MIAMI -- With a stunning display of offensive prowess, Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino yesterday gave a definitive answer to any lingering questions about whether he has recovered from the Achilles' tendon tear that had threatened his career.
The answer: no question. He's back.
Marino passed for 473 yards and five touchdowns against the New England Patriots at Joe Robbie Stadium, leading the Dolphins back from a 21-10 deficit to a 39-35 victory in the season opener in front of 69,613 spectators. In the process, he overshadowed, though barely, the performance of New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who threw for 421 yards and four touchdowns.
In a breathtaking, back-and-forth show that was evocative of the wild old days of the American Football League, the difference was experience and an almost miraculous fourth-down touchdown pass from Marino to Irving Fryar, the old Patriot who haunted his former teammates for 211 yards and three touchdowns on five catches.
The biggest Fryar catch was the final one, 35 yards for the touchdown, with 3:19 remaining in the game. It came on a fourth-and-five play from the Patriots' 35, and it erased the remarkable performance not only of Bledsoe but also of the New England tight end, Ben Coates, who had eight catches for 161 yards and two touchdowns.
All the Patriot heroics -- the touchdown run by Kevin Turner on the first Patriots touchdown, Michael Timpson scoring in front of his old hometown fans and Ray Crittenden stretched out for a spectacular touchdown catch that gave New England a 35-32 lead -- all were erased by that final stroke of Marino's arm.
"That's that dull National Football League brand of football you just saw," said Dolphins coach Don Shula. "Just nine touchdown passes. Fortunately, we have five and they had four.
The strategies at the outset were clear. The Patriots were going to establish the ground game and Miami was going to establish that Marino was back. The Patriots stated their case first, turning the first of two Dolphins turnovers into a punishing drive for their first touchdown.
After Terry Kirby fumbled at the Patriots' 41 after a huge hit by New England rookie linebacker Marty Moore -- the 222nd and final player selected in the NFL draft -- the Pats drove 59 yards on 10 convincing plays.
Using his big fullback Marion Butts to cut gaping holes out of the Dolphins defense, Bledsoe threw just two passes on the first scoring drive. He hit Leroy Thompson for 20 yards to get things started, and then Butts took over.
He ran the ball six times for 18 yards and was a decoy on the touchdown run of 1 yard by Turner, drawing the Dolphin defense to him on a fake that allowed Turner to burrow into the line for the score.
Marino moved the Dolphins from their 30 to the Patriots' 6 on the next drive, an emotional march that included a 10-yard burst up the middle by Marino.
If there were any remaining doubts about the soundness of his Achilles' tendon -- or his willingness to take it to the limit -- they were dispelled on this run that turned a third-and-seven into a first down and a complacent crowd into a roaring, standing ovation.
But the drive ended with a turnover, a Marino pass bouncing off Keith Byars' chest at the Pats' 5-yard line and into the hands of outside linebacker Dwayne Sabb. The Dolphins finally broke through two series later, following a Troy Vincent interception of a Bledsoe pass in the end zone, when Marino gunned a 64-yard touchdown pass to Mark Ingram, tying the game at 7.