Marino's slump hampers Johnson's rebuilding plan

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Jimmy Johnson was named the head coach of the Miami Dolphins earlier this year, there was a lot of speculation that he might try to trade Dan Marino for a package of draft picks to rebuild the team the way he did in Dallas with the Herschel Walker trade to Minnesota.

Johnson rejected that idea and decided to stick with Marino and improve the supporting cast around him.

The strategy hasn't worked.

Not only is Johnson still trying to upgrade the supporting cast, but now he's got to worry about Marino.

The 6-7 Dolphins lost twice in six days last week, at home to Pittsburgh on Monday night and at Oakland on Sunday, because Marino was ineffective.

He failed to get the Dolphins in the end zone from the 7 on the final drive against Pittsburgh and was intercepted three times by Oakland and fumbled once in a 17-7 loss.

"I have to look at myself," Marino said. "I didn't play well. I haven't played this bad in a long time."

One of the interceptions was by linebacker Mike Morton, who admitted he was surprised by Marino's poor throw.

"You know that he's a great passer, and he gets the ball off so quickly so you just figure you'll hold your position and stop the big play," Morton said.

Johnson even considered yanking Marino for Craig Erickson, but decided it might be a blow to the veteran's confidence. To say nothing of causing a major distraction because the benching of Marino would have been headline news all around the country.

"I didn't think it was the right time," Johnson said. "With quarterbacks, not just Marino, you can do damage if you don't handle it right."

What the Dolphins don't know is if Marino is simply in a slump or whether he's starting to slow down at age 35.

The Dolphins play the two New York teams sandwiched around a Monday night home game against Buffalo so they could rebound if Marino gets back on target.

"Dan's going to be fine," Johnson said.

He'll find out soon if that's wishful thinking.

49ers in a rush

Terry Kirby became the first San Francisco 49ers running back to rush for 100 yards Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons since Ricky Watters did it in 1994 against New Orleans.

That feat got Kirby a lecture from the coaches because Kirby put himself back in the game to make sure he got the milestone.

"He snuck out again for one more play," William Floyd said.

"George [Seifert] had some words for him after that."

Seifert was ready to yank Kirby with 91 yards in the third quarter, but was persuaded by the offensive linemen to let Kirby stay in.

After Kirby got to 102, he should have been done for the night. But Kirby wasn't sure he was over the 100-yard mark so he jogged onto the field and told Tommy Vardell to go out.

"I got yelled at by the coaches for that," Vardell said with a smile. "Terry said he was coming in for me and I thought the coaches told him that."

L Kirby ran for 3 yards to get to 105 and that was it for him.

OK, it was against Atlanta, but it was a sign the 49ers may be developing a running game as they head for the playoffs.

McNair's time?

The conventional wisdom these days is that a highly paid young quarterback has to play right away to justify his big salary.

But Houston Oilers coach Jeff Fisher has gone back to doing things the old way with Steve McNair. He's brought him along slowly, playing him only when Chris Chandler was injured in his first two years.

Fisher now is debating whether to stick with McNair even though Chandler, who was held out of the 35-10 victory over the New York Jets with a sprained ankle, may be ready to play against Jacksonville on Sunday.

"It'll be an objective decision," said Fisher, who will make an announcement today. "It's not a popularity contest. It's not a democracy."

Center Mark Stepnoski said he thinks it's time to go with McNair, even though he threw for only 142 yards against the Jets in a rain storm Sunday. The Oilers stuck with the run in the bad weather, rushing for 243 yards, including 141 by rookie Eddie George.

"He's played well every time he's played. Sooner or later, you've got to give a guy drafted so high and paid so much money a chance to do what you brought him in to do," Stepnoski said.

McNair, who signed a $28.5 million contract a year ago, is being a diplomat about it.

"If I'm not the starter, I won't be disappointed," McNair said. "I'll back Chris so we can continue to win. When they think I'm ready, they'll put me in. I have to continue to be patient."

Foley to take turn

Now that Neil O'Donnell is out for the year after pulling a calf muscle in pre-game warm-ups Sunday, Jets coach Rich Kotite is going to bench Frank Reich and go with young Glenn Foley, a seventh-round pick out of Boston College in 1994.

"If you don't give him the opportunity now, when can you give him the opportunity?" Kotite said.

"Am I the answer?" asked Foley, who has taken just 15 snaps this year. "I don't know, but I'm not the answer if guys don't go out there and play."

Broncos in waiting

Now that the Denver Broncos have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs already locked up, their last three

regular-season games are basically glorified exhibition games.

Coach Mike Shanahan says he still plans to play all his healthy players. "You just don't turn it on and turn it off. If you've got competitors on your team that want to play and they're healthy, let them play," he said.

Linebacker Bill Romanowski agrees. "We have to go into the playoffs with momentum," he said.

But that doesn't mean Shanahan's going to risk John Elway, who nursing a pulled hamstring, against Green Bay on Sunday.

Elway is listed as questionable and Shanahan said he may not decide until Sunday whether to go with him.

Miscellaneous

Tara Greene, the wife of Carolina linebacker Kevin Greene, sang the national anthem last Sunday before the Tampa Bay game. As she ran off the field, Kevin Greene ran up to her and gave her a big hug and a kiss. No word if the NFL will fine him for a PDA (public display of affection). The Indianapolis Colts have had 26 players miss a total of 86 games because of injuries. Irving Fryar of Philadelphia moved from 13th to 11th on the all-time career receptions list. He passed Raymond Berry (631) and Don Maynard (636) and then credited Berry, his former coach at New England, for his success. "If it wasn't for Raymond, I'd probably be out of the league. Raymond is part of the reason I passed him," Fryar said of the Baltimore Colts Hall of Famer.

Men at work

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