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.