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Dan Marino: The golden arm
Kreidler: The ring's not the thing
Marino through the years
Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Call Dan the greatest...passer
By Greg Garber
Special to ESPN.com
The prevailing opinion on Draft Day 1983 was that Dan Marino wasn't worthy of the Miami Dolphins, a team that had reached the Super Bowl earlier that year. In retrospect, clearly the opposite was true: the Dolphins were not worthy of the quarterback who would become the NFL's most prolific passer.
In 1984, Marino's sophomore season, he took the Dolphins back to the Super Bowl for their second championship game in three years. Marino completed 29 of 50 passes, but the Dolphins lost to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers.
As I watched Marino walk slowly off the field at Stanford, I assumed he'd be back. He was too talented and the Dolphins' organization too ambitious to not get there again. I never dreamed that Marino's first Super Bowl (and, memorably, mine) would be his last.
Neither, of course, did Marino. Sitting in the stiffling locker room, the 23-year-old talked in measured, optimistic tones about the future. Now, after 17 seasons in the league, there is no football future for Daniel Constantine Marino, Jr.
The cruel irony?
His glorious career will be defined by the one thing he didn't accomplish: winning a championship.
Terry Bradshaw and Montana both won four rings. Troy Aikman won three. Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese and John Elway all won two. They weren't necessarily better quarterbacks than Marino. They merely had more help, particularly at running back and on defense.
Looking for some context on this day that Marino passes go for the last time? Listen to Don Shula, the winningest NFL coach of all time. "Dan Marino is the greatest drop-back passer ever," Shula said Sunday in South Florida. "From the beginning, he has had all the tools you could want: the physical skills, the toughness, the attitude.
"Dan Marino was a fierce, fierce competitor.
"I would have supported any decision he made because he's the only one who knows what's best for him, and what he should do. Once Dan made the decision to retire, I stood behind him and feel like we should celebrate all that he's done."
This from the man who won 347 games with the Colts and Dolphins and coached Hall of Fame quarterbacks Johnny Unitas and Griese. Shula himself was a victim of this bottom-line business when he was asked to leave after the 1995 season. In the wake of the Dolphins' 62-7 playoff loss to Jacksonville in last season's playoffs, the team, through new head coach Dave Wannstedt, made it obvious they didn't want Marino back. He was asked to void the last two years of his contract to give the Dolphins some salary cap space.
When the Minnesota Vikings offered to make him their starter for the 2000 season with all kinds of perks on the side, it was widely assumed Marino -- desperate to go out a winner -- would jump at the opportunity. In the end, he did what he has done consistently across the breadth of his career. He made, as they say in quarterbacking parlance, a good decision. After conferring with friends (and foes) around the league, Marino correctly concluded that neither he nor the Vikings were capable of a championship season. Players around the league will tell you if you aren't sure whether it's time to retire. Then, mentally speaking, you've already retired.
Simply, quarterback is the most difficult position to play in professional sports. The athlete must have the vision to see the defense, the brain to assimilate the information, the wherewithal to quickly choose a course of action and the physical skill to deliver the ball where it will do the most damage.
Nobody ever did all of those things better than Marino. Dan was the man long before it became a cheesy cliche of sport. The NFL has been in business for 80 years, but Marino has surpassed every quarterback in these essential categories: 8,358 attempts, 4,967 completions, 61,361 yards and 420 touchdowns.
Those results couldn't have been imagined when he slid down the draft board in 1983. Unsubstantiated rumors of drug use scared teams away and five other quarterbacks were taken before the Dolphins selected Marino with the 27th pick. He couldn't have been better as a rookie.
Most first-year passers struggle with the complexity of formations defenses throw at them. Marino processed that information flawlessly and his breathlessly quick release led to 20 touchdown passes and an extraordinarily low 6 interceptions. He was the first rookie ever to start in the Pro Bowl.
Today, in an era when 100-catch seasons cease to amaze us, Marino's numbers in the mid-1980s hold up as something approaching ridiculous. This past season Kurt Warner of the St. Louis Rams threw a scintillating 41 touchdown passes. Well, in 1984 Marino tossed 48 touchdown passes and became the only quarterback before or since to throw for 5,000 yards (5,084). In 1986 he threw 44 touchdown passes and accumulated 4,746 yards, the second- and third-largest totals ever.
Marino averaged a remarkable 24 touchdown passes per season, balanced by fewer than 14 interceptions.
The stigma of no championship rings also camouflages the fact that he was a big-time winner. Marino won 147 regular-season games, second to only Elway (148) among quarterbacks.
That is the image to hold onto as Marino drops back and fades away in the general direction of his large family and the nearest golf course. Don't dwell on the image of the fragile, immobile passer in the catastrophic loss to Jacksonville.
Look at Marino today, out of football's frame of reference, tanned and fit at 38. Imagine him slicing up defenses 15 years ago, throwing rockets that bruised his receivers' hands.
In the pure currency of passing, that Miami Dolphins quarterback was the best who ever was.
Greg Garber is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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