MIAMI -- Seeing Miami Dolphins fans wearing his jersey take over Hard Rock Stadium never gets old for Dan Marino. Even 21 years after retirement, the Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback is still the man in Miami.
"I was able to play here so long and to see the fans still care after all this time. It's special and I love it," Marino told ESPN. "It's important to me. I'm happy they still do it."
But Marino also knows the pressure of replacing him has magnified as the Dolphins have failed time and time again during the past two decades to find their franchise quarterback. Miami has had 22 starting QBs since Marino retired in 2000, and the current one -- Tua Tagovailoa -- has the potential to finally be the answer.
Tagovailoa has the star power -- finishing in the top five of all players in jersey sales as a rookie. He's already a folk hero in Hawaii and Alabama, where he was born and played college football, respectively. But after an up-and-down rookie season (14 touchdowns to 5 interceptions with 6-3 record, but an average of 181.4 passing yards per game and hesitancy throwing the deep ball), questions remain about whether he will be the right guy to lead the Dolphins to an elite level.
The Dolphins are counting on a big Year 2 jump. If Tagovailoa shows he can lead this team to championship contention, fans might be as all-in on the Tagovailoa-led future as they are on the Marino-led past.
"I hope he does," Marino said. "It would be awesome for everybody, wouldn't it? The most important thing is to be yourself, be who you are and work your butt off. It'll work out."
The focus around Tagovailoa this offseason has been about his confidence. He admitted recently that last season he "wasn't comfortable calling plays, checking plays, alerting plays" and he "didn't know the playbook really, really good."
Both comments led to widespread criticism from multiple media outlets, but Dolphins coach Brian Flores said it was overblown: "Honestly, I just think he's comparing last year to where he is right now, and I get it. I understand that. I remember being a first-year position coach and coming out of that year, going into the spring, going into the next season and saying, 'I could've been better last year. I should have been better. I'm better now.'"
Early Tagovailoa reviews are positive as the Dolphins head into mandatory minicamp this week. Wide receiver DeVante Parker said Tagovailoa's "mechanics and footwork look different," plus the "ball comes out faster." Tagovailoa, listed as 6 feet, 217 pounds as a rookie, also looks stronger and bigger. He says he's more comfortable with this playbook and scheme under co-offensive coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville. Tagovailoa also says his hip feels "10 times better" than it did this time last year coming off his career-threatening dislocation and wall fracture at Alabama in November 2019.
During a wide-ranging conversation with ESPN, Marino discussed what he has seen from Tagovailoa, his view of how being an NFL quarterback has changed since his playing days (1983-1999) and his health journey, which includes two recent knee surgeries and a return to a Nutrisystem plan to help him lose weight.
Tagovailoa 'has all the talent in the world'
Marino, who has worked for the Dolphins as a special adviser since 2014, knows a lot about Year 2 jumps given his second season -- 1984 -- is considered one of the best QB seasons of all time. He also gets an up-close view of Tagovailoa and the offense by attending practices and meetings throughout the year.
"He's been great. He's been awesome. He has all the talent in the world. Now it's just about him developing the relationship with the other players," Marino said of Tagovailoa. "It's been tough because he didn't have OTAs last year, a lot of the summer camp or the chance to play in exhibition games. All those things delay you somewhat. I'll tell you, he works his butt off. I'm really excited about him, his future and our future as a team."
The quarterback made clear he's not "Coach Marino," just "someone who can help at times with my view of certain things."
Over the past year, Tagovailoa said he valued Marino's occasional insight added during quarterback meetings. Count Marino among those who believe Tagovailoa will be much improved.
"As time goes on you, you get a better handle [of things]. You know your people. That's what OTAs is about, getting your timing down," Marino said. "He played a lot last year and when he played, we won games. We almost got in the playoffs. All that is a positive. You try to build from the positives.
"He wants to be really good. And in time, he's going to get there because that's what type of kid he is."
'I would guarantee you 6,000 [yards]'
Marino smiles when you mention 1984.
He doesn't say it directly, but it's an easy guess it was his favorite season as a pro -- winning MVP, reaching Super Bowl XIX, breaking the passing-touchdown record (48) and becoming the first NFL QB to eclipse 5,000 passing yards (he finished the 1984 season with 5,084). Peyton Manning eventually broke both records and remains the record holder after his historic 2013 season (55 touchdowns, 5,477 yards) with the Denver Broncos.
"I look back at it sometimes and I feel like we were doing something very special back then as a group, as a team, as an offense, as individuals that no one did for 30 years [afterward]," Marino said. "Now guys are throwing for 5,000 yards all the time, so it's going to happen on a more consistent basis. But to me, it's still a special deal from 37 years ago."
With the NFL shifting to 17 games, records will be broken. There have been 12 5,000-yard seasons, with 10 of them coming within the past decade, and Marino believes a 6,000-yard season will happen. Then he pauses and his competitive QB spirit comes out.
"If I was still younger with [Mark] Duper and [Mark] Clayton, I would guarantee you 6,000," Marino said. "But I don't have to do it now. I don't have to prove it."
Marino says the game has evolved quite a bit since his playing days. He lists the advanced access to doctors, health information, training techniques and food options, all of which have created the widespread perception of bigger, stronger faster players. But in terms of quarterback play, he sees only one significant difference.
"How to deal with protections at the line of scrimmage -- defenses have changed some with multiple blitzes and different personnel -- we did some of that stuff, but it's a lot more complicated now than it was in the early '80s," Marino said. "As far as throwing it and reading the coverage, that hasn't changed. It's still 11 guys on 11 guys."
Marino then turns it back to these current Dolphins. Coming off a 10-6 season in which they narrowly missed the playoffs, there's another reason for Marino's Dolphins optimism: Flores. Marino played for arguably the greatest coach of all time in Don Shula, so his perspective on Flores is valuable.
"Coach Flores has been incredible," Marino said.
"As far as discipline and guys playing hard for him, that's all there. I don't think that's going to change. He's been a great addition for us. Guys, they want to follow him."
'Trying to impact the game any way I can'
Marino walks a lot better these days with two new knees. He had spent more than a decade fighting it off but finally gave in, getting knee replacement surgery last November and again in March when the pain worsened.
"It was from playing football since a little kid. All the operations, plus playing on the real turf that was like concrete. I did all the scopes, there was no cartilage left. It was getting pretty bad," Marino said.
"But I feel better now. Maybe I'll play again. I'm 59 years old. I can still throw a fade route."
Today, Marino says he's in a better place. His Achilles, which he tore in October 1993 against the Cleveland Browns, wasn't repaired properly and still bothers him. But he got his knees done so that he could move around well with his grandkids. He's 20 to 25 pounds heavier than his playing weight and he has a summer goal of eating better to lose some pounds.
Transitioning away from football can be a challenge, Marino admits. He was able to have a smooth lane to a broadcast career for CBS and HBO, and then landed the adviser role with the Dolphins, but he believes the most difficult part for players is maintaining their physical and mental health outside of a team structure.
"It's about enjoying your life every day," Marino said. "We all have family situations. I'm going through stuff with my one sister now where it's not easy and it's not going to be good. You just have to do the best you can, be as open as you can, the whole talking about life is so important."
Marino admits former players all talk about those scary three letters -- CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He says it certainly "hits your mind," but he is blessed it "hasn't impacted me at all, but it does impact players. It's part of our life -- we choose to play the game of football."
In the nearly 45-minute chat, Marino's competitive nature pokes through a few times. When his 1983 QB draft class that included Broncos great John Elway and Buffalo Bills legend Jim Kelly is brought up, Marino notes they don't compete anymore at their ages (Kelly is 61 and Elway is 60). Then he pauses, tries to resist the zinger, but decides to let it loose.
"When we're together, we always have a good time," Marino says. "John is still a pretty good golfer. I'm not sure I can beat him in golf. But I know I can beat up on Jim Kelly for sure."
As far as football, he gets his joy watching Tagovailoa and these Dolphins. His adviser role doesn't put too much stress on him, but it also makes him a part of an ascending Dolphins team that seems poised for a playoff appearance in the near future.
"Sitting in a meeting here or there, being around the coaches, being around practice, trying to impact the game any way I can. I love football. I'm blessed at my age to still be a part of the whole thing," Marino said. "Try to see our Dolphins be better, make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl someday. If I can be a small part of that, it would mean the world to me."