"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' gun-slinger 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 imaginative leadership.
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."