Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Peyton's big win and a defense of Dan Marino

I was happy to see the Colts win Super Bowl XLI win this last weekend. I'm not a Colts fan necessarily, but I was gratified to see Colts quarterback Peyton Manning shut his critics up. The rap against him was that he couldn't win the big game; that his numbers were impressive, but meant little unless he could translate them into a championship.

In contrast, his rival Tom Brady, has consistently come through in the big game, leading the Patriots to three Super Bowl rings in six years, knocking Manning and the Colts out of the playoffs in 2003 and 2004. After his third Super Bowl win, Brady was (and rightly so) added to the conversation of best quarterback of all time, demonstrating how heavily championships weigh on one's perception of greatness in the world of sports. Today, Tom Brady is regularly compared to Joe Montana, who most people believe to be the greatest quarterback in NFL history.

Peyton Manning, on the other hand , has been consistently been compared to Dan Marino, who, like Manning, put up record numbers, but never led his team to a Super Bowl win. With his big win Sunday, Manning can put these unfair criticisms behind him, but Marino having retired after the 1999 season will always be remembered for not having won the big game. As a result, his greatness has been downplayed in recent years by critics.

I believe this to be unfair and unjust.

Increasingly in our media culture, sportswriters, sports talk radio show hosts, and pundits give themselves authority to decide what we think of athletes and how we should remember them. Most of them have never been professional athletes. And many appear interested in making bold, controversial declarations to sell newspapers, get ratings, and make a name for themselves rather than give honest assessments.

Playing the most demanding position in all of sports, Dan Marino lit up the record books on almost a weekly basis. His numbers speak for themselves. He holds 24 NFL records, and is tied for four more. He is the most prolific passer in NFL history.

His albatross is that his team never won a Super Bowl. And because we hold great players to higher standards, the responsibility for that failure lands squarely on Marino's shoulders. I agree with this to up to point. Great players like Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, Wayne Gretzky all led their teams to championships. However, these guys didn't do it alone. They played on great teams with other great players and great coaches.

How far would Jordan have taken the Bulls without Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, John Paxson or his coach Phil Jackson?

How many titles would Jeter and his Yankees have without Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and Joe Torre?

How would Gretzky's Oilers have dominated without Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, and Grant Fuhr?

The point is, that in team sports, one player cannot do it all, no matter how great. And in football, the ultimate team sport, one cannot win a championship without a solid running game and a good defense.

Dan Marino rarely had either. When he joined the league in 1983, the Dolphins had a solid rushing attack, gaining a respectable 2,150 yards on the ground (It was the only time in Marino's career the Dolphins rushed for 2,000 yards). Theirs was a running game by committee featuring little known players like Tony Nathan, Woody Bennett and Andra Franklin. The Dolphins also had the NFL's best scoring defense. Marino took over the starting job in week 6 of the season and posted the highest quarterback rating (96.0) ever by a rookie. The Dolphins went 12-4, losing to the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoffs.

In 1984, the Dolphins again produced a decent running game, and although the defense had slipped a little, they were still among the top scoring defenses in the league. With a year of experience under his belt, Marino responded with the best season ever by a quarterback, throwing for 5,048 yards and 48 touchdowns en route to a 14-2 record and Super Bowl bid. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, they had to face Joe Montana and a 49er team that is considered to be among the best of all time, and lost 38-16.

Following Marino's record-breaking season, the Dolphins began moving away from the running game, believing that championships would come by riding the golden right arm of Marino. In 17 seasons, Marino never had a franchise running back. Only once did he have a 1,000 yard rusher. Unlike, his contemporaries, Marino never had a Roger Craig, Emmit Smith, or Thurman Thomas.

The Dolphins quickly became a one-dimensional team, dependent on Marino to win. Opposing defenses knew this and focused all their efforts on stopping him. He still shredded them on a regular basis, leading the Dolphins to the playoffs in 8 of the next 15 seasons, including two AFC championship games. But it did stop him from ever reaching the Super Bowl again as he inevitably faced more balanced, complete teams.

This was especially true in 1990 (12-4) and 1992 (11-5) as the Dolphins put together solid teams with very good defenses only to face the Buffalo Bills who played in four straight Super Bowls. Led by Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, and the league's best running back, Thurman Thomas, the Bills outmatched the Dolphins, winning 44-24 and 29-10.

An aged Marino had one last chance in 1998 as the Dolphins fielded the league's top scoring defense. After beating the Bills in the AFC wildcard game, they had to face the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos led by John Elway.

Ironically, it is Elway who provides the best illustration of why Dan Marino never won the Super Bowl. Like Marino, Elway was a gifted passer known for his fourth quarter heroics, and like Marino, often carried his team, but was criticized for failing to win the Super Bowl in three tries ('87,'88,'90). Elway played on more talented teams than Marino's Dolphins, but never had a consistent run game, despite having several 1,000 backs. Every time Elway led his Broncos to the Super Bowl, they were faced with more balanced, complete teams that physically dominated them.

That all changed, however, with the arrival Mike Shanahan in 1995. Bringing with him a run-heavy version of the west-coast offense, the Broncos committed to the ground game behind a smaller, but more athletic offensive line. Also arriving in 1995, a sixth-round draft pick out of Georgia, was running back Terrell Davis. By 1997, combined with Elway and a solid defense, Davis led the Broncos to 2,378 team rushing yards on their way to the Super Bowl, where they defeated the heavily favored Green Bay Packers.

The following year, Terrell Davis became only the third player in history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. So when the Dolphins faced them in the AFC Divisional playoffs, the outcome was never in doubt. The Broncos crushed Miami 38-3 on the way to winning their second straight Super Bowl.

Before this, Elway's place in history was much like that of Dan Marino, (without the statistical dominance), a great player, but just didn't have what it took win the big game. He was certainly no Unitas, Staubach, or Montana. That's for sure.

Did a 37-year old Elway suddenly elevate his game to new level in 1997? Did he become better? No. He simply became more effective because the Broncos made a commitment to running the football. Opposing defenses had to worry about the run, which among other things, opened up the field for Elway.

It's the first truth of winning football. Running the ball...
-Wears down the defense
-Opens up the passing game
-Eats the clock, and in turn...
-Rests your defense

This formula works so well that it has enabled less than spectacular quarterbacks like Terry Bradshaw, Jim McMahon, Jeff Hostetler, and Trent Dilfer to win Super Bowls.

So what does all this mean? It means Dan Marino was good enough to win multiple Super Bowls, and his failure to do so is not a reflection on him, but instead demonstrates that winning a championship in football requires the ability to run the football and play good defense.

Dan Marino is one the greatest quarterbacks of all time, certainly the best who never won a championship. He did more with less than any other QB in history. He ought to be remembered that way.

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