Dan Marino was not the only one surprised Monday to find his name on a list of 15 former NFL players suing the league over concussions. Marino was known for many things over the course of his career—a cannon of an arm, a lightning quick release, taking defenses apart—but taking big hits was not one of them.
Marino withdrew from the case Tuesday saying he had not intended to sue, only to preserve his right to file a claim if he someday suffered the effects of on-the-field concussions. Anyone who has ever played organized football is at some risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that can lead to impaired judgment, violent outbursts and dementia. But Marino is at considerably less risk than many.
Marino played from 1983 to 1999, an era when quarterbacks stood in the pocket and were not supposed to get hit. And he was better than most at not getting hit. In his 17-year career, he was sacked a total of 270 times. By comparison, contemporary Jim Kelly was sacked 323 times in six fewer seasons.
There were lots of reasons Marino seldom went down, starting with the Dolphins’ game plan. He could throw the ball forever, but that was not how Miami played football. They played a controlled passing game, nickel and diming defensive backfields to distraction. Marino completed 59.4 percent of his passes for an average gain of 7.3 yards a catch.
Marino was the franchise player and the franchise took care of him, surrounding him the best offensive linemen in the league. Center-tackle Dwight Stephenson went to the Pro Bowl five times from 1983 to 1987, guard Ed Newman in 1983 and 1984, and guard-tackle Roy Foster in 1985 and 1986. Guard Keith Sims was named to the Pro Bowl squad three times in the 1990s. For Miami to win, they knew that Marino could not take hits.
Except for the occasional quarterback sneak near the goal line, Marino did not run unless he had to. He was credited with 301 carries over his career for a grand total of 87 yards, less than Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson typically run in a single game.
Ironically, the seldom-hit Marino was considered an icon of durability. He started 145 consecutive games (not counting scab games during the 1987 players strike), the longest streak since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970. The streak ended in Cleveland in 1993 when Marino crumpled to the ground untouched. He had somehow torn his Achilles tendon and was lost for the final 11 games of the season.
Marino did not escape his career unscathed. One of the few teams that managed to get to him was the San Francisco 49ers who sacked him four times in the 1985 Super Bowl. San Francisco won 38-16.
Marino took what was arguably the hardest hit of his career in a 23-10 home victory against the Steelers in 1995. Making good on a pre-game promise to knock Marino “into next week,” Pittsburgh linebacker Greg Lloyd tackled him from behind and drove him hard into the ground. Marino laid on the field for several minutes after taking the hit, reaching up and grapping Lloyd to let him know he was not that badly hurt. Finally, he made his way to his feet and walked off the field. Although he sat out the rest of the game, he was—after a bye week—able to start the next one.
By J.W. Huttig