two decades of wear
and tear. In fact, it was a better team, albeit a less dashing
one: Huard was 5-1 in Marino's absence, including a comeback win
over the New England Patriots on Oct. 17 when Huard replaced an
injured Marino eight minutes in.
Marino commands respect in the Dolphins' locker room, not to
mention throughout the league. It was truly a sad moment when
Marino, after Saturday's game, confessed that he had asked
Johnson at halftime "for one more shot" with his team trailing
41-7 and Huard ready to take the snaps. Johnson gave him that
shot, but, as Marino understated, "it didn't go well." It was
three-and-out, and in came Huard. If Marino's career is indeed
over, his last play was an incomplete pass to O.J. McDuffie.
It's not as if the other Dolphins are lining up to demand
Marino's return, either. An ol' gunslinger raises the Q rating of
any team, but if he can no longer sling, he doesn't do the club's
offense much good. A remark on Sunday by Miami wideout Nate
Jacquet was telling: "I hope he [Marino] will stay. I think he
has a year or two left, but the years take their toll physically
and mentally, and you've got your family to think about."
Accolades to Johnson were tossed around the Dolphins' locker room
too. His goodbye to the players, which took place at about 8:30
a.m. on Sunday, was heartfelt and emotional. He told them, "I
have no more to give."
That was already evident to most observers. Dolphins insiders say
that by early this season Johnson--who had quit last January
before being talked out of his decision by Huizenga--had lost his
taste for the battle. He no longer could dredge up the energy
required to run a high-profile team. Sources close to Johnson say
that he'd been glum because, though he had decided Miami was
stronger with Huard, he couldn't bring himself to keep Marino on
the bench when he came back from his injury on Thanksgiving Day.
Marino had a disastrous game, throwing five interceptions in a
loss to Dallas. A comment by Dolphins linebacker Robert Jones,
who also played for Johnson on the Cowboys, is revealing. "Jimmy
was more intense in Dallas," Jones said on Sunday. "Maybe it's
because of the type of players he had there. The players in
Dallas responded positively to him, but here it's different."
The job of righting this listing ship belongs to a man who, as
the Chicago Bears' coach from 1993 to '98, was only 40-56.
Wannstedt was an obvious choice to succeed Johnson, having been
with him in various capacities for 14 seasons, but hardly an
electrifying one. Indeed, elevating anyone on the Miami staff the
day after the Abomination at Alltel would not have defined
Against the Jaguars, the Dolphins stopped competing early. Their
afternoon was epitomized by the way they stood around as
Jacksonville defensive end Tony Brackens did a little dance after
recovering a Marino fumble on the Miami 16--and headed to the end
zone only after being emphatically reminded by his teammates that
the whistle hadn't blown. "We saw his teammates pounding him on
the back and celebrating, and that's not a situation where you
think the play is still alive," said Dolphins guard Kevin
Donnalley afterward. Ah, that explains why an offense dozes off
in front of 75,000 spectators.
Late Sunday afternoon Wannstedt explained away some of his
failure in Chicago by saying, "I didn't have final draft
authority or final authority on free agents or in trades." He
says he has that now, and, for a while, he'll have the assistance
of Johnson, who will stay on as a consultant. Earlier Wannstedt
had also said, "Whatever business you're in, you're a lot better
doing it the second time."
With the challenge he faces in Miami, he had better be right.
responded positively, but here it's different."