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The Miami Dolphins are playing the New York jets at giants Stadium on the last Sunday in September, and Dan Marino is dodging the pass rush—moving his shoulders, making the little bobs and weaves and contortions of a toreador who is not too fleet of foot but who has been gored a time or two and knows all about momentum and the blind side and frothing animals with nasty hearts. He's clasping the ball tightly in his right hand, looking downfield. One wide receiver, Mark Duper, is streaking along the right sideline, and another, Mark Clayton, is running some herky-jerky thing out to the left. In the middle of the field are a bunch of offensive linemen and a running back trying to keep the enemy at bay.
Marino's arm lashes out, cobralike, with more force than seems possible without a windup, and the ball whizzes through the air to Duper's outstretched palms in the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown and a 10-7 lead. It's a terrific throw and a nice catch. But it's the—ho hum—246th TD pass of Marino's nine-year career, and the Dolphins are going to lose 41-23 on this day. Besides, Duper can remember other Marino passes that make this one look like a wild pitch.
"Last year, against Cleveland, I was running a fly against Frank Minnifield, and I turned back," Duper says. "When I turned, my hands were at my hip—I was 40 yards downfield—and the ball just stuck there. Right there. Minnifield was only a foot away. You know?"
The Dolphins were 12-4 in 1990 and seemed to be back in the groove after four years of hanging around .500 and missing the playoffs. But then they lost 44-34 to the Buffalo Bills in the AFC divisional playoffs, and this season 12 starters have missed games because of holdouts or injuries. Now, coming off a bye last week, the Dolphins are 3-5 and seemingly back down in the pit with the other barking dogs, pulling one of the great NFL quarterbacks down with them.
It has not been a vintage year for a vintage passer. Burdened by an offensive line that has yielded as many sacks of Marino in eight games (15) as it did all of last year, a running attack that averages 81.8 yards a game and a defense that ranks 24th in the league and can't protect a lead, Marino is on course to have the worst season of his career, in a year when quarterback play in the NFL on the whole has been uninspiring (preceding story). The most telling stat: Marino, who has never finished a season with fewer than 20 touchdown passes—even when he started only nine games as a rookie in 1983—has eight at the midpoint of the '91 campaign.
All of which makes one wonder: Will the Dolphins get it together again in time for Marino to give them another shot at a Super Bowl championship? Will the quarterback with the best stats in pro football history put the finishing stroke on an illustrious career by winning the Big One before he retires? Just where does Miami think it's going to find another Marino, a hard-core Pittsburgh guy who stands 6'4", weighs 224 pounds and can will a ball from his hand to your hands almost faster than you can think of it happening?
In their ninth season together, Marino's Dolphins should be at their apex. The rumblings out of Miami in recent years that had Marino at odds with an offensive coordinator, unhappy with his contract and wanting to go to a Super Bowl contender died last season, when he accepted his role in a more balanced attack, signed a five-year, $25 million contract that makes him the highest-paid NFL player and led a young team into the playoffs. Will all that progress go to waste?
"I'd like to win a Super Bowl every year," he says. "I think we'll win one. I do. When? I don't know. I don't know."
Marino probably has a lot of good years left, but he has had surgery on his left knee four times, and he says he's not sure he'll play beyond 1996, his 14th pro season, when he'll be 35 and his contract will have expired. When told that Sonny Jurgensen, Fran Tarkenton and Johnny Unitas each played 18 years, Len Dawson 19 and George Blanda 26, Marino hoots. "Play 18 years?" he says. "Into the 21st century?" But ask him if he's planning something for his post-football career, and he laughs again and says, "And do what?"
"You hate to see any great player miss a Super Bowl win," says former Miami wideout Nat Moore, thinking of Marino, who threw him 24 touchdown passes in four years and led the Dolphins to a Super Bowl appearance after the 1984 season (a 38-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers). Marino's stats are so overwhelming that they deserve the sort of attention that usually comes only with winning the Big One. He owns or has tied 24 NFL records, including most yards passing in a season (5,084), most touchdown throws in a season (48), most consecutive seasons with 20 or more TD passes (eight) and most games with 400 or more yards passing (10).