Miami Dolphins

Fins at 50: Dan Marino’s brilliance unmatched, but the Dolphins QB still had regrets

Dan Marino, pictured here in 1985, made it to the Super Bowl at age 23. He played well, but the Dolphins lost to the San Francisco 49ers 38-16 on Jan. 20, 1985. Super Bowl XIX was his first and last trip to football’s grandest stage.
Dan Marino, pictured here in 1985, made it to the Super Bowl at age 23. He played well, but the Dolphins lost to the San Francisco 49ers 38-16 on Jan. 20, 1985. Super Bowl XIX was his first and last trip to football’s grandest stage. AP file

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Go back and watch. And marvel.

No need to unearth those old VHS tapes in your garage. Simply go to YouTube, type in “Dan Marino Highlights.”

And remember with newfound awe how the ball exploded off his hand.

In the five decades of Dolphins football, there has never been a player like Dan Marino. The same might be said for football in general.

He was an icon, a Hall of Famer and a transformational athlete. He carried his franchise for 17 seasons. He starred in blockbuster movies and sold gloves by the case.

But more than anything, he could throw the football like no other.

Many of Marino’s passing records — and he owned many — have since been eclipsed by the new guard, whose stats were inflated by a manipulation of NFL rules intended to increase scoring and protect the safety of players.

First Brett Favre passed Marino in the record books, then a few years later Peyton Manning did the same.

“I hated that they broke my records,” Marino told the Miami Herald recently, a sly smile on his face. “It’s terrible.”

Marino chuckled, before continuing:

“No, it lasted for a long time. It’s like I told Brett Favre, ‘What took you so long?’ I was fortunate. I had a great career here.”

An understatement, to be sure.

Rather, he had an unmatched career, one that earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When he retired after the 1999 season, Marino was the NFL’s career leader in pass attempts (8,358), completions (4,967), passing yards (61,361) and touchdown passes (420).

He made the playoffs in 10 of his 17 seasons.

And at just 23 years old, he led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl — a game that was both his greatest team achievement and No. 1 disappointment.

Marino, the uncannily gifted thrower from Western Pennsylvania, put up unprecedented statistics in 1984, his second NFL season.

He became the first NFL quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards. His 48 touchdown passes weren’t just an NFL record, they were 12 more than any other player had thrown in league history.

And in the process, he directed the Dolphins to a 14-2 regular-season mark.

They went on to blitz the Seahawks in the Divisional round before facing the Steelers — Marino’s childhood team — in the AFC Championship Game.

Marino responded with probably the best big-game performance of his career, completing 21 of 32 passes for 421 yards and four touchdowns to send Miami to its fifth (and most recent) Super Bowl.

Three decades later, Marino called that game the best memory of his playing career, “because I grew up right in the city [of Pittsburgh].”

Two weeks later, on football’s grandest stage, the script changed. Marino played well, but the Dolphins lost to the San Francisco 49ers 38-16.

Some would have been crushed. And sure, the loss stung Marino at the time. But not as much as it would have, had he known the future.

That’s because Marino, for all his brilliance, never realized the ultimate goal. His first trip to the Super Bowl was his last.

Twice more, in 1985 and 1992, the Dolphins made the conference title game. They hosted each one. And lost each one.

“I look back at it as I wish I was able to play in it again,” Marino said. “Ironically, I was 23 years old and I felt for sure that I would be back. After the game, I was disappointed, down about the game. But I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to be back and we’re going to win one of these. I’m going to be back more than once. Maybe twice, you never know.’ And it never happened. That’s the one thing that is the regret. It’s to not know what it feels like to walk off the last game of your career and know that you’re Super Bowl champs.”

Fairly or not, that failure will keep Marino from being considered the best quarterback in NFL history.

When asked why it never happened for him, Marino didn’t have an answer.

“I thought we had a lot of good teams,” he said. “It just goes to show how hard it is to win a Super Bowl, because there’s so much change in the league. Why it didn’t happen? I couldn’t put one finger on it, or one point to give you why it didn’t happen. But we had a lot of great teams that had opportunities to do it. We just didn’t do it.”

Here’s a simple explanation: The Dolphins empirically were not as good as the Buffalo Bills, their longtime divisional rival who went to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s. The Bills knocked the Dolphins out of the playoffs three times in a span of six years.

One of those defeats was in the 1992 AFC title game. The following fall, Marino believed his side had the talent to take that last step.

Miami opened the season with wins in three of its first four games. Most encouragingly, the defense was excellent.

Then a Week 6 trip to Cleveland changed everything.

Late in the first half, Marino ruptured his right Achilles tendon, ending his season and forever altering the trajectory of his career.

“It was really disappointing for me, because I thought we had a team that could win a Super Bowl that year,” Marino said. “We had a lot of talent with Keith Jackson and [Keith] Byars and the defense that we had and Irving Fryar. … It’s really tough, because you never think something like that is going to happen to you.”

The Dolphins, without their franchise cornerstone, collapsed down the stretch. After starting the year 9-2, they lost the last five games of the season to miss the playoffs.

As for Marino, he would return for six more impactful seasons, but acknowledges he was never the same physically.

“The Achilles never really completely came back to the way you would want it to perfectly,” he added. “I had to play and adjust to that. Your body adjusts pretty well over time. But I had to adjust to dealing with my ankle and my Achilles, how you throw the ball and how you move around. But I did feel like I played at a pretty high level after that, too.”

He’s right. Even with a limited Marino, the Dolphins made the playoffs in five of his last six seasons. When the three-time All-Pro finally retired after the 1999 season, he did so as the most decorated quarterback to ever put on a helmet.

Players don’t write their legacies. It’s up to others to do that.

But if Marino could?

“I guess that I was a competitor,” he said. “Loved to compete. Hated to lose. That’s it, really. I think it’s a team game. It’s about winning and losing. As far as throwing the football, I proved that I could throw it with anybody, and all the records, and that’s fine. But it’s about, ‘That guy was a competitor. He loved to play the game and was a great teammate also.’”

The proof is out there. Go find it and remember.

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