MIAMI, DEC. 19 -- So many things awaited the Washington Redskins' arrival here today. Palm trees, the beach, the sun. A team that still has a realistic chance to make the playoffs. And Dan Marino's magical right arm.
In their first ESPN Sunday night game (also on WUSA-TV-9, 8 p.m.), the 10-3 Redskins will play the 7-6 Miami Dolphins at gleaming Joe Robbie Stadium in perhaps the first really important game of the Redskins' strange season.
Yes, the Redskins won the NFC East title two weeks ago. But they still have a plausible chance to host a playoff game or two, if they win their last two games and Chicago loses once, San Francisco loses twice, or San Francisco loses once and New Orleans wins its last two. The Dolphins, who like the Redskins have been to two Super Bowls this decade, have a fighting chance for a playoff spot in the confusing AFC East. All the Dolphins have to do is win their last two games and have Buffalo and Indianapolis lose once, and they're in.
But if all the combinations and permutations are too confusing to be entertaining, the thrill of this game comes from the electricity generated by its big-time players. This game has star quality. It's Don Shula vs. Joe Gibbs, Marino vs. Jay Schroeder. This isn't Super Bowl VII or XVII, but you look at the uniforms, and you look at the coaches, and it begins to look a lot like the playoffs.
The Redskins arguably have not faced a superstar all season. Oh, they've seen Jim Kelly in Buffalo and Charles White of the Los Angeles Rams, but neither is as good as Marino, the Dolphins' fifth-year quarterback, who is completing 61.6 percent of his passes.
The strike rendered games with the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys meaningless; the rest of the Redskins' schedule was not that difficult to begin with. But this game is different. For the first time all season, the regular Redskins are not favored to win. They are underdogs. It's a role they like, although they won't admit it.
This week at practice, the Redskins had Marino on the brain. "He is amazing," said cornerback Barry Wilburn, the league leader in interceptions with seven. "He does not allow you to make a mistake. If you aren't there, on the receiver, he's beaten you by the time you try to make a move. One split-second, Marino's holding the ball. The next split-second, it's in the receiver's hands. He has a faster release than anyone we've seen."
Marino is not immune to slumps, and he was in one of sorts several weeks ago. For five consecutive games, he was held to less than 300 yards passing, his personal benchmark. He had a season-low 165 yards and a season-high three interceptions in a miserable 27-0 loss at Buffalo three weeks ago. But in the past two weeks, Marino threw for 293 and 376 yards in wins over the New York Jets and Philadelphia.
"He was excellent against Philadelphia," Shula said. In that game, the Dolphins went to the shotgun early after the Eagles broke through a revamped Miami offensive line for two sacks on the Dolphins' first possession. But they shut down the Eagles' defenders the rest of the game to keep the league lead in sacks allowed with 13. The Redskins, who also have been stingy giving up sacks, have allowed 25.
Miami's offensive line still is a question mark. The team's all-pro center, Dwight Stephenson, is injured and out for the season, replaced by former tackle Jeff Dellenbach. Tackle Ronnie Lee and guard Tom Toth also are injured and Shula is uncertain about their status.
"This is the worst time to have offensive line injuries when you play a team that has a great front like the Redskins do," Shula said.
But the Redskins' defensive line will be happy to just get close to Marino to hurry him a bit. End Dexter Manley is not predicting how many sacks he will get. His restraint comes from knowing Marino is almost impossible to catch.
"He's tough to sack, but I think we need to have someone in his face all the time," said Washington assistant head coach/defense Richie Petitbon. "We've got to pressure this guy, even though we know we're not going to get him. Their offensive line is a little shaky right now so I think we've got to test that."
The Redskins might use defensive back Dennis Woodberry more than usual to try to keep a lid on Marino and his Marks Brothers receivers, Mark Clayton and Mark (Super) Duper.
But the Redskins cannot concentrate on them only. Running back Troy Stradford is Miami's Kelvin Bryant. "We go to him in critical situations out of the slot," Marino said.
The Redskins' offense is preoccupied with Marino, too. Gibbs has said the best defense against that offense is to hold the ball. To that end, he plans to replace George Rogers with rookie Timmy Smith if the running game bogs down early. Gibbs would like to give the running game a spark after it has failed to gain even 100 yards in three of the past four games.
This afternoon, the Redskins activated blocking tight end Anthony Jones, who injured his knee a year ago, and put running back Tim Jessie on injured reserve with tendinitis in his left knee. Jones joins Don Warren and Joe Caravello, giving the team plenty of size at tight end.
They plan to use it. The Redskins' game plan calls for a dash of passing and a heap of running, unless the Dolphins get ahead early. Then, watch out. It will be bombs away all over again.