In that game Marino threw an interception on Miami's first play from scrimmage. By the end of the debacle, Dolphins brass were convinced that Marino was through. The quarterback hoped that the subsequent retirement of coach Jimmy Johnson, who had lost faith in him, would give him the chance at least to compete for the starting job in 2000. But new coach Dave Wannstedt, Johnson's defensive disciple who had joined the Dolphins as assistant head coach in January 1999, was down on Marino too.
In fairness to the Dolphins, the weekly Marino sideshow (Would he be healthy enough to play? Would he feud with the coach?) was a distraction last season and would be next season, too, if a no-name such as '99 backup Damon Huard or free-agent pickup Jay Fiedler was beating out Marino. Yet at the same time Marino, at the Dolphins' request, voided the final two years of his contract to give the club salary-cap room to pursue free agents.
Despite that good-faith gesture, no Miami official leveled with Marino about the team's lack of interest in his services. He read the handwriting on the wall, however, and considered going to other teams. The Dolphins prayed that he wouldn't take a job if it were offered. Early this month Miami belatedly reopened the door for Marino to return, but it was a transparent p.r. ploy.
The tide of public opinion in South Florida regarding Marino and the Dolphins has turned dramatically. Johnson arrived in 1996 to return the franchise to its glory years and to deliver Marino the Super Bowl ring he desperately wanted. But when Huard went 5-1 in place of the injured Marino last season, fans were split on whether Johnson should reinsert the fading star when he was healthy again. The loss to the Jaguars should have sullied the reputations of both men. But now that Johnson and Marino have retired, only one of them is disparaged. Last weekend the radio airwaves were monopolized by callers such as the zealot who told WQAM host Jim Mandich, a former Dolphins tight end, on Sunday, "That backstabbing, egg-sucking Jimmy Johnson ruined the last chance Dan Marino had to win a Super Bowl!"
In fact, it was what Green saw in the first round of the postseason that persuaded him to pursue Marino. "The Seattle game showed me everything I needed to see," Green says. "It was vintage Marino. Vintage competitiveness." In that AFC wild-card game at the Kingdome, Marino turned back the clock during an 85-yard game-winning drive midway through the fourth quarter, converting a pair of third downs with laserlike completions against a relentless blitz.
Minnesota was the third team in line for the quarterback's services, however. Marino first spoke to Holmgren, but the player and the team were a bad match. Seattle has a young quarterback, 27-year-old Jon Kitna, and Marino didn't want to play 3,000 miles from home. The Steelers were hotter on Marino than the Seahawks had been. Club vice president Art Rooney Jr. spoke to Marino's agent, Marvin Demoff, three times—once to ask how to get the quarterback's medical records—and Marino and Steelers coach Bill Cowher talked at least twice. "Dan was convinced that Cowher was serious," says a source close to the Marino family. "The Steelers just had a deadline problem. But he was definitely their first choice."
By late February, however, Marino still wasn't sure he wanted to play, and the Steelers told him they needed an answer quickly, because they were concerned that free agents Gus Frerotte and Kent Graham, their other choices to compete with Kordell Stewart for the starting job, might sign elsewhere. "I've always been a fan of Bill Cowher," Marino says. "Going home to play one more year was something I really considered, but they needed a decision. I called Coach Cowher and said, 'Sorry. I'm not ready.' " On March 2, Pittsburgh signed Graham.
Minnesota had something Pittsburgh didn't, and that was the talent to seriously contend for a Super Bowl next season. "My biggest thing about any team was, Could it win right away?" Marino says. " Minnesota could." By replacing 1999 starter Jeff George with Marino, Green figured, he would gain in field savvy what he would lose in arm strength. "What Dan does so well is throw the quick post and throw all his balls with great touch," Green says. That's not how it looked for most of 1999, but Green thought he could play to Marino's strengths and use the power running game when Marino, who turns 39 in September, faltered.
Each of the three times he talked to Green, Marino got excited about playing. The Vikings even raised the prospect of paying to fly Marino's family to Minneapolis on home-game weekends. They also said that Marino could fly home to Miami on Sunday and not return until late on Tuesday, in time for Wednesday meetings. "But," Marino says, "if you play, you immerse your life in the game. It's hard to be leaving for two or three days every week."
He also questioned whether his body could endure another season of punishment; after a day at Disney World with his family two weeks ago, his legs were killing him. One side of the brain said, Play. The other side said, Be sensible. During one early-morning phone call to Demoff, Marino said, "This is tougher than when I decided to get married."