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Marino faces third and long

If fate liked happy endings as much as the rest of us, we know how the career of Dan Marino would end.

It would be in the Super Bowl, of course. He would be leading his Dolphins from behind, the way he seems to every other week. He would scream at an offensive lineman because he is the best competitor there ever was. He would slap a wide receiver on the back of the helmet, the way he used to with Mark Clayton, just to adjust the receiver's focus. He would line up in the shotgun, and he would lick the fingers of his passing hand, and he would pump his leg to start the play.

The other team _ the 49ers, maybe _ would blitz him. It would be a mistake because Marino has spent every play of his career hoping the other team blitzes. Marino would step to the right to avoid the first rusher. Before the second one got to him, he would throw deep and hard, and the ball would nestle into O.J. McDuffie's hands as he crossed the goal line with the winning touchdown.

If fate liked happy endings as much as the rest of us, all of this would happen in, say, 20 or 25 years.

But it isn't likely to happen that way, is it? You have to look only as far as Marino's former coach Don Shula to realize things usually don't end the way we would have them. Marino's career, as magnificent as it has been, isn't likely to, either.

We got another glimpse of that Sunday. Another reminder Marino's remaining games are not going to be as many, or as fruitful, as we would like them to be.

He was on the sideline when the game against the Bills was at its most crucial stage. Oh, he had a twisted ankle, but after the game that ankle was neither iced nor swollen. Marino admitted he could have been in the game if called upon. No matter. Jimmy Johnson, a man dearly in love with winning, thought his best chance at it was with Marino watching.

Who would have suggested it was that time already? For most of Marino's career, the Dolphins' best chance _ their only chance _ of winning has been with Marino on the field, and it hardly mattered if he had undergone surgery that morning. What would you rather have? One healthy ankle and Marino's arm, or two healthy ankles and Craig Erickson's?

Better question: What would Johnson rather have?

The season was all of one week old, remember, when Johnson floated the idea of benching Marino. To a lot of people that read like blasphemy. To those who know Johnson speaks fluent ulterior motive, it sounded a lot like coming attractions. He was telling South Florida to brace itself for the day Danny Boy no longer was the quarterback.

Here is the problem: The time lines don't match. Put bluntly, the Dolphins are going to take more time to be built than Marino has left. Do you see Miami winning it all this season? Next season? Do you see Marino playing longer than that?

Who knows how much that had to do with Marino's presence on the sideline. Oh, no one doubts he was hurt. Marino removed himself from the game on third and goal after having his left ankle rolled when sacked by Bruce Smith.

If Johnson wanted to take Marino out on third and goal, he'd have to do it by physically walking onto the field, lifting Marino up and carrying him off the field. But after Marino came back in the third quarter, it was Johnson's decision to make the change. According to the Miami Herald, an assistant coach said Johnson would have pulled Marino even if he hadn't been hurt. The ankle was just a nice excuse.

Short-term, it didn't work. No one in Miami is going to call Erickson the air apparent this week. But who knows what Johnson is thinking long range? If he believes he can win it all next season, then there is no better option than Marino. But what if he thinks it will be 1999 before the Dolphins are ripe? Does he do the unimaginable and make a move this off-season?

Marino deserves better, of course. He deserves an offensive line that will keep his body in one piece. He deserves wide receivers who can separate from cornerbacks. He deserves a coach who realizes he is the one part of the offense that makes defensive coordinators sweat.

He deserves a happy ending. And not to be standing on the sideline when it happens.

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