Sunday, January 16, 2000

Unfitting end for Marino


Legendary QB probably done

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Dan Marino is probably done. His records are many, and most of them are out of reach. So, it appears, is a Super Bowl ring.

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        Professional football's incomparable passer finished his 17th season Saturday afternoon in the middle of a meltdown. The Jacksonville Jaguars drilled Marino's Miami Dolphins 62-7 in a NFL playoff game singularly lacking in suspense. It was 38-0 before Marino completed a pass. It was like France in 1940.

        Change, consequently, is inevitable. If Jimmy Johnson returns to coach the Dolphins next season — and there's no certainty on this score — he probably will be leaning to Damon Huard as his starting quarterback. If Marino is not already working on an exit strategy, it can be only because he's too competitive to capitulate.

        This couldn't have been the way he wanted to leave football. This wasn't the way anyone would have wanted it. The aging gladiator in pursuit of an elusive prize is a drama that has gripped man since the early scrimmages of Athens and Sparta. Yet nowhere in the myth-making manual is it written that the endings have to be happy.

        John Elway's farewell to football was so satisfying and sweet that you had to suspect it was in reality a film in development at Disney. The Denver quarterback — Marino's great contemporary — finished a career of epic frustration with successive Super Bowl victories. Befitting a career played at altitude, he went out on top.

        “John had it great,” Marino said recently. “He was in the situation where the dream he had was to win the Super Bowl and retire. And it happened for him. That's the perfect world.”

        Marino's script, by contrast, is the stuff of sleepless nights and bitter recriminations. Long plagued by the perception that he was more about statistics than success, Marino left Alltel

        Stadium Saturday afternoon as Lee left Gettysburg — not only beaten, but bewildered.

        His first pass was intercepted. His second pass sailed out of bounds. The third time Marino dropped back, Jacksonville's Tony Brackens swatted the ball out of his hand, recovered it and danced into the end zone for a touchdown.

        Any comparisons with Elway's finale were bound to be unflattering. Marino's performance was so lousy — two interceptions, the fumble, a third-quarter benching — that the leading question on everyone's lips was not whether he would return to seek redemption but whether he should retire to avoid additional agony.

        “Don't ask me that question now,” he said when asked about his plans Saturday. “I'll wait and see as time goes on what the circumstances are with the Dolphins.”

        Marino joined the Dolphins in 1983 and by his second NFL season had trashed traditional notions of quarterback potential. He tossed 48 touchdown passes in 1984, a dozen more than Y.A. Tittle's previous league record, and became the first quarterback to throw for 300 yards nine times in the same season. The Dolphins lost the Super Bowl that season to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers, but no losing quarterback's future has ever appeared so limitless. He wore the No.13 and made it look lucky.

        “If Marino continues like that,” Buffalo's Fred Smerlas said, “he'll be in the Hall of Fame by his third year.”

        Marino continued like that, like no quarterback before or since, airing it out week after week thanks to a rapid release and a rifle arm and despite having the mobility of a monu ment. Elway could make something out of nothing, scrambling around until an opportunity surfaced. The lead-legged Marino had no choice but to cling to his protective pocket and try to unload the ball a split-second before some linebacker sought to decapitate him.

        He never did get back to the Super Bowl, but he has completed more than 11 miles worth of passes in the pros, and he helped make Don Shula the winningest coach in NFL history.

        That he has held up so long is a testament to his toughness. That he has always lost in the end is, in the main, an indictment of his team.

        For most of his career in Miami, Marino was obliged to outscore his opponents because his defense was rarely good enough to stop them. Of late, he has clashed with Johnson over the Dolphins' relative emphasis on the run and the pass. As his statistics have declined — his 67.4 passing rating this season was a career low — Marino has become the symbol of the old regime and the scapegoat of the new. There was a sense Saturday that both he and Johnson had overstayed their welcome.

        Marino had a nice moment last week, orchestrating a playoff upset with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass in Seattle. Saturday, however, held no solace.

        “I've never experienced a game like this in my life,” Marino said. “Even as a kid, I've never had a game like this.”

        Few players ever have experienced anything as dismal as the Dolphins did Saturday. Some players would want to come back for more, just so they could leave under different circumstances.

        Marino's plans are indefinite. His ring size remains irrelevant.

        E-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.

       



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