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Marino passes comeback test with flourish From PAIN to GAIN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Miami -- The short dropback. The agile feet. The quick release from any position that produces an unwavering, whirling spiral, or a hard, tight dart with brilliant accuracy.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino can touch perfection like few of his peers can.

"Dan can look so ugly at times, and still be great, or he can paint a textbook picture of being the pure dropback passer," said Dolphins linebacker Bryan Cox. "I'm just glad he's back from the injury, playing so well. He has made an emphatic statement.

"To all the media people and fans who doubted him, Dan has been telling them all to go . . . with his performance," said Cox. "I love it."

Miami coach Don Shula was more diplomatic.

"Well, Dan's back, let's just say that," said Shula.

Marino, who suffered a career-threatening Achilles' tendon injury the fifth game last season, is off to the best start in his 12 years as a pro, with 63 completions in 98 attempts, good for 939 yards and nine touchdowns.

The last time Marino was lighting up the league with such numbers was that incredible 1984 season when he shattered the league record for touchdowns with 48, still the benchmark.

Marino threw for 841 yards and completed 63 of 90 passes after three games in 1984.

"I don't worry about things as far as statistics are concerned," said Marino. "I just want to prepare the best I can and play hard and smart every week to help my teammates.

"Achilles injury?" said Marino jokingly. "What are you talking about?"

Blessed with a good sense of humor, Marino even can joke about last Oct. 10 in Cleveland. As Marino faded back and rolled to his right, he threw to running back Terry Kirby for a 10-yard gain.

No one touched Marino. He simply came down on his right foot and the Achilles snapped.

"At one point, I thought about Lawrence Taylor having this injury and coming back, so I just thought it was a golfer's injury," said Marino, laughing. "I knew I'd be OK."

There was no joking when it happened, though. Marino would cry at the Fort Lauderdale Regional MRI Center.

"I remember the doctors coming in and telling me it was ruptured pretty bad and I might take longer to recover than most people," said Marino. "I was bummed. I thought we would have had a chance to win the Super Bowl or at least get into the Super Bowl."

Marino had completed 91 of 150 passes for 1,218 yards and eight touchdowns before the injury. The Dolphins were 4-1 with him, but went 5-6 without him.

Just as important to Marino was his streak of playing 145 straightgames for Miami. In his own mind, Marino was invincible.

"I just felt like I was going to play on and on," he said. "Sometimes you take it for granted that you're going to line up every week and nothing's going to happen. The only lining up I was doing was rehab."

Rehabilitation started at 8 every morning after Marino drove the kids to school. Teammates saw a different side of Marino, one that lifted weights, rode the stationary bicycle and performed yoga, stretching his body to lengths it never had been before.

"In previous years, I heard Dan would come in and do the beach routine, some bench pressing and curls to go along with his dark tan," said offensive tackle Ron Heller. "This time, you could see him trying to get his right ankle, shin and calf muscles as strong as the left ones. He was sincere and very dedicated."

Marino said he received encouragement from his four children, especially 6-year-old Michael Joseph, whose condition was diagnosed as autism four years ago.

"I always wanted my children to have everything and to be perfect," Marino said. "But it wasn't going to be that way, and I had to deal with it. Michael is fine now. He can speak and looks like any 6-year-old. He still has some problems, but his condition is relatively mild.

"I look at him and see how he works, and just figure I can work

just as hard," said Marino. "I take a lighter approach to fame and wealth now."

Imperfect at first

Marino reported to minicamp in April with a slight limp amid hundreds of cameras and reporters, but it was his performance in the last preseason game against Minnesota that caused a fuss in Miami.

Marino threw incomplete passes on his first three attempts and finished four of 12 with two interceptions while playing only 1 1/2 quarters.

The performance caused callers to flood radio stations in South Florida to ask about Marino's leg, and if he had lost a step. An ESPN reporter asked the almost unthinkable to Shula: how long would he go with Marino during the season before he replaced him with backup Bernie Kosar. Marino became so irritated that he refused to talk to local reporters the week of the season opener.

"It was important for Dan and us not to panic," said Shula. "Dan has always had quick feet, but he may have been a little timid about planting. People also forgot that we brought in new people like receivers Mark Ingram, Irving Fryar and running back Keith Byars for the 1993 season, and Dan only worked with them for five games, and then this preseason. It was like starting all over again for him."

Marino said: "More than anything, I was putting pressure on myself. I wanted to be 100 percent. I'm used to doing things well. I wanted to be perfect too early."

Marino was nearly perfect a week later. He threw for 473 yards and five touchdowns in a season-opening, 39-35 win over the New England Patriots, including a 35-yard touchdown gem to Fryar on fourth-and-five for the victory.

And now Marino is playing with a passion again.

"It looks like he's playing a lot harder now," said New York Jets linebacker Bobby Houston. "He's playing with a chip on his shoulder. I'd be a fool to say he looks timid back there, because he's not.

"Everybody was speculating that he lost something, but he looks just as good as ever. He's really playing with more of an attitude. You can really see that on film."

Marino said there is a sense of urgency now because he is 33. He never has won a football championship, not in Pop Warner, not at Pitt. Never.

Marino and the Dolphins lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 38-16, in the 1985 Super Bowl, after his second season with the team. Miami has not returned.

At his current pace, Marino, who owns 18 league passing records, would overtake Fran Tarkenton as the NFL's all-time leader in completions, passing yards and touchdown passes during the 1995 season.

Hold records; he wants title

But the true measure of greatness is championships.

Tarkenton didn't win a Super Bowl and is never mentioned in the same breath as John Unitas or Joe Montana.

"I've seen too many guys come and go here to take anything for granted anymore. My eyes are wide-open," said Marino. "There are a lot of good players who've never gotten one year where everything comes together, but I do believe I'm going to have that opportunity."

There may not be a better time than now, especially because Miami will be the host city for the Super Bowl. Miami is allowing only 50.3 rushing yards a game and the offensive line is opening holes for Kirby and Irving Spikes, who have led a rushing attack that is averaging 123.3.

Marino now can mix it up, and that's when he is most dangerous. The only Achilles' heel on this team is pass defense.

"I'm not sure when I will be 100 percent, but it will come eventually," said Marino. "Because of the inactivity last season, my arm is as strong as it has ever been. The reason I want to win a Super Bowl is for myself and my teammates, especially for those who have been in Miami as long as I have.

"As for anyone else, I don't think I have to prove anything," said Marino.

Not now, anyway.

MARINO BY THE NUMBERS

6 - Career high for touchdown passes in game (Sept. 21, 1986 against Jets).

9 - Years throwing for 3, 000 yards, most in NFL.

44 - Games to reach 100 touchdown passes, fastest in history.

48 - Touchdown passes thrown in 1984, an NFL record.

59.3 - Career completion percentage, higher than any of the 18 quarterbacks in the hall of Fame.

79 - Touchdown passes thrown in 1984 to Mark Clayton, top quarterback-to-reiver scoring combination in history.

81.3 - Highest completion percentage for a game (26-for-32 vs. Indianapolis on Dec. 4, 1988).

88.6 - Quarterback rating, third all time.

89 - Games to reach 200 touchdown passes, fastest in history by 32 games.

114 - Games needed to reach 30,000 yards passing, fastest in history by 11 games.

145 - Consecutive games started from 1984-93, most among QBs since 1970merger.

153 - Games to reach 40,000 yards passing, fastest in history by 15 games.

157 - Games needed to throw 300 touch down passes, fastest in historyby 60 games.

307 - touchdown passes, secon to Fran Tarkent (342).

521 - Most yards passing in a game (vs. New York Jets, Oct. 23, 1988), third in NFL history.

3,262 - Career completions, third all time.

5,084 - Yards passing in 1984, an NFL record.

5,532 - Pass attempts in career, third all time.

8,475 - Completion yards to Mark Duper, most of his 46 recivers.

41,659 - Yards passing for career, third all time.

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