Two years ago today, Dan Marino was in football disgrace.

One year ago today, he was in surgery for his second knee operation.

Today, he's in danger of being prematurely proclaimed the greatest quarterback who ever lived.

When it comes to experiencing distortions of reality, Marino is already, at 23, an old man.

Marino knows he wasn't the fellow that the football world thought him to be just two seasons ago.

Then, in January 1983, he and his Pittsburgh Panthers had just been upset, 7-3, in the Cotton Bowl by SMU. Marino had 23 interceptions that season of 1982 and presided over three unexpected defeats. He was college football's disappointment of the year.

Rumors that he had a drug problem were so widespread that he submitted to tests so NFL scouts could rest easy that he was clean. In the draft, 26 teams did not pick Marino before Miami finally did. Five teams even took quarterbacks ahead of him. His stock was not high.

Not a clutch player. Forces throws into coverage. Cocksure. Maybe a bad attitude. Even Coach Don Shula had to give him the "you start with a clean slate here" speech when he came to Miami's training camp.

Even one year ago, after a 20-touchdown rookie season that took him to the Pro Bowl, Marino seemed a perishable commodity. That bad right knee had him missing games, then gimping through an upset loss to Seattle in the playoffs. Those "Namath knees" made folks worry about his future.

Groomed for greatness since he was 10 years old by his tough, smart father -- a truck driver in Pittsburgh -- Marino knew that neither the college flop nor the wobbly rookie was the whole Marino.

This evening, as five cops and one slavering police dog helped Marino fight through the crowd outside the Orange Bowl and off into the night, it is a safe assumption that Marino was still not buying the world's opinion of him.

No one really knew how he felt because, after passing for 421 yards and four touchdowns in the AFC championship game, after running his season's 18-game stats up to 55 touchdowns and nearly 6,000 yards, Marino clammed up in victory like most players do in defeat.

He talked, but he said nothing. He was polite, but he kept all the shades drawn. No quips, no bravado, just that huge, confident, slightly secretive grin. "I'm very happy," he even had to say because, from his countenance, you couldn't be completely sure.

The only peek he'd give of the sharp-witted, supremely self-assured guy behind the mask came when he said, "Yeah, they love me in Pittsburgh."

They love him everywhere now. Throwing 55 touchdown passes in one season (about 15 more than was previously considered humanly possible) will do that.

These days Marino can let the rest of the world talk about him. Maybe he isn't a combination of the best of Joe Namath (quick release and audacity), Johnny Unitas (poise and presence), Terry Bradshaw (rifle arm and ability to take a hit), Sonny Jurgensen (accuracy and touch) and Bart Starr (reading defenses and handing off credit).

Maybe he just looks like that.

The record book says that nobody ever had a passing day in a postseason game as good as Marino did today in Miami's 45-28 victory over a solid Pittsburgh Steelers team.

Yes, Dan Fouts passed for 433 yards two years ago. But he threw 53 passes to Marino's 33. If Shula hadn't been a good sport and put the wraps on Marino for the whole fourth quarter, he'd have passed for 500 yards today.

Daryle Lamonica had five touchdown passes, but he had "only" 347 yards in 39 passes. And so on. Put all the numbers together and it's unarguable. Marino's 21 of 32, with one interception, was the best statistical day of chucking a ball that anybody ever had in the playoffs.

"Normally, I sit down when the other team has the ball," Pittsburgh's great veteran center, Mike Webster, said. "Today I stood on the sideline. I kind of like to watch him work. I appreciate great performances.

"The guy is phenomenal," continued Webster, who played on four Super Bowl championship teams. "He'd be going down and he'd zip it in there. Almost on his back and he throws it like a howitzer. He's unbelievable. You just applaud him.

"If you beat him, you've beaten somebody. And he's a great guy, too. Not like some of these . . ."

Webster stopped himself. "He's got it all, baby. And good-lookin', besides. Can't see why he's gettin' married."

The whole Steelers team was beside itself with praise for Marino. "He packs a cannon," said cornerback Sam Washington. "Several times, no other place he could have thrown it and completed it and it was right there.

"He's a lot better than good."

"What makes Miami so tough is the whole (offensive) package . . . Great coach. Great receivers. Great line. Great quarterback. But I think Marino is the biggest part of the package," said cornerback Dwayne Woodruff. "I don't think San Francisco or Chicago could stop 'em in the Super Bowl. It won't make any difference who they play."

Future Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert flattened Marino on one play, only to look up and see a 19-yard completion. Marino said something to Lambert, and the mean one answered back and actually patted the quarterback on the rear. "It didn't amaze me that he got it off," said Lambert. "It amazed me that he completed it."

"Real cool in the pocket," said veteran safety Donnie Shell. "Give him all the accolades. They're his."

"His attitude is so special," said Webster. "Terry (Bradshaw) was never into the game as enthusiastically as Marino is . . . He's fallen into a perfect marriage of coach, team, receivers, rules and his own talent."

This afternoon, when Miami found itself behind, 14-10, Marino engineered five consecutive scoring drives, covering 337 yards in all. In a crisis, he answered every challenge, or, as Shula said, "He's been answering even when he hasn't been asked."

On a wall of the Orange Bowl hung a sign today that said, "Give Pittsburgh Triskaidekaphobia."

That's the fear of the number 13 -- the number Marino wears.

At the moment, the entire NFL suffers from this terrible disease.

It's been given to them by a young man who, for one quicksilver season when every Miami moon and star is aligned, has no football fear at all.