Somebody ought to take the Miami Dolphins' 1984 NFL regular-season game films and put them in safe storage, so people of the 21st century can see quarterback Dan Marino pass and know what football magic really was like.
Everything was touchdown perfect for Marino until that 38-16 loss to San Francisco in the Super Bowl. His 48 touchdown passes and 5,084 yards were records. His ability to read defenses was instantaneous. So was his release. His throws were precise and, in the end, two of his linemen and two of his receivers hopped on Marino's magic carpet bound for the Pro Bowl.
Marino's majesty has dissipated somewhat this season. Maybe the fact that he was a contract holdout until the final week of training camp has had some effect.
Injury stole his all-pro guard, Ed Newman, for the entire season and his best deep threat, receiver Mark Duper, for six weeks. On Monday night, the Jets' pass rush made Marino seem confused, limiting him to 136 yards, his lowest in three seasons. The Jets won, 23-7, bumping Miami (4-2) from first place in the AFC East. Duper is due back soon, and perhaps Marino's majesty will return with him.
It's possible that Marino's 1984 was a one-year phenomenon, never to be repeated. Then again, perhaps Marino's 1984 season might be the perfect case study of an athlete drifting into the unstoppable state that Arthur Ashe likes to call "The Zone."
"The Zone is sort of a metaphysical thing. It's when all of the outside elements come into synchronization," said Ashe, captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. "It's when an athlete plays at a certain level and for a brief period goes out of his mind and plays above himself. Usually it lasts for a few minutes, an hour or an hour and half. It usually doesn't last for a full season."
Ashe said Bob Beamon found The Zone with his record long jump in Mexico City in 1968. Tennis stars Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg found it for short periods, too. Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark (The Bird) Fidrych reached The Zone when he won 19 games in 1976. Teams can reach The Zone, too, Ashe said, and he points to the Dolphins' 17-0 team of 1972 as proof.
And what of Marino in 1984?
"I'd say he was Zoning," Ashe said.
A football in Marino's hands is the pinnacle of big-play possibility -- like a bat in the hands of Kansas City's George Brett in early October. This season, however, Marino has looked deep downfield and Duper isn't there. This time last season, Marino had 17 touchdown passes and four interceptions. Now, the numbers are eight and seven.
"It's going to be tough to ever do that again as far as numbers go, but it does show what anybody can do with the right situation," Marino said. "I may not get those statistics again, but think I'm a better quarterback. That comes with playing more, seeing more. I mean, I haven't been playing that long."
At times this season, Marino has been nearly stunning. Two weeks ago against Pittsburgh, Marino was stifled for most of three quarters, but he completed five of six passes for 71 yards on a game-winning drive that ended with Lorenzo Hampton's two-yard scoring run with 47 seconds to play. Miami 24, Pittsburgh 20.
Ernie Accorsi, the Browns' executive vice president/football operations, watched the game on a monitor in the owner's box in Cleveland and said, "Watching Marino on that drive, you had the feeling that he's played 90 million pickup games growing up in Pittsburgh where he had to throw a touchdown to win the game and that he always did it. You saw him do the same thing in the Sugar Bowl to beat Georgia. He's just a tough, streetwise kid."
"You would see him do it once in his rookie year," Dolphins safety Lyle Blackwood recalled, "and you didn't know what to figure. He did it again and you realized that this wasn't a spoof. It was the real thing."
"Dan's quick release has been impressive since Day 1 and since the day before Day 1," Coach Don Shula said. "A quick release can only happen with a quick mind. A couple of times against Kansas City (a 31-0 Miami win in Week 3), Dan threw it right in the face of the free blitzer (for a completion)."
But does a quarterback make an offensive system or does an offensive system make a quarterback? Shula did take the Dolphins to the Super Bowl in 1982, when the quarterback was David Woodley and Marino was a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. (Of course, Shula once went to the Super Bowl with the Colts quarterback Earl Morrall, a replacement for injured Johnny Unitas.)
"It could go either way," said Marino, who is just 24.
Some NFL scouts say that Marino was an erratic and undisciplined college passer, who too often pushed the ball upfield without reason or spiral, and that Shula changed him into a disciplined record-breaker.
Marino was the sixth quarterback selected in the first round of the 1983 draft, behind Messrs. Elway, Eason, Blackledge, O'Brien and Kelly (AWOL, in the U.S. Football League). Did Shula see something that other teams didn't?
"It's not only the system," Accorsi said of Marino's rise to greatness. "It's Shula."
Marino's unprecedented season had many repercussions -- not all of them touchdown perfect. He has become an advertising star of sorts, drinking Pepsi with Joe Montana, telling folks how to move in Ryder trucks, smiling pretty for banks and sporting goods companies.
Marino also plugs a new Chevrolet car on television. In his best Pittsburgh huff, Marino said of the car, "It's a Z-something. A Z-28, is it? You know, the new one that just come out."
Marino's success last year also led to a 38-day contract holdout this preseason. He has two years left on the contract he signed before his rookie season and is scheduled to earn $300,000 this year and $400,000 in 1986.
He returned from his holdout, without a new deal, seven days before the season opener, an apparent loser to owner Joseph Robbie's iron will and refusal to renegotiate deals of players who already are under contract and not in camp. Marino said he does not want to resume contract talks until after the season.
"I want to concentrate on football," he said.
Shula said he didn't fret over the possibility of a season without Marino. This is the same coach, after all, who lost running backs Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick and receiver Paul Warfield after the 1974 season and still managed to win his division with a 10-4 record.
"Don Strock is a hell of a quarterback," Shula said about the player who is the backup to Marino, "and he understands our offense like Bob Griese did."
Marino concedes that his holdout caused him to play poorly in the opener. He was benched for inefficiency late in the game. Strock entered and threw a 67-yard touchdown pass to Duper on his first attempt, but the Dolphins lost to Houston, 26-23.
"A couple of times in the Houston game, he threw too soon and the ball just didn't get there," Shula said. And Marino said, "I didn't have a good feel sitting in the pocket."
When the Dolphins played their home opener at the Orange Bowl against Indianapolis, Marino was booed. Marino said he didn't hear the boos.
Duper did. "Evidently, the fans don't care about Dan's career," Duper said. "They just want to see him throw touchdown passes."
They did, too. Marino threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns, and the Dolphins dismissed the Colts, 30-13.
Marino's agent, Marv Demoff, tried to put Marino's 1984 season in perspective by saying, "I think it's fair to say that what Dwight Gooden did for the Mets this year is the same thing that Dan did for the Dolphins last year, things that no one else has ever done at that age before."
Demoff said he felt that Marino ought to be the highest-paid player in the game. "If you were to make a presentation to impartial parties, he would be," Demoff said.
It seems that Demoff sought a contract for Marino that would be, at the very least, on par with the contract the 49ers awarded to quarterback Montana. Montana earns an estimated $960,000 per season.
"Obviously, Montana is a terrific quarterback, but his team does not rely on him as much as the Dolphins rely on Marino," Demoff reasoned.
Robbie, however, used a different reasoning. He said, "There are additional factors besides the fact that Dan is potentially the best quarterback in football.
"One consideration is that Joe Montana has led his team to two Super Bowl triumphs. Another is that Montana has played six seasons, not two. Another is that Marino was under contract for two more years and any additional money he got would be, in effect, a cash bonus in return for additional years.
"Dan had as good a year last season as any quarterback ever had," Robbie added. "The question is only what price do we put on such a great season as that."