Their relationship is scrutinized, analyzed and sensationalized to the point of absurdity. Was that a caustic glare Jimmy Johnson just shot at Dan Marino? Did Marino just roll his eyes at his coach? Why aren't they standing together on the sideline?
In the days leading up to the Miami Dolphins' 20-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in an AFC first-round playoff game, Johnson asked the media to put to rest, for one week at least, the "soap opera" concerning his supposedly strained relationship with Marino, and the surrounding speculation over their futures with the Dolphins.
Fat chance. The week leading up to the game saw an avalanche of hypotheses, predictions, dissections and conspiracy theories concerning the Dolphins' two dominant personalities--Marino will retire, Johnson will leave the game, Johnson will force Marino out, Marino will force Johnson out.
But even if nobody else listened, Johnson and Marino themselves put the soap opera on hold, and the result was a come-from-behind victory that puts the Dolphins in the conference semifinals Saturday at Jacksonville (14-2).
Marino, who has been directing the Dolphins' primarily air-based offense for 17 years now, put his ego aside and accepted Johnson's radical shift to a ground-based, ultra-conservative game plan for Sunday's game--designed to protect the ball and keep the score close until the fourth quarter--even if it meant Marino would attempt only nine passes and throw for 28 yards in the first half.
And Johnson, when seemingly half of southern Florida was calling for Marino to retire and the other half for him to be benched, put his own ego aside, realizing that Marino, and not backup Damon Huard, gave the Dolphins their best chance to win, and that Marino--not running back J.J. Johnson--was the man who was going to win the game for the Dolphins in the end.
It was Marino who completed three huge passes, beginning with a third-and-17 strike to Tony Martin when the Dolphins were backed up to their 8, on Miami's game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
"When he just stares at you as he calls the play, and holds the stare, he doesn't need to say anything more," Martin said. "You know everything you need to know right there."
Marino and Johnson might have their issues, but by all accounts they share a painfully acute desire to win, and in the end, that desire was more powerful than their egos.
"There's a reason why we didn't turn it over yesterday," Johnson said today in his weekly day-after news conference. "Had we been winging it 50 times like we did the last couple of weeks, you wouldn't see a real happy coach right now.
"It's not a real secret on how to win games in this league. You have to have some balance. Obviously, you have to make some plays in the passing game. But you go out there and try to throw it every down against good teams. . . . You could beat some dog team and put up some big numbers on them, but against a good defensive team, you're not going to win, especially on the road late in the year."
Marino, for his part, trusted Johnson's game plan, even though that game plan made it look as if Johnson didn't trust Marino, who had thrown 12 interceptions during the Dolphins' dismal regular season finish. There were off-tackle runs on first down, draws on third and long and a total of eight Dolphins punts. Marino, essentially, was a secondary weapon.
After the game, Marino's ego couldn't help pointing out that "obviously" the Dolphins might have done more offensively had they passed the ball more. But that was as close as he would come to criticizing the strategy that led the Dolphins to victory.
As dire a predicament as the Dolphins faced on Sunday, it gets even worse now. Faced with a short week of preparation against a powerful Jaguars team that has had two weeks of rest, the Dolphins have little more than the momentum of a single victory against a mediocre Seahawks team going for them. The Dolphins have won only one road playoff game in 27 seasons, but that one was Sunday.
Today, Johnson left no ambiguity about what the Dolphins have to do offensively to be successful again on Saturday and put the soap opera surrounding him and Marino on hold for yet another week.
"It's going to be difficult for us," he said. "But I feel like our guys, if they continue to play in the mode of protecting the ball and running the football, have an opportunity to be successful against anybody."