Miami Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino lost more than the Super Bowl last winter. During most of the season he had ranked as a leading candidate for best passer of all time--and he also lost that distinction, at least for the time being.
Thus in the American Conference, the season starting Sunday resolves to three questions about Marino:
--Can he regain the passing touch that made him seem almost indefensible for more than three months last fall as a 23-year-old, second-year pro quarterback?
--If Marino comes back to his 1984 form, can any opponent take the 1985 AFC title away from Miami?
--If not, can Marino beat Joe Montana this time?
The answers are yes, no and maybe, in the opinion of those who believe in him, including Miami Coach Don Shula.
They still think Marino is the most gifted passer ever.
They attribute his off day in the Super Bowl last January to the unique tensions of a unique event.
They say a long-throwing, pocket passer like Marino--whose work requires great precision--is more likely to be affected by these tensions than a scrambling, short passer like Montana.
And this is particularly so, they say, if the long passer is playing in his first Super Bowl against a short passer who has been there before.
The challenge facing every 1985 opponent of the Dolphins is that no team successfully defensed Marino in 19 games last season, when Miami’s regular-season record of 14-2 was second only to San Francisco’s 15-1.
The 1984 Raiders and Chargers beat him, but they didn’t stop him. The scores were 45-34 and 34-28. And in the Super Bowl, Marino had beaten himself before the 49ers bothered him seriously or even sacked him.
Although San Francisco’s 1985 schedule is softer than Miami’s, the Dolphins also play in a weak division. Both teams will make the playoffs, and by then, after his long holdout this summer, Marino will be ready--according to Shula’s game plan.
The winner of two Super Bowls, Shula lost game XIX to Bill Walsh and wants to get even in No. XX next Jan. 26 at New Orleans.
Two other aspects of the new AFC race:
--Any of the five teams in the NFL’s strongest division, the AFC West, could reach the conference title round against Miami. The Raiders will be there if quarterback Jim Plunkett plays all 16 games. But Seattle is favored because of the return of halfback Curt Warner complementing quarterback Dave Krieg and the Seahawks’ strong defense.
--In the AFC Central, one of the NFL’s worst divisions as of late, things are looking up. There is enough firepower in Cincinnati (with rookie receiver Eddie Brown) and Pittsburgh (with a maturing offense) to make it a two-team race. At Cleveland, the quarterback with the NFL’s biggest new name, Bernie Kosar, is at least a year away.
The 14 American Conference teams in the order of their predicted finish in each division:
(Won 51, Lost 29 in 1984)
1--Raiders (11-5 last year). Coach: Tom Flores (66-33), seventh year.
Twelve months ago, when the word dynasty was mentioned around the NFL, the Raiders, not the 49ers, came to mind. After all, the Raiders had won their second Super Bowl in four years with a basically young team. The dynasty never materialized, for these reasons: Like most defending champions, the Raiders played listless football in 1984; they underrated Seattle and Denver, and they lost their quarterbacks to injury. This year their opponents can’t count on any of that.
2. Seattle Seahawks (12-4). Coach: Chuck Knox (24-13 at Seattle, 114-71-1 in the NFL), third year.
The consensus choice to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this winter, the Seahawks have the resources to get there. Reasonably enough, the assumption is that if they could finish 12-4 without injured Curt Warner--the AFC’s 1983 rushing champion as a rookie--they’ll do even more with a healthy Warner. Knox has never had a great quarterback--unless it’s Dave Krieg.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8). Coach: John Mackovic (14-18), third year.
A passing expert, Mackovic coaches the NFL’s most underrated quarterback, Bill Kenney, who is backed up by another good one, Todd Blackledge. The offense will be formidable if rookie Ethan Horton is an NFL runner, for at his position rookies can make it big in football. The defense, even with Art Still, Mike Bell and Bill Maas, ranks a shade behind the others in the division, but it’s improving.
4. Denver Broncos (13-3). Coach: Dan Reeves (34-25), fifth year.
It’s unlikely that teams like Denver and Seattle will enjoy the enormous edge they had in 1984 turnovers. There’s more luck in fumble recoveries than they think. But under Joe Collier, the Broncos will continue to play sound defense. And John Elway will continue to improve. Though runner Sammy Winder is out for a while after an appendectomy, Denver can make it four Western noses on the wire.
5. San Diego Chargers (7-9). Coach: Don Coryell (63-45 at San Diego, 105-74-1 in the NFL), eighth year.
Someone has to be fifth in this division. If Dan Fouts plays 16 games, though, it won’t be the Chargers. Injuries to him and Kellen Winslow, among others, killed the Chargers last year, and Winslow isn’t back yet. There’s a blue-chip defensive coach in San Diego, Tom Bass, and a lot of young talent, including Trumaine Johnson, who by the 1990s may be replacing Charlie Joiner.
(Won 25, Lost 39 in 1984)
1. Cincinnati Bengals (8-8). Coach: Sam Wyche (8-8), second year.
The Wyche start last year (1-6) was like Joe Gibbs’ at Washington in 1981, when the Redskins also lost 6 of their first 7. But since then, Gibbs has been the NFL’s biggest winner. And last year, Wyche’s 7-2 finish and 8-8 record matched Gibbs’ 7-2 and 8-8 in ’81. Wyche may be a comer. There are three good passers at Cincy, starting with Ken Anderson, and a big, active offensive line.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7). Coach: Chuck Noll (157-95-1), 17th year.
The Steelers also finished fast a year ago except for inexplicable defeats at New Orleans and Houston. Because of their 1984 upsets over the Raiders and otherwise unbeaten San Francisco, the Steelers are favored to repeat in an improving division. They won with 13 rookies last season when their defense and their quarterback, Mark Malone, improved steadily.
3. Cleveland Browns (5-11). Coach: Marty Schottenheimer (4-4), second year.
Twelve months ago, when Schottenheimer was the Browns’ defensive coordinator, linebackers Chip Banks, Clay Matthews and Tom Cousineau made him look good. It will be awhile, however, before a new quarterback, Bernie Kosar, makes Schottenheimer’s offense look good. The starter is ex-Lion Gary Danielson.
4. Houston Oilers (3-13). Coach: Hugh Campbell (3-13), second year.
The jury is still out on Campbell, a former L.A. Express coach, and his quarterback, Warren Moon, whose new thumb injury will bother him for a while. A former Canadian winner, Moon has the look of an NFL quarterback, except on long passes. The Oilers have stockpiled some of the game’s finest young blockers plus a Heisman Trophy runner, Mike Rozier, who played for two seasons in the USFL.
(Won 36, Lost 44 in 1984)
1. Miami Dolphins (14-2). Coach: Don Shula (169-65-2 at Miami, 242-94-6 in the NFL, including playoff games), 15th year at Miami.
This isn’t a well-balanced team, lacking offensive backs and defense. The defense was 19th in the AFC last season. But some of the Dolphins’ 1984 statistics are misleading. They gave up the AFC’s most yards rushing because their opponents kept running the ball in an effort to keep Dan Marino off the field. Numerous injuries and holdouts may slow Miami at the start.
2. New England Patriots (9-7). Coach: Raymond Berry (4-4), second year.
The Patriots, like the St. Louis Cardinals in the NFC, are heavy with talent, including the NFL’s third-ranked quarterback, Tony Eason. They draft well every year. But the owners have yet to demonstrate that they know how to pick winning coaches. Their last seven were Clive Rush, John Mazur, Phil Bengtson, Chuck Fairbanks, Ron Erhardt and Ron Meyer, who will never make the Hall of Fame, and Berry, who only made it as a player.
3. New York Jets (7-9). Coach: Joe Walton, 14-18, third year.
Coaching has also hurt the Jets over the years--though Walton’s problem isn’t inconsistency. He has finished 7-9 in each of his two seasons. The new quarterback, Ken O’Brien, is probably a good one who will probably be blamed in New York if things go wrong. As a pro, halfback Freeman McNeil has been injury prone. The best Jet is defensive end Mark Gastineau, who is probably the best defensive player in the AFC.
4. Buffalo Bills (2-14). Coach: Kay Stephenson (10-22), third year.
The Bills can run the ball with Greg Bell and pass it with Vince Ferragamo. A 1,100-yard man last year, Bell gained 206 one afternoon against the Dallas defense. The Bills also led the NFL in the draft with defensive end Bruce Smith, cornerback Derrick Burroughs, center Mark Traynowicz and receiver Chris Burkett. This isn’t a happy organization, however--in the same sense that Ed DeBartolo and Al Davis keep the 49ers and Raiders content in California.
5. Indianapolis Colts (4-12). Coach: Rod Dowhower, first year.
Dowhower, like Stephenson at Buffalo, is a quarterback expert. Eventually in the 1980s, if their owners don’t panic, the Bills and Colts should rise above the Patriots and Jets to threaten Miami. At St. Louis, Dowhower developed quarterback Neil Lomax and may do the same for Art Schlichter. The Colts also field the East’s most talented backfield, Randy McMillan and Curtis Dickey.