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° 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 glass."
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 championship.
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 season.
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 3½ 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 won 39-35.
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.