Dan Marino’s my favorite player of all time so if you’re here looking for critical things to be written about him, you’re in the wrong place buddy. Past Interference isn’t going there. Ever! Do you hear?! Suffice it to say, since Marino never led the Miami Dolphins to a championship team and as he has now ceased to be the NFL’s all-time leading passer, it’s not possible for him to be considered the greatest QB of all-time. His brilliant passing was more than good enough to have won championships had he been surrounded by enough quality players but sadly that just didn’t happen.
What I do want to write about is about what happened in Marino’s one Super Bowl appearance. Too many have talked about that game as if it represented some sort of failure on Marino’s part which is just flat-out wrong. Marino played heroically in Super Bowl XIX but no heroics on his part could have made a difference. Dan faced off against one of the great teams in NFL history while being supported by players who were outmatched, outplayed, and outcoached every step of the way.
Let’s start with the Niners. When people talk about the great 49ers teams of the 80’s they’re usually talking about the 1989 team or the 1988-1989 team that won back-to-back titles. But it’s the 1984 team that won more games than any team in history. They went 18-1, and that single loss came on a late field goal. The 1984 49ers may not have had Jerry Rice or Steve Young, but they scored more points than the 1989 team, allowed fewer points, and probably had a better defense. Specifically, consider the secondary. Marino was throwing against Ronnie Lott (A Hall of Famer), Eric Wright (an all-pro), Dwight Hicks (an all-pro), and Carlton Williamson (two-time Pro Bowler). If a better secondary has ever stepped foot on the field, please tell me ‘cause I’d really like to know who it could be. I sure as hell know it wasn’t the garbage Miami was putting out there (Judson, Lankford, and the Blackwood Brothers). And against the greatest secondary of all-time, Marino tore it up in the early going. The Dolphins scored on their two first-quarter possessions and led 10-7 as the second quarter started.
Miami’s offensive production slowed down after that. You know why? Because Bill Walsh wasn’t an idiot. The guy saw what Marino was doing. So “The Genius” made a change, he went with six defensive backs. And it worked. Marino struggled after that, especially as San Francisco managed to keep the heat on him rushing only four men. Miami’s O-line couldn’t stop them. So under all that pressure, and against that flood of defensive backs, Marino understandably started having some problems. Now there would seem to be one obvious strategy for dealing with those problems: RUN THE BALL! Make those undersized d-backs come up and have to make some plays. Don’t let the Niners D sit on the pass. But Miami didn’t run. Ok, they ran it a whole 8 times. Sure, when your team’s leading rusher that year is Woody Bennett and sure, when your team’s averaging less than three yards a carry putting the ball in the hands of your running game might not seem like the best strategy as you fall further and further behind, but great coaches adjust. Don Shula just yelled at his team to play harder. Bill Walsh changed things up and team took control of the game.
Miami could only add 6 more points in the second quarter. Still, both then and now 16 first-half points is a very good total. Up to that time only five Super Bowl teams had bettered it. And of all 84 Super Bowl teams to date, only 15 teams have topped that first-half number. So Marino and the Miami offense posted a well-above average scoring effort for the first half, and they were getting killed 28-16! How was that Marino’s fault!?!?!
Contrast Marino’s predicament with Joe Montana’s situation. Miami’s defenders could barely lay a hand on him (which would have been tough even if Miami had had any kind of pass rush, which they most certainly didn’t. Joe’s O-line featured 4 All-Pro’s: Ayers, Quillan, Fanhorst, and Randy Cross). Unlike San Francisco’s D, Miami couldn’t sit back and play the pass because the Niners had a great running game. Not just Roger Craig, but Wendell (Tippecanoe and) Tyler too. Tyler was injury prone but when healthy the guy was a fantastic player, a 1000-yard rusher who averaged 5.1 yards a carry that year. Pure speed. Both backs were tremendous pass catchers as well. Not to take anything away from Montana who played brilliantly, maybe the greatest quarterbacking performance in Super Bowl history, but there was an obviouse talent disparity between the two teams. The only advantage the Dolphins may have had was with the Marks Brothers at receiver, but that edge wasn’t huge. The Niners countered with Dwight Clark, an all-pro, Russ Francis, an excellent tight end, and Tyler and Craig, who each caught 70-plus yards worth of balls each that night. Montana had no shortage of weapons and no shortage of time in which to repeatedly find them wide open. Of course, passing was a choice for San Francisco. His team also ran for 211 yards and controlled the clock for over 37 minutes. Marino on the other hand had to pass on practically every play, setting a then-Super Bowl record for attempts with 50. Near the end of the third quarter Marino tossed his first interception of the game. The score at the time? 38-16. Forced to take chances in a hopeless cause, Marino threw another pick on the 4th quarter. The score was still 38-16. Final score: 38-16. Those two picks ruined Marino’s stats but they obviously played no role in the outcome. The game had already been decided when the Niners opened up a three-score lead in the third quarter. Marino kept fighting till the end anyway.
Hearing people slam Marino for losing that game makes me sick. The defense gives up four straight TD drives in the first half, the offensive line can’t give Marino any time to throw, Miami’s all-pro punter kicks nothing but short easily-returned line drives, and the coach has no answers. Marino got no help. One guy can’t win a game! And just why does Marino come in for criticism for the loss while Don Shula goes completely unscathed?
People point out that Shula won championships without Marino yet he couldn’t win with him. Ergo Dan couldn’t have been that great. Right. I’ve written about Shula’s big-game failures before. He coached in seven title games and lost five times. Marino quarterbacked one of those five losses. So what happened in the other four? Were those Marino’s fault too? Of course not. Miami's offense just did in Super Bowl XIX what all of Shula’s team did in championship games: not score in the second half. Just 14 total points in the second half of the seven combined title games. Pathetic. That includes games quarterbacked by Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese. Did they suck too? Even in Shula’s two Super Bowl wins note how many total first-half points Miami put up: 7 in Super Bowl VII and 17 in Super Bowl VIII. Pretty comparable to Marino's 16 in Super Bowl XIX no? So what was the difference? Well, Miami shut out their opponents in the first half of their 1972-1973 Super Bowl wins while Marino’s defense gave up 28 freaking points in the first half, that’s the difference! Miami’s 314 yards on the day topped the 1972-1973 efforts of 253 and 238 yards.
Shula’s two highest scoring teams in Super Bowl play were the 1973 Dolphins and the 1982 Dolphins. Both put up 17 in the first half. The former added a TD in the second and won handily. The second added nothing and lost. Marino’s 1984 team put up 16 points but truly that was a much better offensive effort than the 1982 team as the latter team scored on a kickoff return, a flukey 76-yard TD bomb, and a FG set up by another long kick return. In Super Bowl XVII, Miami didn’t have one sustained drive the whole game and wound up with only 176 yards of offense, just a pathetic 80 in the air. So really, only one of Shula’s many Super Bowl squads ever surpassed the offensive performance of Dan Marino’s offense in Super Bowl XIX. And that one team, the 1973 Dolphins, featured a dominating defense and running game. Such things were missing from the 1984 Dolphins and thus Dan Marino went down to defeat. And clearly that has to be considered more Don Shula’s fault than Dan Marino’s. Marino didn't have the horses.
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