The Denver Broncos honored newly retired quarterback John Elway in an emotional halftime ceremony tonight at Mile High Stadium. Trying to coax him out of retirement and into his old No. 7 uniform at intermission might have been the better idea.
Elway spoke about "Mile High magic" in an moving halftime ceremony, but the wizard of all he surveyed here this evening was veteran Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. He passed for 215 yards and two touchdowns on a night he surpassed 8,000 pass completions early in the third period in a dominating 38-21 victory by the Dolphins.
"This was a big win for us to come in and beat the world champions," said Marino, drafted the same year as Elway in 1983. "It was a huge win for us, just a huge win. When we get time to throw, with the guys we have now, we can make some plays, and if you can run the ball on the road, it takes a lot of pressure off."
Marino had a vintage performance, completing 15 of 23 passes and spreading the ball around to six different receivers. Aided by a forceful running attack (111 yards), a blitzing defense and good work by its special teams, Miami spoiled the Elway love-fest for most of the 75,263 in attendance, many of whom headed for the parking lots early in the final period.
Elway's replacement, second-year man Brian Griese, completed his first drive as a starter with a 61-yard first-quarter touchdown pass to Ed McCaffrey and all seemed well for the two-time defending Super Bowl champions.
But that was simply a mirage. The Dolphins converted a partially blocked punt and a blocked field goal into a touchdown and field goal on the way to 24 straight points midway through the third period. Then they harassed Griese with a variety of blitzes from all over the field.
They also did a number on Denver running back Terrell Davis, a 2,000-yard man last season who gained only 61 yards in 19 carries. He had a long run of 13 yards in the face of a swarming Miami defense that also gave Griese fits all night, especially in the second half.
"We didn't get many sacks on him [two]," said Miami middle linebacker Zach Thomas, who had 10 tackles and one sack. "I was trying to let him know I was coming after him."
The Dolphins appear to be a formidable Super Bowl contender now that quarterback Vinny Testaverde won't be around for the New York Jets this year after undergoing surgery today on his injured Achilles' heel. Tonight, the Dolphins had far too much Marino magic and there was not enough Denver defense, snapping the Broncos' proud 24-game home winning streak stretching from the final game of '95.
The coup de grace was administered on a fourth-and-two play early in the final quarter. Thomas blitzed and was untouched by a blocker as he wrapped up Griese for a 10-yard loss back to midfield.
From there, Marino ended any further suspense, driving his team 50 yards in eight plays to a touchdown. The last play was a four-yard scoring pass to wide receiver O.J. McDuffie on a perfectly executed slant pattern for a 31-14 advantage with 9 minutes 31 seconds left in the game.
The Griese era began splendidly for the Broncos, and Coach Mike Shanahan demonstrated right from the start that he had unbridled confidence in the second-year man making his first professional start.
With his father, Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese, in the stands, Brian began the game with three straight passes and two completions.
On third and 15 from his 39, Griese took a snap in shotgun formation, then launched a precise spiral that landed in the hands of McCaffrey, running in full stride a step ahead of safety Brock Marion. McCaffrey caught the ball at the Miami 25 and beat Marion and fellow safety Shawn Wooden to the end zone for a 61-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead with 11:15 left in the first period. It was Denver's only lead of the night.
Griese finished with 24 completions in 40 attempts for 270 yards and three touchdowns, all to McCaffrey. He had no interceptions, hung in the pocket despite all the pressure and made some very difficult throws.
"I think if everyone would have played like Brian Griese did tonight, we would have won the football game tonight," Shanahan said. "I was pleased with the way he handled himself. He showed a lot of poise and composure, but collectively, we've got to do better as a team. That's me. I take full responsibility."
The Dolphins had the drive to show a national TV audience that they now belong among the elite NFL teams, especially with a revitalized running game aided by strong performances from two rookies, fullback Rob Konrad and J.J. Johnson.
Konrad provided some crunching blocks for tailback Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson, who did not take a snap all preseason but gained 45 yards tonight and scored a touchdown.