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Dan Marino: The golden arm

Garber - Where's Marino's place in history?

Marino through the years

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
It does mean a thing without that ring
By Mark Kreidler
Special to

Nobody wants to hear that winning is overrated. For one, it's an antithetical notion to all things we consider sacred in Sports Universe USA. For two, winning is cool.

Dan Marino
Dan Marino was not afforded the glorious exit he deserved.
And for three, winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. Somebody once said that. Or at least we're pretty sure somebody once said that. No one has really had time to check the authenticity of that quote in recent years. Whatever.

Win or go home. That's the point, and a right pointy little point it is.

All of which leads us to the trouble with Dan Marino, Retiree. The trouble with Marino, says Sports Universe, is that he didn't win.

Check that: He didn't win enough.

Wait, take three: He didn't win it all.

And that's it, really. That is the total summation of the argument in favor of an asterisk placed astride any conversation about Marino's greatness -- that in 17 years the Miami Dolphins never ran the table to the Super Bowl championship on Dan's watch.

It is, as they say, a statistical fact. You could look it up. And somewhere right around the bend of logical thought, halfway between Warptown and Radio Caller City, that thin fact will be held aloft as proof almighty that, in the end, Dan Marino somehow came up short.

It's a fascinating notion. And what's even more fascinating is how quickly it falls apart.

Marino never won the Biggest One, it's true. Joe Montana, essentially a contemporary, won four times. Troy Aikman, who burst on the scene long after Marino's greatness had been established, pocketed three quick Lombardi trophies before things got too far along. John Elway, about whom the world at large apparently stayed awake nights brooding over his winless legacy, needed a coaching change and a running game to finally bring home two straight winners before retiring.

But poor Jim Kelly, the quarterback to whom you'll hear Marino compared these days, never won -- and for that Kelly sometimes looks like a man who won't ever be forgiven. Kelly's Buffalo Bills, famed for their inability to win the Super Bowl, became a punch line, as in, "Will the Atlanta Braves become the Buffalo Bills of their time?"

Amazing: Jim Kelly led the Bills into four consecutive Super Bowls, and for that he was anointed a failure. As a winner once put it, only in America.

Dan Marino didn't win a Super Bowl, it's true. You know who did? Mark Rypien did. Kurt Warner did. Jeff Hostetler did. Doug Williams did. Phil Simms did.

Nothing wrong with any of those guys, but no one will be placing their careers alongside Marino's anytime soon. But, hey, they got a ring. Is that what it's all about?

It is remarkable, the way that the fates collide in the formation of a great athlete's career. On so many levels, historic performance in the team sports is absolutely out of the control of any one player. Elway, so brilliant for so long, looked for the longest time like a guy whose destiny it was to play on teams that were constantly one brick shy of a full load.

Elway played in Super Bowls and lost, and lost badly, and progressively worse. And then Dan Reeves left, and eventually Mike Shanahan came, and Terrell Davis, and a balanced offense, and presto! Two rings in two years. Elway walks away on top, one of the greatest exits ever.

Marino hoped for that, held out for that. Jimmy Johnson's arrival in Miami, not long after his star-studded tour with Aikman's victorious Dallas Cowboys, gave all of South Florida the sudden thought that Dan's Dolphins could fashion their own perfect ending.

It went south in a hurry, and that happens. Fran Tarkenton, in the generation before Marino and Elway and Kelly and Montana, came so close so many times, but left the NFL without the championship hardware. Decent teams, better opponents, tough luck. It happens.

It's also illusory, lightning in a bottle. Brett Favre not so long ago was crowned the new king of the quarterbacks, and he looks like he's on a perfect track to leave the NFL (whenever that occurs) with just the one Lombardi Trophy. People envisioned a dynasty in Green Bay, but it didn't happen. And when Favre looks back, someday, he might conclude that he was incredibly fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time when his considerable talents finally came to a full bloom.

Steve Young got one -- one. Young was (and might still be) a wonderful quarterback, who directed some of the greatest single-season offensive performances in modern history. But when it came to the legacy-building stuff, he had to bounce from the USFL to the bad old Tampa Bay Bucs to the San Francisco bench -- years and years and years of waiting -- before his moment finally came. Then it came, and it went. Young got one.

Marino leaves with zero, and that's a crime. You could go back over 17 years and find 17 distinctive explanations why, but as of today, it's all academic.

And here in Sports Universe, it is understood that the only truly fitting tribute to Marino would have been for him and the Dolphins to somehow have found the means to get all the way home, even just the once -- just one time, like Young and Favre, Warner, Rypien, Hostetler and Williams.

Just one bleedin' trophy, pleads the Universe, and the thing would be complete.

But, respectfully: It is complete. Dan Marino's career was one of the most remarkable pieces of sustained athletic performance in the annals of the NFL. You don't even need the numbers to tell you, although they're all available. All you need is the memory of Marino in the pocket, checking off receivers, about to make the absolutely right decision, play after play after play.

It's a good memory. Doesn't come with a Super Bowl halftime show attached, but perhaps a waiver could be granted here. Perhaps logic could prevail. Perhaps, once the shouting stops, someone will sit quietly and remember Marino as one of the best ever.

They never inscribe that kind of stuff on a ring, anyway.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee, which has a web site at

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