Marino's golden arm changed the game
"We used to laugh when we heard every single year that the Dolphins were committed to the running game. They never had a running game, and we knew if it came down to it, it was going to come down to No. 13," says Jim Kelly about Dan Marino on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
With the Miami Dolphins picking late in the first round, they didn't even work out Marino, part of the Quarterback Class of '83 that is recognized as the finest in history. Coach Don Shula didn't give the University of Pittsburgh standout much thought. "I never dreamed we'd get a shot at him," he said.
But when he still was available at No. 27, Shula picked Marino, disregarding the rumors of his drug use (never proven) and his throwing more interceptions (23) than touchdown passes (17) in his senior season. "When he was there," Shula said, "I wasn't about to let him get away."
With his golden arm and lightning-quick release, Marino became the most prolific passer in NFL history - the all-time leader in touchdown passes (420), yardage (61,361), completions (4,967) and attempts (8,358) when he retired on March 13, 2000 after 17 seasons. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback set up in the pocket and dared defenses to stop him.
"You were basically at Dan's mercy," said Ronnie Lott, the Hall of Fame defensive back. "All the great ones see the game so quickly that when everybody else is running around like a chicken with his head cut off, they know exactly where they want to go with the ball. It's like they see everything in slow motion."
In his second season, No. 13 made it look like a game of two-hand touch. Two records he set were especially staggering: 48 touchdown passes and 5,084 yards. It took 20 years before anyone could touch either of these records, when Peyton Manning broke the single-season touchdown pass record with 49 in 2004.
"What Dan accomplished is to have a better season than anyone who has ever played this game," said Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach. "I'm talking about quarterbacks, wide receivers or anyone else. He was unbelievable."
One only prize eluded Marino. Just once did he play in the Super Bowl, and Miami lost. "I'd trade every record we broke to be Super Bowl champs," he said.
He doesn't even bother wearing his 1984 AFC championship ring. "A loser's ring," he said.
Marino was born on Sept. 15, 1961 in Pittsburgh and raised in the sports-minded Oakland section, an ethnic, working-class neighborhood. His father, Dan Sr., delivered newspaper bundles for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the midnight shift and spent countless afternoons playing catch with his son in the backyard.
Growing up a Steelers fan, Marino played football in the street, three or four on a team because the street was so narrow. Telephone poles were used for end zones and the curbs were out of bounds. Besides dodging opposing players, one also had to avoid cars and buses.
If Marino didn't have anything else to do, he threw at the telephone poles. He moved around cars like he was avoiding a pass rush and tried to hit a pole.
Besides becoming a Parade All-American quarterback for Central Catholic High School, Marino also was an outstanding pitcher and hitter. The Kansas City Royals drafted him in the fourth round and offered him a $35,000 signing bonus. But Marino turned them down and chose to play quarterback for the school five blocks away. "Something, maybe my heart, told me to stay home and go to Pitt," he said.
He became a starter midway through his freshman season and led the Panthers to three consecutive 11-1 seasons, including victories in the Fiesta, Gator and Sugar Bowls. Coach Jackie Sherrill opened up the offense in Marino's junior year (1981) and the quarterback responded with an NCAA-leading 37 touchdown passes (12 more than his first two seasons combined) and completed 226-of-380 passes for 2,876 yards.
In last minute of the Sugar Bowl, Marino fired a bullet on fourth-and-five from the Georgia 33 for a touchdown pass to give Pittsburgh a 24-20 victory. "You fantasize about great last-second comebacks when you're playing on the schoolyard," Marino said, "but this was for real."
Then came his disappointing senior season followed by the NFL draft, in which John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien were picked before the Pitt graduate (degree in communications). After two relief appearances in 1983, Marino became the starter in the sixth game, and except for injuries, he didn't loosen his grip on the position.
Throwing 20 touchdown passes and becoming the first rookie since the merger in 1970 to lead a conference in passing, he took the Dolphins to the AFC East title. Voted the Rookie of the Year, he became the first first-year quarterback to start in the Pro Bowl.
He averaged three touchdown passes and 318 yards a game. His 48 touchdown passes shattered the pro record of 36, held by Y.A. Tittle and George Blanda. "This boy is in a class by himself," Tittle said. "There is just no denying that."
In winning the MVP, he completed 362-of-564 attempts, with Mark Clayton and Mark Duper being his top targets with a combined 144 catches, 2,695 yards and 26 touchdowns. "He feels like every pass he throws should be a completion," Duper said, "and he's usually right."
Miami went an AFC-best 14-2 and Marino threw seven more touchdown passes in two playoff victories. But in the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers sacked him four times and intercepted him twice in a 38-16 victory. They "held" Marino to his average of 318 yards, but he had to throw 50 passes (completing 29) to get it and he managed just one touchdown pass.
While Marino would never have another year like 1984, he had another sensational season in 1986, throwing for 4,746 yards and 44 touchdowns. It wasn't until 1999 that another quarterback even reached 40 TD passes (Kurt Warner with 41).
Marino also was durable for most of his career. He started 145 consecutive non-strike games before a torn Achilles' tendon in his right leg in 1993 ended the longest consecutive-game starting streak by a quarterback since the 1970 merger. In his last few seasons, Marino performed on creaky knees, a bad ankle and nerve root irritation in his neck that weakened his arms and legs.
While Marino sported a year-round Florida tan, he still retained the competitiveness of that kid playing on the Pittsburgh streets. Just ask a receiver who dropped a pass or a lineman who missed a block and found Marino in his face.
After a disappointing 1999 season (12 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions), Marino retired at 38. He owned 25 NFL records outright and shared five others. Among his marks: Leading the league in completions six times, throwing for at least 20 touchdown passes 13 times, throwing at least four touchdown passes in a game 21 times (six in 1984), having 13 400-yard passing games (peaking at 521) and having 13 3,000-yard passing seasons.
"There were times on the field when I felt like I couldn't miss," said Marino, whose record as a starter was 147-93. "The ball was always on time, it was always catchable, and I was making the right decisions on who to throw to."
In February 2004, Marino called an audible. Three weeks after accepting the job as the Dolphins senior vice president of football operations, he changed his mind and resigned, returning to the easier life of being an NFL commentator for HBO and CBS.
Marino was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in February 2005 in his first year of eligibility.