On the Miami Dolphins' first play from scrimmage last Saturday at Alltel Stadium, Dan Marino threw a sideline pass in the general direction of wide receiver Tony Martin. That's when everything went to hell. Not just the play, which resulted in an interception by Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Aaron Beasley. Not just the Dolphins' offense, which for the remainder of an endless afternoon would look as if it were being directed by Homer Simpson. Not just the game, which would conclude with a score of 62-7 and send the Jaguars into this Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Tennessee Titans. And not just Marino's brilliant 17-year career, which might have ended in sore-armed, sore-shouldered, sore-legged and sore-egoed ignominy anyway.
No, what also went to hell was an eventful, though not fruitful, four-year wranglefest between Marino and coach Jimmy Johnson. Any thought that Miami could turn in one more magical performance—as it had done on the previous Sunday in a 20-17 road victory over the Seattle Seahawks in an AFC wild-card playoff game—was squelched by Marino's terrible throw to Martin. The play was emblematic of a Dolphins season that, the victory over the Seahawks notwithstanding, had really ended weeks earlier. By the time Johnson announced his retirement on Sunday at a press conference at Miami's practice facility in Davie, DM and JJ were sharing only one thing: bronzed countenances.
Shortly after Johnson stepped down, assistant head coach Dave Wannstedt was named his successor by Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga. The elevation of Wannstedt appears to signal the end of an era in South Florida: Wannstedt believes, as Johnson did, that the 38-year-old Marino can't get it done anymore and that the Miami offense would best be quarterbacked by 26-year-old Damon Huard, who in December signed a two-year extension.
Dolphins fans certainly recognized that it was the end of one era, if not two. As Johnson's 11 a.m. press conference was pushed back, pushed back and pushed back again, about a dozen cars passed through the practice facility's parking lot, their occupants pointing video cameras at the bland stucco headquarters. This was where Jimmy quit. This was the day that Dan stopped being quarterback. Neighborhood kids on bicycles called their friends on cell phones to discuss what might be going on inside. The press conference finally began at about 1 p.m., presumably after the part line had been set and details of Wannstedt's three-year contract had been worked out.
It's a pity that the Sunshine State soap opera stole headlines from the Jaguars, for rarely did a team look more ready than they did on Saturday. Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin prepares for games the way Montgomery prepared for battles. The Jaguars piled up 520 yards of offense, with running back Fred Taylor accounting for 135 on the ground—including an NFL postseason-record 90-yard dash for a touchdown—and another 39 on a touch down reception in which he broke no fewer than five tackles. On defense Jacksonville limited Miami to 133 yards, forced seven turnovers and had five sacks.
In contrast, rarely had a team looked less ready than the Dolphins. Johnson fell on his sword, saying he had overworked his players during the short week of preparation between Sunday in Seattle and last Saturday in Jacksonville, but tired legs alone couldn't account for Miami's horrid performance.
At the postgame press conference a deflated Johnson made a short statement before leaving without taking questions. On Sunday, after speaking briefly at the proceedings in Davie (again he didn't entertain questions), he looked relieved. He climbed into his black Corvette and kissed his wife, Rhonda. The couple's beloved seven-pound Yorkie, Buttercup, was there, too, of course. "High tide is at two o'clock," Jimmy had said as he left the building, looking at his watch. "I've got to get out there."
If you believe in omens, Johnson's future—which may include working as a TV analyst but will certainly include a lot of chilling on his 54-foot yacht, Three Rings—will be as bright as the sunshine that broke out after that gray Miami morning. The Florida Keys, where he has a refurbished oceanfront house on three acres, were just a two-hour drive away. At least Johnson's immediate future looked less stressful than that of Wannstedt, who must rebuild a team that suffered the second-worst playoff loss in NFL history. Johnson liked to point out that the Dolphins were one of only three teams to have made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, but what does it say about a club that it has been outscored 100-10 in its last two postseason losses? Wannstedt, not Johnson, will have to play the heavy in unloading Marino if the quarterback, who's only slightly less popular in Florida than $9.95 senior-citizen specials, doesn't quit voluntarily.
But one wonders how many times over the next months Johnson will agonize about how it all went wrong in Miami: how, after announcing that he had a three-year plan to get Miami to its first Super Bowl since 1984, he had only a 36-28 regular-season record and no AFC East titles in four years; how, with all his motivational and organizational ability, he was humiliated in the playoffs; and, most important, how the main reason that he took the job became his undoing—Daniel Constantine Marino Jr.
One January day in 1996, Johnson, two years removed from his second Super Bowl win with the Dallas Cowboys, sat at his home in the Key Largo town of Tavernier. In front of him were the salary-cap sheets of the Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, invaluable information to a man whom both franchises saw as their hope for the future. Johnson, who also had won a college national championship at Miami, put on his reading glasses, furrowed his brow and studied the numbers. The Bucs were well under the salary cap, and the pieces of a defense that would become the best in the NFL were in place. The Dolphins were up against the cap, and their players were aging. Tampa Bay seemed a much surer long-term bet.