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When they changed the rules of the National Football League and opened up the passing game, he was out there, waiting. It was in March of 1978 and the NFL was meeting in Palm Springs, and the Competition Committee decided the game needed more passing, so it changed the rules and opened up the lanes. The members with foresight knew they were setting a time bomb, that out there, somewhere, was a young quarterback with a cannon for an arm and the guts to throw the ball anywhere. They didn't know where—Texas, California, Florida—but they knew he was waiting, and if their new rules would do what they were supposed to do, he would lift the art of throwing the football to a new level.
Actually, he was in western Pennsylvania, the Cradle of Quarterbacks, a lanky, gawky junior at Pittsburgh's Central Catholic High School named Daniel Constantine Marino. In two seasons as the Miami Dolphins' quarterback, Marino has done everything the more prescient members of the Competition Committee expected. He is their monument. He has broken almost every passing record. And while Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers have won 17 of 18 games this season, Marino goes into Super Bowl XIX as the story. He has made these the burning questions of Sunday's game in Palo Alto: Can the 49ers stop Dan Marino? Or control him? Or outscore him? Answer these and you'll have the answers to the Super Bowl. Everything else is window dressing.
Oh, Marino has been controlled on occasion—for a quarter, a half maybe. Then things seem to explode in what defensive coaches have come to call The Frenzy. The ball comes off Marino's hand like a rocket. The Marks Brothers, those two fine wideouts Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, start gobbling up the yardage in huge chunks, 20-yard turn-ins, 30-yard fades, ups, goes. The defense drops off in double coverage and one of the tight ends, Joe Rose or Bruce Hardy, breaks one down the middle, or halfback Tony Nathan catches a little circle pass and races for 20 yards through a deserted zone. Everything is timed, everything delivered in rhythm in an incredibly short time, and right on the money. The defense becomes unhinged, glassy-eyed—zone, blitz, double zone, it doesn't matter. The Frenzy is on and every drive produces a score. It's like an adding machine gone wild, and a tight game becomes a blowout. Afterward you ask the defensive coach, "How do you stop Marino?" He'll tell you that the rush has to get to him...or you have to disrupt his rhythm and make him wait too long and choke on the ball...or your linebackers have to pop up in unexpected places. And then the coach will give a wan smile and say, "We sure as hell couldn't do it."
The silliest thing you hear is that someone's offense has to control the ball and keep Marino off the field. This is like facing a tennis player with a devastating serve and saying, "Well, I have to have a long service game myself to keep him from serving to me."
Nope, you can't escape him. Marino and the Miami offense will have the ball for the same number of series the 49ers' offense will, unless some punts and kick-offs are run back for TDs. Whether that is eight series apiece or the NFL average of 12, to win San Francisco has to put more points on the board in its possessions than the Dolphins do in theirs.
Teams have noted the Dolphins' weakness against the run (4.71 yards per rush, the worst average in the NFL) and have come up with the obvious idea of grinding the ball on them and keeping Marino and the boys off the field. Fine, say the Dolphins, you take a long time on your drive, we'll take a short time, but you'd better not have any mishaps during your turn, such as a penalty or a three-yard loss, because you'll never catch up.
"Our idea of a two-minute offense," says Marino's veteran backup, Don Strock, "is two scores."
Pittsburgh ran the ball very effectively at the Dolphins in the conference championship; the Steelers won the battle in the trenches. O.K., bring in the air force. It was a close game for a while, then late in the second quarter The Frenzy hit. Miami scored touchdowns on five straight possessions, and 14-10 Steelers became 45-21 Dolphins. The first three TD drives of The Frenzy were accomplished in 1:22, :33 and 1:48. Even scarier was the time it took Marino to get off his passes. Short, long, it didn't matter. Each pass completion was released from 1.4 to 2.65 seconds after Marino took the snap. They used to say that Joe Namath, who had the quickest release of his day, threw 2.2 to 2.7 routes on the quickies, but took longer for the deeper patterns. Consider this: On one Marino pass, a 24-yard TD on a fade pattern to Jimmy Cefalo that was called back, the ball was out of Marino's hand in 1.5 seconds.
"One-point-five seconds? That's incredible. I didn't realize he was that fast," says Tony Dungy, the Steelers' fine young defensive coordinator. "You know, it's almost a waste of time to blitz in a situation like that. I mean, you pull a stunt, like a deep loop, and you can get a guy coming in completely unblocked and he still can't reach the quarterback in 1.5 seconds.
"We had guys hitting Marino," Dungy says, "but late. Just as he delivered the ball. He'll hang in the pocket until the last moment, but the big thing about Marino completing a pass in 1.5 to 2.0 seconds is that he knows immediately who's going to be open. He doesn't waste time figuring out who to go to."