Still armed, dangerous Dan Marino: The Dolphins quarterback is no longer the TD-passing terror of the past, but reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated.

October 19, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The first time Dan Marino passed this way, he was a mere rookie quarterback with the Miami Dolphins. Almost exactly 14 years ago -- on Oct. 23, 1983 -- he led the Dolphins to a 21-7 victory over the Baltimore Colts at Memorial Stadium. Threw for two touchdowns and 157 yards in a driving rainstorm.

That was before he amassed any of his 23 NFL records, before his nine Pro Bowl selections, before his nine pro surgeries, before anyone knew how truly great a quarterback he was.

Back then, he was a first-round draft choice and a curiosity -- as in how he fell to the 27th pick overall after five other quarterbacks, not all of them named John Elway or Jim Kelly, were selected.

When Marino passes through Memorial Stadium one final time today to play the Ravens, it will be the aging stadium -- not the 36-year-old quarterback -- on its last legs.

In a season that started rudely for Marino, the 15-year-veteran has rounded nicely into his Hall of Fame form. Finished? Not by a long shot if last week was any indication, and it was.

There he was in the Meadowlands, throwing a lob pass to wide-open Karim Abdul-Jabbar for a touchdown, a touch pass to Lamar Thomas for another, and a laser beam to O. J. McDuffie for a critical first down.

He threw 27 completions to eight different players for 372 yards and the two touchdowns, and the Dolphins' 31-20 demolition of the New York Jets backed the wolves farther away from Marino's door.

They had been parked there, of course, since Miami coach Jimmy Johnson acknowledged in a news conference after a Week 1 victory over Indianapolis that he had considered replacing Marino with backup Craig Erickson.

Marino had struggled against Indianapolis, completing just 10 of 26 throws with one interception in a narrow 16-10 escape for the Dolphins.

The quarterback and the coach have been wading through media frenzy ever since.

One more time last week, Johnson, famous for his psychological ploys with the Dallas Cowboys, took the plunge.

"I'm very pleased with our backup quarterback," he said. "I think he will win games for us. Dan's first game, he didn't play well. The question was asked of me, 'Did I consider playing Erickson for a series?' I said, 'Yeah, it crossed my mind, but I didn't do it.' "

Johnson further clarified that even had he taken Marino out, he still would have been the Dolphins' starter.

That didn't stop the rumors or the speculation, though. The height of idiocy came in South Florida when it was reported Marino would be traded or released before the Oct. 7 trade deadline. Came and went, no deal.

In the meantime, Marino has put up decent numbers with a team that has shown virtually no running game and precious little depth at receiver. In his past three games, he has thrown five touchdown passes and no interceptions, and averaged 288.7 passing yards per game. The 372 yards last week was his best total in 19 games, dating to 1995.

Marino stands above the fray, unwilling to take the psychological bait.

"That stuff is all in the past," he said. "I don't let things like that bother me. Jimmy can feel the way he wants to feel. It's his right, it's his team. The press can take things and make things into a bigger deal than it might be. I don't let it affect me."

Nevertheless, Marino is playing better these days. But the bigger issue isn't whether there was a psychological spin to Johnson's remarks, it's how much 15 NFL seasons and nine surgeries have taken out of Marino.

Certainly, he's not the quarterback who threw a record 48 touchdown passes in 1984. Neither is he the quarterback of five years ago. Nor should he be expected to be.

"As far as throwing the ball, Dan is as fine as what he's been," Johnson said. "I don't know if you ever take into account age. As long as a player's productive, he'll be in the lineup.

"Sometimes when you view a player, that view is distorted by what he did in the past. That's not the case [here]. Dan's productive. Age doesn't come into play. It's how productive are they?"

Always known for his fiery leadership, Marino has changed most in subtle ways, it seems.

"His approach to handling young guys has changed a lot," said McDuffie, a five-year veteran and Marino's most dependable receiver. "He used to be a little bit of a yeller. With such a young team, he knows how important it is to help the young guys. He explains things a lot more to them now."

Marino still attempts throws that few quarterbacks would dare dream about. He made one to McDuffie against the Jets, down the middle of the field and over cornerback Aaron Glenn for 25 yards.

"He puts the ball in tight spots," Glenn said. "You have to give him a lot of credit. Once he gets an inch, he's going to put it in there."

Marino said he doesn't take the risks he once took in the prolific passing game that featured Mark Clayton and Mark Duper as prime targets.

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