Lester Hayes, the Los Angeles Raiders' veteran cornerback, has been looking for a house in southern California with a library large enough to accommodate the 200 videotapes in his collection of National Football League games.
A few days ago, in the cavernous living room of a house he hopes to vacate by summer, Hayes watched a rerun of this year's AFC playoff game between Miami and Seattle and found himself enthralled by the performance of a player he would later call "the second coming of Joe Namath."
"This guy can do anything," Hayes said on the phone the other day. "Of the thousands of game films I've watched in my eight years in the league, I've never seen a quarterback as good as Dan Marino. That doesn't mean he and the Dolphins can't be stopped. But I think the question you have to ask is just how are the 49ers going to do it?"
The flip side of that concern is equally perplexing: How will the Dolphins' defense, also known as the Killer Bees, stop the San Francisco offense and quarterback Joe Montana's slow-sting wizardry when the teams meet in Super Bowl XIX next Sunday in Palo Alto?
"That's what I've been wondering," Los Angeles Rams Coach John Robinson said. "I'm willing to bet they'll need a fifth quarter to figure out which is the better team."
Marino finished the season as the NFL's leading passer and became the first quarterback in history to surpass the 5,000-yard mark. He led more categories than seemed rightly human, including touchdown passes (48) and quarterback efficiency rating (108.9). The one statistical crown he failed to gain belonged to Atlanta's Steve Bartkowski, who completed 67.3 percent of his passes.
Montana threw for 3,640 yards in the 16 regular-season games; he was next in completion percentage with 64.6 percent. Marino, with his run-and-gun offense, finished four-tenths of a point behind his Super Bowl opponent.
As effective as both the Miami and San Francisco offenses are, their fundamental philosophies are about as similar as a family of wild hogs and a fossil lode of trilobites. Whereas Marino usually relies on big passing strikes to speedy receivers Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, Montana works the ground game around a steady flux of precision, middle-range passes.
"The only way to stop these two teams is to take a gun and shoot 'em," said Curtis Jordan, the Washington Redskins' safety. "It's a perfect combination. Miami is always coming up with the long bombs, and 'Frisco goes with the short, controlled stuff. The Dolphins go for broke, while the 49ers almost dink you to death."
Most teams have lived and died with the zone defense against the Dolphins, considering it too risky to employ man-to-man coverage against Duper and Clayton. Only the Raiders, who beat Miami, 45-34, were notably effective against Marino with "man" coverage, but that had everything to do with the enormous skills of Hayes and Mike Haynes on the corners. Still, Marino managed to drill them silly, throwing for more than 400 yards.
"Our plan was to procure a jam on those guys and bump them in the five-yard area," Hayes said. "We wanted to force Marino to throw the perfect pass. The most important factor in playing the Dolphins' receivers is to apply great pressure on them as soon as they get off the ball and distort their timing. When you give them a seven- or eight-yard cushion, as Eric Wright and Ronnie Lott probably will for the 49ers, you're opening yourself up to trouble. The margin of error by playing them tight is minimized.
"You can't give Marino an inch. If you give him the 10-yard hook and the 10-yard out pattern, Clayton and Duper are setting you up for the inevitable hook-and-go or out-and-go. When you come up on their fake, they cut it right back behind you into the wide-open field."
Haynes, who intercepted two passes against the Dolphins and returned one 97 yards for a touchdown, said the Miami offensive line is largely responsible for Marino's success, having allowed only 14 sacks in 18 games this season. For the most part, the Dolphins have had great luck picking up the blitz, which is often used to undermine the swelling hubris of a gifted young quarterback as much as it is to produce sacks.
"The blitz has not worked well against the Dolphins because Marino gets rid of the ball so quickly," Haynes said. "He doesn't have to cock back to throw 50 yards, and there's usually no indication that the ball's coming. All of a sudden, it's on top of you. As a defensive back, that makes it tough to defend against."
Rich Milot, the Redskins' outside linebacker, said the way to neutralize Marino "is not by blitzing on the outside, but hitting it up the middle. He and (San Diego quarterback) Dan Fouts are very similar. They can drop back three steps and fire it. If you penetrate the center-guard area, you have a better chance of throwing him off than coming from the outside."
Robinson said it is equally difficult to blitz Montana, considered by many to be the most elusive quarterback in the NFL. His ability to break clear of the pocket, avoid the flexed muscle of the rush and throw on the run presents an altogether different threat from that of Marino's quick-hit capabilities.
"I don't know what it is," Robinson said, "but there's a sort of theme to the 49ers' game plan. They'll pick 15 plays and practice them all week and then come right out with them on their first couple of drives. They usually score very early in the game, then fall into a sort of lull and don't get the momentum back until later in the second half.
"But I really think the key to stopping the 49ers is stopping their initial thrust. You do that and force turnovers and you should be in pretty good shape."
Ralph Hawkins, the defensive secondary coach for the Seattle Seahawks, said Montana's quick-rhythm passes are almost impossible to stop and "their methodical, grind-it-out approach can wear you down. The way to stop the 49ers, and I'm sure the Miami coaching staff has been stressing this all week, is to make them fumble the football. I bet they're telling their players that San Francisco will try to run it right at you, but Wendell Tyler has a history of putting it on the ground. He fumbles a lot, and you have to force him to make those mistakes."
Milot said trying to force Tyler to fumble is "only part of it. He might touch the football 14 or 15 times a game, and that's not so much . . . The biggest threat is Montana. I think it's hard for some people to realize how incredibly quick he is back there . . . "
The Redskins had the unkind distinction of opening their season with Miami and taking on San Francisco eight days later. They also had the unkind distinction of losing to both, at a point in the season when only the truly high-minded saw what lay ahead. "Who ever thought those two teams would have only three losses between them?" Redskins safety Mark Murphy asked the other day.
Although Murphy gives the 49ers a slight edge in the Super Bowl, pointing to the superior strength and depth of their personnel, he knows well the problems a defense confronts when lining up against a quarterback of Marino's stature.
"You play a team like Miami," Murphy said, "and you know you're going to give up yardage. You have to get the interceptions, which is something we didn't do. You also have to go with the blitz, no matter how strong the Dolphins are against it. But then again I don't think you can live with the blitz. You can mix up the coverages, but Marino reads so well he's still going to get his fair share of big passes.
"I think Miami's receivers are more talented than San Francisco's, but the 49ers' schemes are so well-designed. I think what gives them a tremendous edge is the relationship that has developed between Montana and (wide receiver Dwight) Clark. They're in tune with each other and that makes them tough to stop. Some people say they don't have the deep threat, but they're not taking into consideration (Renaldo) Nehemiah and (Freddie) Solomon . . . "
In their 45-28 loss to the Dolphins last week in the Orange Bowl, the Steelers threw the entire contents of the company store at Marino, only to come up with a handful of dust. They used schemes designed to boggle the young quarterback's mind and wreck his bright spirit -- everything from dropping eight men and rushing only three, to alternately blitzing everyone and no one. More unlikely combinations scratched the wall at scrimmage in that single afternoon than scratch a Ouija board in a lifetime of afternoons. Miami made the Steelers' effort look goofy.
Hayes said, "If you give Marino a multiple defensive look, chances are it'll turn up empty for you. But then again, those intangibles could possibly deceive him. You may have a shot, but then again, you probably won't. Everything you take into a game is a simple dream. And it's even more simple when you're playing somebody as good as Dan Marino. He usually does whatever he wants to you, while you do whatever you can."