Marino approaches career crossroads

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The Independent Online

Dan Marino entered the dressing room to begin the media session and frowned. For the first time, someone had placed a stand in front of his locker to accommodate the many microphones.

Dan Marino entered the dressing room to begin the media session and frowned. For the first time, someone had placed a stand in front of his locker to accommodate the many microphones.

"What's this all about?" Marino said.

He is accustomed to attention, but now he's under scrutiny. He has long been in the spotlight, but now he's on the spot.

Marino, 38, is approaching a career crossroads. If he plays well Sunday against Indianapolis, he and the Miami Dolphins could be on their way to the Super Bowl. If he plays badly, he might finish the game - and the season - on the bench.

That's more pressure on a passer than any blitz by the Colts could muster. But Marino shrugged at the situation.

"There's pressure every week," he said on Wednesday. "That's part of the position."

With a smile, he added: "That's why I like it."

Marino, who returned last week from a neck injury and a five-week layoff, must try to recover from perhaps the worst game of his 17-year career. He threw five interceptions Thursday in a 20-0 defeat at Dallas.

The performance prompted speculation that the pinched nerve in Marino's neck permanently diminished his arm strength. He says he was just rusty.

"I've got a hard head," he said. "I think I can just walk out there and play, and I thought that going into the Thanksgiving Day game.

"I don't think I had the feel I needed. That's the whole thing - getting a feel for the pocket and making the throws you need to make."

Marino said he's still bothered at times by an ache in the right shoulder that he compares to a toothache. He admits his arm felt better at the start of the season.

"But it's plenty good enough to play and be successful," he said.

That has yet to be determined. Coach Jimmy Johnson stuck with Marino during the debacle in Dallas, but Johnson will switch to Damon Huard if Marino is again ineffective Sunday. With the AFC East lead at stake, the game is too important to stay with a struggling quarterback, even a future Hall of Famer.

"The No 1 factor in the ballgame is that we have to protect the ball," Johnson said. "If that doesn't happen, we have no chance to win."

Ten interceptions and just six touchdown passes make this Marino's worst season. He ranks 31st in the NFL in passing efficiency, sandwiched between Billy Joe Tolliver and Kordell Stewart. The Dolphins are 3-2 when Marino takes most of the snaps and 5-1 with Huard.

Still, Marino historically plays his best when the critics are loudest. After Johnson threatened to bench him in early October, Marino responded with his best game of the season, throwing for 393 yards and a last-minute touchdown to beat Indianapolis 34-31.

"It worries me," Colts coach Jim Mora said on Wednesday. "We're getting him again in a similar situation. I know what kind of a competitor he is, and I know how he's going to be Sunday. He's going to be wanting to show everybody that the Dallas game was an aberration."

Said Marino: "You just take pride in your work."

His pride has been bruised. The scrutiny builds. The crossroads beckon.

Sunday is certain to summon the best Marino can offer, but even he is unsure whether that will be enough.

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