American football: Marino battles ravages of time

American football: Dolphins' quarterback begins another campaign for elusive Super Bowl win on Sunday
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THIS TIME last year, it seemed that a new breed of exciting young quarterbacks were poised to remove the old guard from their position of pre-eminence in the National Football League. Much was made of Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, the first two players selected in the 1998 draft. Along with youngsters such as Jake Plummer of the Arizona Cardinals, these were names for the future, ready to consign the elder statesmen to history.

It did not work out as expected. Leaf performed disastrously in San Diego, while Manning threw 28 interceptions, a rookie record, with the Indianapolis Colts. Coincidentally, the 36-year-old Doug Flutie was leading the Buffalo Bills to an unexpected play-off place, while the Minnesota Vikings accumulated the most points ever scored in a single season under the guidance of Randall Cunningham, their 35-year-old passer.

After a decade of mediocrity Chris Chandler, 33, suddenly matured sufficiently to guide the Atlanta Falcons to a place in the Super Bowl, in which they were beaten by the guile of John Elway, the Denver Broncos' 37-year-old spiritual leader. The much-vaunted youth revolution simply never materialised.

However, as a new season begins on Sunday, it seems only a matter of time before the ageing gunslingers are run out of town. In this year's draft, five quarterbacks, bristling with confidence, were selected in the first round, the most since 1983 when six were taken, including Elway and Dan Marino. With Elway choosing retirement following a brilliant individual effort in the Super Bowl last January, Marino is now without question the game's elder statesman.

The quarterback of the Miami Dolphins will celebrate his 38th birthday next Wednesday, but unlike his contemporary Elway, there has never been talk of moving on. One of the main reasons is that, unlike his great friend and rival, Marino has yet to taste the one thing American football players crave above all else, success in the Super Bowl.

The Dolphins were last in the championship game 15 seasons ago. Marino, in his second campaign as a professional, had thrown a staggering 48 touchdown passes in 16 games, an NFL record which still stands, only to be confounded by Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers in the final. Little was made of it then: it seemed merely a matter of time before this prodigiously gifted athlete fulfilled his dream.

Since then, Marino has accumulated 25 league passing records, including 408 career touchdowns, 58,913 yards (Elway, his closest rival, only just broke the 50,000 mark) and 4,763 completions. He holds every meaningful mark in the NFL's 498-page record book. But for all his personal success, another Super Bowl appearance has eluded him. Worryingly, there is now clear evidence that the skills which made him the game's most prolific passer are in steep decline. Last season, his statistics were average at best, while the 16 touchdown passes were his fewest ever (excluding his injury-shortened 1993 campaign). His body is beginning to rebel: he has undergone nine leg surgeries and his mobility, never a strong point, is now non-existent.

Quarterbacks who can also run with the ball, like Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers or Green Bay's Brett Favre, bring another dimension to their team's play. In 1998, Marino actually finished with minus-yardage when attempting to run.

While the legs have long gone, last year he also experienced soreness in the elbow of his throwing arm. There was talk of a need for surgery, and while Marino thought otherwise, he rarely throws during practice these days, saving his arm for game time.

"I'd love to play as long as I possibly can, but who knows," he said. "At this point in my career you have to take it one year at a time. You never know what your health situation and circumstances around the team are going to be."

The Dolphins clearly continue to believe in him. In June, he signed a two-year extension to his contract, and will earn a reported $21m (pounds 13.4m) over the next three seasons, hardly evidence of a player on his last legs. Miami's head coach, Jimmy Johnson, has emphasised the importance of establishing a running attack to take pressure away from the quarterback.

His team-mates, most of them a decade or more his junior, continue to hold him in awe, conscious that they are sharing a locker room with one of the game's all-time greats.

"He's still throwing the ball with a lot of velocity, and he still has that quick release," said the receiver Tony Martin. "You still have to get your head turned around if you don't want it knocked off."

But does he have enough left to take the Dolphins to the Super Bowl next January? Johnson, who won two championships as coach of the Dallas Cowboys, has constructed a team featuring a solid defense and a commitment to running on offense. Marino, however, remains the key, and while his experience is invaluable, he has become trapped by the limitations of his body.

"I'm personally rooting for him," Elway said. "I'd like for him to know what it feels like to hold that trophy in his hands after winning the Super Bowl. He deserves it."

Father Time, rarely one to indulge in the fulfilment of romantic fantasies, may beg to differ.