It's No Stretch to Say That Miami's Dan Marino Is the Top Rookie Quarterback in the NFL

updated 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

After five games, Coach Don Shula knew his Miami Dolphins were in trouble. He knew it from his team's mediocre 3-2 record. He knew it from their miserable statistics (26th out of 28 teams in total offense; dead last in passing). And if those wretched stats weren't indignity enough, Shula could always gaze up into the stands for the ultimate insult. There sat the bag-heads—fans who, pretending they don't want to be seen or recognized at such a public disgrace, attend games wearing paper bags over their heads. It was hard to believe that this was the same team that made it all the way to the Super Bowl last year.

So Shula gambled. He benched veteran quarterback David Woodley and, in his place, started Dan Marino—the rifle-armed 6'3", 214-pound rookie out of the University of Pittsburgh. In game six, against the Buffalo Bills, Marino threw two interceptions early on. The bagheads booed lustily as the Bills went up 14-0. It was as "disastrous as it can get," Shula said.

Then something remarkable happened. On the sidelines the rookie started to take charge with all the confidence and poise of a 10-year vet. Patting helmets and slamming shoulder pads, Marino told his offense to relax. He wasn't about to self-destruct.

And wouldn't you know, the kid was as good as his word. In the second half Marino started finding targets with deadly, laser-like passes. The bag people removed their headgear and started to cheer. Although Miami eventually lost 38-35 in overtime, Shula was exultant. "The thrill," he declared, "is back."

If anything, the thrill has intensified. With Marino running the offense, Miami won seven of its next eight games and clinched the AFC Eastern Division championship. Going into last Saturday's contest with Atlanta, Marino was the leading quarterback in the AFC. Some football folks say he may be the best rookie signal caller in NFL history. All of which, one would assume, puts considerable pressure on the 22-year-old. It's an assumption Marino dismisses with a shrug. "It's not like I haven't dealt with pressure before," he says.

To a certain extent, Marino brought that pressure on himself, by dint of his marvelous record. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, where his father is a route manager for the Post-Gazette, he had been a hometown hero at Pitt. In his first three seasons he guided the Panthers to consecutive 11-1 records, earning the nickname "Touchdown" along the way. Never exactly short on self-esteem, he once told a sportswriter, "I throw better than anybody in college, and I can throw with anybody in the pros."

In Marino's senior year there were truly great expectations, to wit: a possible Heisman Trophy for him and an undefeated season and national championship for the team. But it didn't work out that way. Marino's performance early in the season was erratic. He was booed, and then the rumors started: He couldn't read defenses, he choked under pressure. Most preposterous of all, there were whispers that he had a drug problem. The Panthers ended the season at 9-3, and Marino had thrown only 17 touchdown passes, as compared with 37 the year before.

By the time the NFL draft rolled around, Marino, who had been rated right up there with John Elway, was the sixth quarterback chosen. The Dolphins, however, never lost faith in the young man, as evidenced by the reported four-year, $2 million contract they signed him to. As Marino's agent, Marvin Demoff, put it, "He's a rookie in playing time—but not in living experience." Asked specifically what he learned from the trials of his senior year, Marino points to the limits of self-confidence. "You have to think you can do it all the time," he says. "But you have to realize it's not going to work all the time."

A bachelor, Marino describes himself as a "boring guy," but somehow you know he doesn't really mean it. He lives in a rented two-bedroom condo in Hollywood, Fla., tools around town in a gold Corvette and saves money by doing his own housecleaning, laundry and dishwashing.

His success is no surprise to his teammates. "The thing you have to remember about Touchdown,' " says Don Strock, the Dolphins' venerable backup quarterback, "is that he's been through all this before. He played at a major college and he knows how to handle this situation." Strock pauses, grins and adds the obvious. "I don't think confidence will be a problem."

From Our Partners