Johnson, 56, has treated the season with a sense of urgency following the midlife crisis he experienced in the aftermath of the Dolphins' 38-3 divisional playoff loss at Denver last January. Reeling from that defeat and the death of his mother, Allene, last December, Johnson resigned for a day before being talked into staying by owner Wayne Huizenga. Though his relationship with Johnson has been far from chummy, Marino agreed that the coach, who won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys, gave Miami its best chance to go all the way.
Though Johnson stood by Marino following the Thanksgiving Day debacle, the issue of whether Marino should be the starter remained a sensitive one for the normally brassy coach in the days leading up to the Indy game. Last Friday, Johnson sat in his office at the Dolphins' training facility, nervously twirling his glasses while extolling the virtues of Huard, an undrafted star at Washington who three years ago was visiting Rotary clubs throughout the nether regions of his home state as a public relations staffer for the campaign to build the Seahawks an open-air stadium. "When the season's over, I think people will look back and realize what Damon accomplished," Johnson said. "He pulled out some very tough games, and his third-down passer rating is the best in the AFC. I don't think anybody has taken a close look at what he has achieved."
Still, benching Marino remained problematic. "It's not something you would do lightly," Johnson said. "It's not just X's and O's. You have to look at everything—how it affects your team chemistry, the players' attitude and focus."
Johnson knows that there's only one faction in the Miami locker room, and it's all in number 13's corner. Even Huard, who last Friday signed a two-year, $2.1 million contract extension through 2001, said it would be "ridiculous" to consider not playing Marino. On Friday veteran defensive end Trace Armstrong sat at his locker and said, "Damon has done a great job, but if you ask anybody in here who gives us the best chance to win, we'd all pick Dan."
On Sunday, as if on cue, Marino drove the point home. The man bounces back from adversity like President Clinton, and his teammates saw it coming. When Marino jogged through a line of Dolphins during pregame introductions, he was flashing a defiant, I'll-show-you smile, and several players said they knew a big game was in the offing. Perhaps Marino's reemergence served as a crutch for the rest of the team. The normally stingy Dolphins defense surrendered a season-high 370 yards; James, a former University of Miami star, gained more yards against the Dolphins than had any runner in two years. And the 37 points that the Colts scored were the most surrendered by a Johnson-coached team at Pro Player.
James's success was all the more glaring given the choppy performance of Miami's rookie running back, J.J. Johnson, who committed two brutal gaffes. The first came after Indy had taken a 10-3 lead late in the first quarter. On the next play from scrimmage, Johnson swept around left end and fumbled the ball after a six-yard gain. Colts strong safety Chad Cota fell on the ball and, when no Dolphin touched him, got up and ran an uncontested 25 yards into the end zone. Rather than trying to tackle Cota, Johnson remained prone on the grass and gestured (incorrectly) that the play should have been whistled dead because the ground had caused the fumble.
Johnson's second mistake occurred after Vanderjagt nailed a 48-yard field goal to give Indy a 34-31 lead with 4:24 to go. Marino, who has launched 35 fourth-quarter comeback victories—second all-time to Elway's 43—took over at his own 20 and did his thing. He completed five consecutive passes, for 58 yards, and suddenly, Miami had a first down at the Colts' 20 with 1:54 left. The headlines were all but written for Marino, who had already thrown touchdown passes to wideouts Tony Martin and Oronde Gadsden and to fullback Stanley Pritchett, as he faced a third-and-four at the Indy 14 with 44 seconds left. The Dolphins called Pass 8, a play in which Marino fakes a handoff to Pritchett and hits him on a short flare or, if he's not open, finds slot receiver Yatil Green on a medium-range curl. The line slides to the left, leaving exposed the left defensive end, in this case the Colts' Mark Thomas. Johnson, who followed Pritchett out of the backfield, was supposed to block Thomas. Thomas brushed past Johnson, leaped and deflected Marino's pass, which was intended for Pritchett.
Olindo Mare's 32-yard field goal tied the game with 36 seconds left—too much time for Manning, who connected with wideout Marvin Harrison on slant passes of 16 and 18 yards to set up Vanderjagt's winning field goal.
After the postgame exchange with Manning, the stress of the past two months overcame Marino. Four questions into his press conference, he was asked how tough it was to watch Vanderjagt's kick sail between the uprights. Marino, who has seldom, if ever, lost his cool under such circumstances, snapped. "These questions are ridiculous," he scoffed. "I'll tell you how tough it is—you work your butt off all week, and then you lose a game like that. But you wouldn't know, would you?" With that he walked out of the room.
Nearly an hour later, several Colts officials hustled Manning through a stadium parking lot. "If you're a football fan," Manning said, beaming, "you had to love this game." He was still smiling seconds later as he boarded the team bus, which, with its leader safely aboard, paraded through a sea of crestfallen tailgaters and into the misty Miami darkness.