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Peter King
October 18, 1999
Running in Place Ricky Williams must get healthy, then get more work, to help the Saints
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October 18, 1999

The Nfl

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After the Falcons game Williams sat at his locker chewing bubble gum, trying to figure out what has gone wrong. "It's been so long since I've been able to show the real me," he said softly. "I'm starting to forget who the real me is."

Down on Dan
Johnson Lets Marino Have It

When Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino walked into coach Jimmy Johnson's office on Oct. 6, Johnson's first words were, "It's nothing personal." Whatever it was, public criticism of one of the NFL's alltime great quarterbacks caught a lot of people off guard—including Marino. "Dan's got to make some better decisions," Johnson had said at his weekly press conference the day before. "When he's getting banged around, he's made some poor decisions."

Johnson was referring to Marino's play in a 23-18 loss to the Bills on Oct. 4, a game in which Buffalo intercepted Marino twice, returned a Marino fumble for a touchdown and limited Miami to one third-down conversion in 14 attempts. Marino, who had appealed to Johnson to return for another season after the coach had said he was stepping down, was so angry about Johnson's rip job that, according to a friend of the quarterback's, "the damage between Dan and Jimmy is irreparable." Johnson would have been wiser to sting Marino in the privacy of his office, but here are three factors that may have motivated him to go public.

•Since 1997, Marino's performance has been mediocre. Going into Miami's 34-31 win over the Colts on Sunday, his 79.8 quarterback rating was 16th in the league among quarterbacks who had made at least 20 starts since the beginning of the '97 season. That was just an eyelash above Tampa Bay's Trent Differ (77.6), who gets booed at home and is the guy Johnson disparaged as a major reason that he opted to sign on with the Dolphins instead of the Bucs when he returned to coaching in 1996.

•Marino, 38, is on his last legs, and Johnson feels little need to defend him. During the off-season Johnson and Marino's agent, Marvin Demoff, engaged in a contentious renegotiation of Marino's contract, a move that gave the Dolphins $2 million in 1999 salary-cap relief. Marino got two things out of the deal: a $1.5 million roster bonus if he's still on the team next March 1 and the right to void his contract and become a free agent if he chooses after this season.

•Johnson has no fear of signing a Rodney Peete type as veteran insurance and letting backups Damon Huard and Jim Drucken-miller battle for the starting job in training camp next year.

By week's end a sullen Johnson said he was finished answering questions about Marino. But his silence about the rift between him and the Hall of Fame-bound quarterback spoke volumes when he said this about his offense: "We need to be better than one of 14 on third-down conversions. It's disappointing. We've got everything we need on offense-depth at running back, talent on the line, at wide receiver and tight end. We need to transfer talent into performance."

On Sunday, Marino did just that. During their meeting after Johnson's rebuke, the coach had warned Marino that he would pull the quarterback if he turned the ball over against Indianapolis. Who knows what Johnson would have done if the Colts hadn't dropped the three potential first-half interceptions? Given redemptive time, Marino responded with his best game under Johnson, completing 25 passes in 38 attempts for 393 yards and two touchdowns. "Dan was fantastic," Johnson said afterward, but he made no apologies for his criticisms. "Hey, sometimes I don't coach good, but I say what I feel."

For his part Marino wasn't shooting back, and he scoffed at the notion that Johnson's remarks might have inspired him. But you got the feeling this game changed nothing about Marino's future in Miami. "After 17 years in the game," he said, "I don't know how much longer I'll play. That's what gets me fired up."

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