American Football: The Dolphins' surge subsides: Paul Hayward reports from Joe Robbie Stadium on the day Dan Marino's famous arm failed to bring Miami another victory

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THE Miami Dolphins like to intimidate opponents by flashing up a cartoon of shark-infested waters on their giant video screens while playing the theme from Jaws. In truth, though, it is the Dolphins who have been evading danger for too long in their six-game unbeaten start to the season.

You build them up, you watch them drop. 'Jesus,' a disconsolate fan shouted here on Sunday night, 'we've lost to the (Indianapolis) Colts. One of the worst teams in the league.' This was the kind of incredulity that greeted the end of the only unblemished record in the NFL, and, more importantly, the realisation that Dan Marino, too, can lose his way.

Fourth down and seven with 17 seconds remaining. Last play of the game. The Dolphins trail by four points, but Marino has the ball. Along the touchlines, the noise does a circuit of your brain and rattles your eyeballs. Marino looks up, throws to Bobby Humphrey, but from the citadel of enemy shirts emerges the crop- haired, Teutonic quarterback- crusher, Steve Emtman. Through a silent Florida he runs. Touchdown Colts.

It had to happen. This is only the third time in Dolphins history that the team have started a season 6-0. On the other two occasions - in 1972 and '84 - they reached the Super Bowl, but there are plenty of experts this time willing to testify that the current Miami squad are not as good as those statistics suggest. Don Shula, in his 23rd year as head coach, has again dragged Florida's team out of cyclical mediocrity, but on this evidence it could be another season or two before the good times roll again.

Miami, the city, probably knows as much. For all the hyperbole about the Dolphins' progress, Joe Robbie Stadium remains resolutely below full capacity. Against the Colts, 61,117 punters marched in from the beach, but the swathes of empty orange and green seats told you that demand was still 12,000 below the maximum. Endlessly people here debate the reasons.

Here are just a selection of theories. Too expensive, people say. Why should fans pay dollars 28-30 ( pounds 17- 18) for a ticket when the Hurricanes, the university side with a

7-0 record, can be watched for a lot less? There are also the competing attractions of the Miami Heat basketball team, and next year the Marlins, the city's baseball outfit, will start to play.

In this cosmopolitan stew of peoples, moreover, only 65 per cent of football followers will pledge allegiance to the Dolphins, so it is fair to say that the affection the club inspire elsewhere - particularly in Britain - is not always shared by the punters who are supposed to fill the 73,000 seats of Joe Robbie.

Not that they fail to make a racket. Walking along the sidelines as you followed play in that final quarter on Sunday, it was impossible to talk even to the person directly next to you. In a quieter moment, though, a distinctly irritable Marino was able to holler at his offensive line: 'Are you guys gonna protect me, or what?'

His disgust with this 31-20 defeat was movingly evident as he traipsed out of the shower to face an inquisition that Joe McCarthy would have been proud to conduct.

The Dolphins, it has to be said, were mediocre. Shula, that iron face of his twitching with disaffection, delivered a sombre synopsis of his team's performance. 'We made mistakes, and I will suffer for it,' he said. 'We seemed to be our own worst enemy out there. We hurt ourselves with five turnovers and only got it (the ball) from them twice. We came up short.'

This was supposed to be the day when Marino set an NFL record for firing four or more touchdown passes in a game. Seventeen times he has done that - the same as the great Johnny Unitas - yet here he looked an impatient, thwarted history-maker, raging at the mistakes of his excessively vaunted colleagues.

Perhaps this game will unload all those expectations, stop all that Super Bowl talk in the matey sports studios of cable television.

One thing is for certain. It will not be lost on Shula that it was the club where he began coaching 30 years ago - Indianapolis - who have sent him back to the start.

(Photograph omitted)