The sun was baking the Miami Dolphins' practice field at St. Thomas University, 15 miles north of the Orange Bowl, and Don Shula stood behind the offense, his arms folded, frowning as he watched the motor that runs his team sputtering and creaking.
Dan Marino, his sore left thigh heavily wrapped, did a little stiff-legged half-rollout and tried to get the ball upfield to Mark Duper, who, because of a broken left tibia, hadn't seen a down of action since Game 2. The pass went long. The acceleration wasn't there for Duper, who caught 1,306 yards worth of passes last year but as of Friday was still on injured reserve. Shula frowned and clapped his hands. "Let's go!" he shouted to no one in particular. The Jets, with the best record in the AFC East (7-2) and a chance to put the Dolphins away for keeps, were only 48 hours away.
"He's keeping within himself; he hasn't tried to turn it loose," Shula said of Duper after practice. "I'll activate him if he says he's ready. How much he plays depends on how he feels."
On Saturday Duper was activated as a situation receiver, a spot-duty player. Shula was asked if he was 100%.
"No," he said.
Duper said, "If I step on the field I'll be ready to get something going...you watch." But the next minute he told an observer in confidence, "I'm 60 percent, maybe 70."
No one knew for sure what they would see when the bell rang on Sunday. Duper's broken bone was first diagnosed as a six-to-eight-week injury. He came back a couple of weeks early and pushed it, and other problems arose—muscle spasms, strained hamstring tendon—nothing you would care to have in a guy who gets paid to run 50 yards downfield and pluck a hurled object out of the sky.
Without Duper in the lineup, enemy defenses could gang up on Mark Clayton on the other side. Clayton's a terrific little receiver, a Pro Bowler in '84 along with Duper, but not much of a long ball threat when confronted with mob coverage. Without Duper, the Dolphins were 5-4 and fading going into the Jets' game. In 1984 Miami was 9-0. One statistic that jumps out is total wideout production: After nine games in '84 the Dolphins' wide receivers had accounted for 1,861 yards and 20 TDs; this year they had almost 600 fewer yards, and the TDs were down to seven. When Marino is launching rockets, Miami is something special. When he's not, well, they're 5-4.
Against the Jets in the Orange Bowl on Sunday, Duper came in on the Dolphins' third offensive play as an extra wideout on third-and-long. He didn't see the ball. On their next possession he was in for Nat Moore as the regular split end, lining up against a rookie, Kerry Glenn. Duper left Glenn 10 yards behind and caught a Marino bomb for 44 yards. The last time he had caught anything that deep from Marino was in January.
The next pass to Duper was good for 12 yards. Glenn slipped on the play. The kid was coming apart, and Jets coach Joe Walton replaced him with Davlin Mullen, a third-year pro, a sound cover guy. Duper caught a 20-yard slant-in on him, and on the next play he shifted to the right side, working against Bobby Jackson, the Jets' best pass defender, who was coming off a pulled hamstring. Jackson cheated up in a bump-and-run, trying to force Duper to the inside, where he had linebacker help.