Mixed emotions for Marino

American football
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The Independent Online
American football

MATT TENCH

As he prepared for the rigours of another NFL season last July, Dan Marino was in ruminative mood. "It starts to hit you," he said. "Next year you might not be playing. Obviously, I think I'm going to be. But one day you're a little kid, seven years old, and then all of a sudden the thing you love is over."

Marino's musings on his own mortality have lent poignancy to another turbulent campaign in Miami. The man widely regarded as the best quarterback to play the game was 34 a couple of months ago. He may not be on his last legs, but his knees are certainly feeling the strain.

Sensing that they may not be able to utilise their prime asset for much longer, the Dolphins went on a spending spree during the off-season. By the time hostilities got underway they boasted 19 first-round draft picks, and by the end of September a 4-0 record suggested it was money well spent.

Since then the Dolphins have fallen apart. Sunday's defeat in Indianapolis was their sixth in eight games and puts their participation in the play- offs, let alone the Super Bowl, in severe jeopardy.

To add a further layer of irony, Marino is currently laying waste to the NFL record book, and by the end of December he is likely to have claimed all the significant passing marks. Yet his personal achievement is set against a background of team failure: every time he has established a new record the Dolphins have lost.

The Indianapolis game was no exception. A six-yard pass to Keith Byars was enough to beat Fran Tarkenton's record for touchdown passes (the one that Marino himself valued the most), and two further scoring completions saw Marino take the new mark to 345. Still Dolphins lost 36-28, and for a competitor of Marino's stature the sense of history was bound to be lessened by the taste of defeat. "It's something I'm proud of, but we're not winning games," he said. "It takes away from the record."

The demise of the Dolphins has become an annual ritual, but having spent so much this time the fall-out could be far-reaching. The Dolphins are coached by Don Shula, whose status is several notches beyond that of elder statesman. Shula was a head coach before the Beatles had a No 1, and in a sport where a decade is regarded as an eternity in the top job his longevity has brought a certain immunity to criticism.

"Teflon Don" a Florida newspaper called him after losing the AFC Championship game in January, and the truth is he is held less accountable than virtually any contemporaries. True, he has been to five Super Bowls, winning two, but the last trip was at the end of the 1984 season, the last victory more than a decade earlier.

The Dolphins have reached the championship game in recent years but the feeling persists that given the advantages Shula enjoys - notably Marino, and the attraction of playing in Miami - he consistently underachieves. His two greatest failings have been to build a running game and defense to augment Marino's breathtaking talent, the two staples of a championship- winning side.

The Dolphins belong to Wayne Huizenga, owner of Blockbuster Video, and Shula's contract takes him through until the end of next season. Both sides say they intend to honour it, but for Shula the shadow of Jimmy Johnson looms large.

Johnson has as many Super Bowl victories in five years with the Dallas Cowboys as Shula has in his career. Since his acrimonious split from Jerry Jones 18 months ago he has resisted persistant offers to return to coaching and made a new career as a TV analyst. The Dolphins, however, might just land him.

Johnson is a former college coach in Miami and lives in Florida. While steadfastly non-commital in public, there has been consistent speculation linking him with the Dolphins job, and with Jones now claiming all the credit for the Dallas dynasty the opportunity to wipe the smile off Jerry's face might be too much for Jimmy to resist. For Johnson to return, Shula would have to be eased out, but even this is unlikely to deter Johnson, who replaced another NFL legend, Tom Landry, in Dallas. All of which means that Shula may not be able to afford too many more defeats like the one in Indianapolis...

NFL (home teams first): NY Giants 24 Chicago 27; Buffalo 25 New England 35; Washington 7 Philadelphia 14; Indianapolis 36 Miami 28; Green Bay 35 Tampa Bay 13; Cincinnati 17 Jacksonville 13; Cleveland 17 Pittsburgh 20; San Francisco 41 St Louis 13; Seattle 10 NY Jets 16; Houston 42 Denver 33; Arizona 40 Atlanta 37 (ot); New Orleans 34 Carolina 26.

NFL STANDINGS

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Eastern Division

W L T PF PA

Buffalo 8 4 0 248 233

Indianapolis 7 5 0 246 238

Miami 6 6 0 303 261

New England 5 7 0 212 267

NY Jets 3 9 0 179 295

Central Division

Pittsburgh 8 4 0 297 259

Cincinnati 5 7 0 286 290

Houston 5 7 0 273 256

Cleveland 4 8 0 218 264

Jacksonville 3 9 0 197 267

Western Division

W L T PF PA

Kansas City 10 2 0 277 185

Oakland 8 3 0 271 187

Denver 6 6 0 282 243

Seattle 5 7 0 259 289

San Diego 4 7 0 196 238

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Eastern Division

Dallas 10 2 0 343 214

Philadelphia 8 4 0 249 255

Arizona 4 8 0 211 326

NY Giants 3 9 0 223 273

Washington 3 9 0 234 282

Central Division

W L T PF PA

Green Bay 8 4 0 312 249

Chicago 7 5 0 324 293

Detroit 6 6 0 304 302

Minnesota 6 6 0 300 293

Tampa Bay 6 6 0 188 226

Western Division

San Francisco 8 4 0 335 173

Atlanta 7 5 0 278 266

St Louis 6 6 0 214 277

Carolina 5 7 0 228 247

New Orleans 5 7 0 239 278

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