The Washington Redskins' regular season finale today against the Miami Dolphins could be full of drama. The Redskins could be playing for a first-round playoff bye against a postseason-bound opponent in the final Dolphins game for quarterback Dan Marino and Coach Jimmy Johnson.
Or the day could deliver little more than a chance for the fans at FedEx Field to celebrate the Redskins' first NFC East title in eight years, then watch what amounts to an exhibition game.
What happens elsewhere in the NFL earlier this afternoon will determine what's at stake for the Redskins (9-6) and Dolphins (9-6) in their 4:15 p.m. game.
The Redskins, who clinched the division title with last Sunday's victory at San Francisco, need the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to lose at Chicago and the Minnesota Vikings to lose or tie at home against the Detroit Lions in 1 p.m. games. If that happens, a triumph over Miami would give the Redskins the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and a first-round bye. If Tampa Bay or Minnesota wins, the Redskins will host the lowest-seeded NFC wild-card team in a first-round game next weekend, whether they win or lose today.
The Dolphins' situation is even stranger. They remain in the running for an AFC wild-card berth, but it doesn't matter whether they win today. If the Seattle Seahawks or Kansas City Chiefs lose, Miami is in the playoffs. If the Seahawks and Chiefs win, the Dolphins will be left wondering what happened following their 7-1 start. The Seahawks are on the road to face the New York Jets, and the Chiefs host the Oakland Raiders, both at 1.
The Redskins already have placed tailback Stephen Davis on their inactive list for today's game because of a sprained ankle, and Coach Norv Turner said wide receiver Albert Connell likely will be made inactive today because of an ailing shoulder. If the game is meaningless from a postseason perspective, Turner will decide whether to rest other key players, such as quarterback Brad Johnson, guard Tre Johnson, wide receiver Michael Westbrook and cornerback Darrell Green.
Turner has left open the possibility of resting players with injuries, but says he doesn't think today's game will be meaningless for his team even if a bye isn't at stake.
"I want to win the football game," he said. "I want to play well. Momentum is important. If you play hard and play smart, injuries don't usually happen. It's when you try to be careful that bad things usually happen."
The Redskins are seeking their first 10-win season under Turner, but today could end up being more about individual accomplishments. Brad Johnson, who's coming off a 471-yard performance against the 49ers, is 70 passing yards from his first 4,000-yard season. He's 179 yards from the single-season team record set by Jay Schroeder in 1986.
Irving Fryar, who's scheduled to start in place of Connell, is five catches from Henry Ellard for sixth place on the NFL's all-time list and 10 receptions shy of Steve Largent for the fifth spot. Fullback Larry Centers is 10 catches from Keith Byars's career record for a running back. Centers is five receptions from Joe Washington's single-season team record for a running back of 70.
Today's biggest subplot, however, involves Marino. This has been the least productive of his 17 seasons. He has struggled with a shoulder injury since his Thanksgiving return from a five-week layoff. His relationship with Jimmy Johnson has been tumultuous. And if the Dolphins don't reach the playoffs, this could be the farewell game for the NFL's career leader in passing attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns.
If anyone knows what the future holds for Marino, he's not saying. Even those in uniform are left to wonder.
"It's hard to say," said Fryar, who played for the Dolphins between 1993 and '95. "Obviously, he's not going to play forever. But if I had to bet, I would say he'd be back."
Marino was selected by the Dolphins with the 27th pick of the 1983 draft. The Redskins took Green with the next choice of a draft that also included John Elway, Jim Kelly and Eric Dickerson.
"There's a family between me, Dan, Jim Kelly, Elway--all of us," said Green, whom the Redskins expect to return for an 18th season next fall at age 40.
Marino has 147 regular season wins as a starting quarterback, one shy of Elway's NFL record. But while Elway owned the fourth quarter until his final snap, Marino has completed only 44 percent of his fourth-quarter passes, with one touchdown and four interceptions, in five games since his return.
"I feel fine," Marino said. "I don't see any difference other than the fact that you're playing football hard for four quarters. Other than that, I don't see any difference in what I'm doing."
Jimmy Johnson's future has been debated in South Florida almost as much as Marino's. Johnson has allowed his frustration over the Dolphins' second-half collapse to show at times, fueling speculation that he will leave following the season.
"The one thing I think with this whole football team the last part of the season is that we haven't been as confident as what I would have liked," said Johnson, Turner's former boss in Dallas. "It seems like things that happen keep us from getting confident. Because we haven't been able to play well as a total unit, I think the confidence is very fragile. We've had turnovers that went the other direction [for touchdowns]. I think it's so disheartening for our guys--it's hard to get any continuity and confidence when you don't play well as a total group."
Redskins Note: The team announced that escalators leading to the upper deck will be installed at FedEx Field for next season.