Seventeen years ago on a sunny January day in Miami, a rookie quarterback named Dan Marino played in his first NFL playoff game. Though his inexperience in part resulted in the Dolphins losing 27-20 to the Seattle Seahawks, the strong-armed rookie could peer through the fog of disappointment and see many Januarys ahead of him.
But now, at age 38, with a tarnished golden arm, there are not many Januarys ahead for Dan Marino. In fact, this might be his last. And if so, Marino's last stand, which begins Sunday in a first-round AFC playoff game against those same Seattle Seahawks, could not set up much worse for him and the Dolphins.
After an 8-2 start, the reeling Dolphins (9-7) lost five of their final six--backing into the playoffs, coincidentally, when the Seahawks (9-7) lost their season finale. The Dolphins' starting tailback, tight end and two of their top wide receivers are injured.
At the same time, Marino's piloting of the Dolphins' offense, which had been virtually unquestioned for 17 years, is under an all-out assault. Since coming back from a pinched nerve in his neck that caused a five-week absence, Marino has thrown 12 interceptions in six games, three of which were returned for touchdowns.
His quarterback rating of 69.1 is the worst of his career and the second-worst in the league among starters. His relationship with head coach Jimmy Johnson, which has never been great, has grown even more strained, and Johnson's own future with the Dolphins reportedly is tied to whether he can rid himself of Marino.
Should Marino struggle on Sunday, backup Damon Huard, who led the Dolphins to a 4-1 record in Marino's absence, will be waiting.
Johnson has tried to play down what he called "the soap opera" between himself and Marino, and spent long hours with his quarterback putting together what is expected to be a simpler, more streamlined offensive game plan.
"When you look at the AFC and the league in general, I think it's anybody's game," Johnson said of the Dolphins' chances. "It's who gets hot and who makes the fewest mistakes. We feel like we've got as good a shot as anybody."
Seventeen years ago, Marino might have imagined infinite trips to the Super Bowl and several championship rings on his fingers. But there has been only one trip to the Super Bowl--in 1984--and no rings. And now, Marino is realizing there may never be any.
"My mind-set [in 1983] was that I was happy to be in the league and to be in that [playoff] position," Marino said. "Now, my mind-set is that I want to take advantage of the opportunity because you never know if it's your last opportunity."
For Marino to get back to the Super Bowl, the Dolphins will have to win three road games--a nearly impossible task, especially considering the Dolphins haven't won a single road playoff game in 27 years.
"We're about to change that," Marino boasted earlier this week.
The Seahawks have problems of their own to think about, starting with the fact they haven't won a playoff game--home or away--in 16 years.
Like the Dolphins, they lost five of their last six regular season games and backed into the playoffs when the Kansas City Chiefs lost an overtime game on the final Sunday. And like the Dolphins, the Seahawks enter the playoffs with a quarterback, Jon Kitna, who has been awful of late.
"Obviously," said Kitna, 27, in his first year as a starter, "this isn't the way we planned things."
Cynics have labeled this game the "Back-In Bowl," but the Seahawks, who still won the AFC West title, say they don't have to be ashamed of the way they made the postseason.
"We won our division," Seattle cornerback Willie Williams said. "Now it's a new season."
Like the Dolphins' slide, the Seahawks struggles were caused primarily by turnovers. Miami went from a plus-7 turnover ratio in the first 10 games to a minus-13 in the last six games; Seattle went from plus-10 to minus-7 in the same stretch. Kitna threw 10 interceptions and lost three fumbles in those six games.
But despite their similar woes, the teams are vastly different in almost every other way, including this: Sunday will be Kitna's first NFL playoff game, the first of what could be many Januarys to come. For Dan Marino, it might be his last.