The trouble with writing about all-world quarterback (oops, it just slipped out) Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins is that everybody thinks it's a puff piece. Nobody in only his second year in the National Football League could be that good, or trigger that many superlatives.
What Marino did this season in leading the Dolphins to the American Conference's East Division championship and a 14-2 mark en route to the playoffs , was complete 361 passes for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns - all NFL records. Here was a guy defenses never got a handle on, whether they played a conventional zone or relied on man-to-man coverage.
Yet two years ago many pro scouts, after watching Marino throw 23 interceptions in his senior season at Pittsburgh, had cooled down their original high opinions of him by the time his college career ended. They thought he lacked patience, and that a lot of times he forced passes when maybe he should have eaten the football or run out of bounds. Despite the fact that Dan had been a loser only six times in 48 college games, five quarterbacks went ahead of him in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft.
When Miami coach Don Shula picked him 27th overall, nobody said that Shula had outsmarted the rest of the league. What they said was that Marino had a chance to eventually be a starter if he could get some learning time, but like most rookies he'd probably need four or five years to get his act together.
On the surface, with the Dolphins having just appeared against Washington in the Super Bowl, what Marino seemed to need most was patience. There was no question that he had a big-league throwing arm, but whether he would be able to adjust to the NFL's more sophisticated defenses was something Shula could only guess about.
However, sports can sometimes mirror the theater when it comes to creating stars overnight, and basically this is what happened to Marino. Miami QB David Woodley, who had played so well the previous year, was suddenly having trouble with his consistency, his rhythm, and his ability to move the Dolphins into scoring position.
At first Shula considered this condition temporary and decided to ride it out , but when the situation persisted and hadn't improved by the Dolphins' fifth game of the season, Marino was given the chance to take over.
In the nine games Dan started, Miami won eight. Even more amazing was the fact that Marino got sacked only 10 times and threw just six interceptions in 306 pass attempts. He would simply float back into the protective pocket that Shula had built for him and let things unfold downfield.
Of course, Dan couldn't have done that if Miami hadn't had a strong offensive line that accepted his leadership very quickly. But his maturity surfaced almost immediately; he often stayed after practice to work with his receivers; and the hours he spent in front of a movie projector with Shula paid off handsomely.
Although the Miami head coach is often as reluctant to praise players as he is to criticize them, one thing Shula didn't hesitate to tell people was how quickly this kid had learned to make quick and correct decisions under fire. He didn't fluster and he didn't rush things, and if there was something he wasn't sure about, he'd use a timeout for a conference with Shula.
Frequently allowed to call his own plays, which is almost unheard of for an NFL rookie QB, Dan never hesitated to change signals at the line of scrimmage if he saw a defense he didn't think he could beat. In March, he was voted NFL Rookie of the Year by many of the same writers who earlier had labeled him questionable.
For those who prefer their pro quarterbacks tall and smart, Marino is 6 ft.4 in. and had a 3.0 average at Pitt; graduating with a B.A. in communications. He also has this gift for looking downfield and knowing almost instantly where all his eligible receivers are in relation to the defense. This ability was never more evident than in the last few weeks as Dan finished up the 1984 regular season with four touchdown passes in each of his last four games.
''Unlike most quarterbacks, Dan doesn't always throw to his primary target or the first man he sees open,'' said Miami wide receiver Nat Moore. ''If he's got time and it looks like you've got a step on your man or have him beaten, he'll find you. He'll also get the ball to you at a height where you can do something with it.'' In other words, his passes are delivered in a manner that allows the receiver to keep running without breaking stride.
Shula was so impressed with Marino in '83 that when a newspaperman asked him before this season if Dan could improve, the Dolphins' coach replied, ''You don't mean improve, you mean maintain.'' The way the team performed this year with Dan at the controls would indicate that Shula knew exactly what he was talking about.