Sunday, August 7, 2005 Updated: August 8, 11:59 AM ET
Young, Marino and their legacies
By Skip Bayless Page 2
Watching their stirring Hall of Fame speeches Sunday, with their Hall of Fame coaches looking on, inspired many how-do-they-rank debates about Dan Marino and Steve Young.
If, say, Marino had played his first seven seasons for Young's first San Francisco coach, Bill Walsh, how many Super Bowls would Marino have won? In Miami, of course, Marino didn't win a single championship -- under Don Shula or Jimmy Johnson.
And was Young ultimately better than Joe Montana? The stats would say yes; the Super Bowls no. Montana won four, Young one.
Yes, Sunday's two first-ballot Hall of Famers won one Super Bowl between them. So exactly how great were these immortals?
Up against the union, Bud can only shrug.
Daniel Constantine Marino Jr. simply threw the football the best, ever. His lightning body-whip release even eclipsed Joe Namath's. At 6-foot-4, he couldn't run for down-field yardage, but his Fred Astaire footwork often bought him the extra second he needed in and around the pocket. And his velocity was underrated because he could throw with such catchable force on one play, such stunning touch on the next.
In 1994, I once mentioned to Troy Aikman, in a casual conversation about which NFL quarterback could throw the hardest, that I figured it was John Elway.
He surprised me by saying, with conviction, "No. Marino."
Elway's heater always generated more hype. Elway appeared to throw a harder ball to catch -- a real finger-breaker. Marino, perhaps registering even higher on the radar gun, threw sticky bullets.
An absurd 51 different receivers caught touchdown passes from Marino. If he threw it, you just knew you were supposed to catch it.
There has never been a more arrogant, fearless and confident passer. Marino was the Michael Jordan of passers. He knew there was no needle he couldn't thread and no chimney he couldn't sweep for a touchdown.
That was his greatness.
And his weakness.
In 1983, Marino hit Miami coach Shula with a hurricane-like force. By then, Shula had coached in five Super Bowls, and won two. But one first-hand look at Marino in mini-camp, and Shula was like a granddad smitten with his first grandson.
No way could Shula have truly appreciated what had fallen into his lap on draft day. Twenty-six teams passed on Marino after the bottom had fallen out of his senior season at Pitt -- the Panthers finished 8-4 -- resulting in runaway rumors about Marino's character. Those rumors proved to be untrue.
Shula was so amazed by the force of nature that was Marino's arm that, at age 53, Shula scrapped the bedrock philosophy upon which he had built his legend.
He basically neglected his running game and defense in favor of the forward pass.
Marino, with a record 48 TD passes, threw Shula all the way to a Super Bowl in the kid's second season. In the AFC title game, Marino threw for 421 yards and four TDs as Miami wiped out Marino's hometown Steelers 45-28.
But Montana and Walsh were waiting for them. In a Super Bowl played near the 49ers' Bay Area headquarters, at Stanford Stadium, Montana won the game's MVP after throwing for a then-record 331 yards. But he didn't outgun Marino by himself. Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig combined to rush for 123 yards as Walsh toyed with a Miami defense that didn't belong in a Super Bowl.
Neither did the Dolphins' running game, which managed 25 yards. Marino set Super Bowl records for attempts (50) and completions (29), for 318 yards, but the 49ers won 38-16.
Marino's lone appearance in a Super Bowl pretty much time-capsuled his career. He was so damn good, so headstrong, so stubborn, so intimidating that he overwhelmed even Don Shula's better judgment.
Shula loved this kid so much he couldn't bring himself to give Marino any tough love. Any "I'm going to get us a good back and let him share the load" love.
Marino's offense sometimes scored too fast. Miami's defense sometimes spent far too much time on the field, especially in playoff games.
It took Michael Jordan seven years of postseason frustration to give in to something Marino never quite did. By 1991, coach Phil Jackson finally convinced Jordan that he needed to commit to getting his teammates involved early in every game. Jordan, of course, proceeded to win six NBA titles.
Elway didn't win his two Super Bowls until Mike Shanahan found a running back named Terrell Davis in the sixth round and convinced an aging Elway to let the kid share the load.
Marino's greatest victory came in a regular-season game. The 1985 Bears had the most overpowering defense ever. They rolled into the Orange Bowl 12-0 to face the 8-4 Dolphins. Two weeks earlier at Texas Stadium, the Bears had beaten a Cowboys team that would win the NFC East, 44-0.
But in the first half that night in Miami, rolling out more than he ever had, Marino converted on third-and-18, third-and-19, third-and-13 and third-and-7. Miami scored on its first five possessions to take a 31-10 halftime lead. Miami won 38-24.
Marino's greatness that night was more quality than quantity. He completed only 14 of 27, but for 270 yards and three TDs.
Yet after that night alone, Marino would have had my first-ballot Hall of Fame vote. There has never been anything quite like him, ring or no ring.
But could Walsh have harnessed Marino? I'll say they could have won one Super Bowl together, no more -- and that's only because I consider Walsh the greatest coach ever.
But Marino would have bucked Walsh's system, too. Like Shula, Walsh probably would have tried, often unsuccessfully, to reconfigure his attack around Marino's gunslinging strengths. Maybe in 1988, Walsh could have persuaded Marino to utilize Roger Craig at his 1,502-yard rushing peak. Maybe Craig could have run for 1,200 and still caught the 76 passes (for 535 yards) he did catch. Maybe Marino could have shaved the 4,434 yards he threw for that season in Miami down to Montana's 2,981 in '88.
Maybe, just once, Walsh could have pulled off that balancing act with Marino and they could have won it all together.
Remember, even as dominant a personality as Jimmy Johnson couldn't overpower Marino's temperament. After winning a national championship at the University of Miami and two Super Bowls in Dallas, Johnson took over the Dolphins in 1997. His biggest shock was that there was a man in South Florida much more powerful than him.
Even Jimmy, who built his championships on run-it-and-play-defense, couldn't charm or browbeat Marino into committing to a balanced attack. In four seasons together, they were 2-3 in the playoffs. Their ill-fated partnership -- with Marino as the de facto managing general partner -- ended with a 62-7 playoff loss in Jacksonville.
Not surprisingly, Marino set career records for attempts, completions, passing yards and TD passes without winning a Super Bowl.
Remember, too, that Montana was as coachable and selfless a superstar as we've ever seen. It was as if Walsh was able to install his incomparable football intellect in Montana's mind, which controlled a sensationally underrated athlete.
In 2002, after I'd watched Jeff Garcia bolt from the pocket again and again and outrun defensive backs for first downs, I made the mistake of asking Walsh if Garcia was faster than Montana. Not even close, Walsh said.
"In his first few years, Joe could run 4.4," Walsh said. "Maybe 4.5 with a football under his arm. But he never looked like he was moving that fast."
Don Fehr's unwillingness to let the union agree to drug testing thwarted Selig for years.
The Cowboys used to say that Montana and his passes moved much faster than you thought they did.
And Montana threw the most catchable ball ever. The bigger the game, the more flawless Montana's decision-making, and the more on-target his passes were. Here was understated brilliance.
Marino and Young were always so much more noticeably spectacular.
Montana was the greatest quarterback ever. No quarterback has ever had a better understanding of how to win while being able to execute under the greatest pressure.
Forgive me, but Steve Young wasn't in Montana's league. Young isn't quite worthy of his first-ballot enshrinement.
Yes, until Michael Vick arrived, Young was the greatest running quarterback ever. The Cowboys teams I covered in the early '90s always considered Young and the 49ers the most dangerous running threat.
Yet they also considered him something of a skittish mistake-maker in crucial moments of season-deciding games. Objective 49ers fans won't forget that the Cowboys beat Young's 49ers in NFC Championship Games in '92 and '93. He did not look like a first-ballot immortal in either of those games.
But in '94, Deion Sanders, the greatest cover corner ever, gave the 49ers' defense a new strut. And in that season's NFC title game, at Candlestick Park, the Cowboys self-destructed. Young's team leaped to a 21-0 first-quarter lead -- all three TDs the result of Cowboy blunders.
A poised and accurate Young played beautifully -- but he was able to play loose and cool from the moment Aikman's early interception was returned for a TD. No "Montana magic" was necessary that day, as the 49ers cruised 38-28.
And the 49ers faced yet another AFC team that didn't belong on the same Super Bowl field with them -- San Diego. Young again was masterful, throwing a Super Bowl record six TD passes in a 49-26 blowout. But that performance against a lousy team elevated him onto the same Hall podium with Marino?
When Deion jumped the following season to the Cowboys, they won the Super Bowl.
Yes, Young holds the highest-ever career passer rating. And yes, he won two MVPs. On stats alone, several ESPN commentators argued last week they would have taken Young over Montana.
Over the state of Montana, yes.
But over Joe? Heavens, no.
Give me Montana over Marino, Elway and certainly Young.
Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice weekly on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.