The best QB of all-time debate is as flammable, spirited and open to interpretation as any sports discussion. One thing is certain. QB passing numbers sure don’t mean what they used too.
As the beneficiaries of spread philosophies and rules changes that have created a video game like atmosphere for NFL offenses, the proliferation of subpar QBs who can throw for 4,000 yards have minimized the heroics of past ballers like Dan Marino, who were pioneers of this aerial style and played in a more challenging, perilous and QB-unfriendly league.
Marino was blowing charts statistically when QB’s were still hunted like a human lost in a lion-infested jungle leaking blood from an 8-inch flesh wound.
Save for a few touchdowns here and a couple of yards there, no QB has statistically dominated his era and contributed to advancing the position more than Marino. His peak seasons rank with anyone in history. When you watched Marino, you never insulted his ability or impact on the game by saying he reminded you of a past QB. He was a rare diamond. He was Tupac, but his career wasn't cut short by injury or death. His legacy is cheapened by his failure to attain a c'hip.
Marino retired at 38, with no PED’s to aid healing or quicker recovery and minimal help from a slew of running backs who were no better than good and just bad enough to keep him burdened with carrying an offense on his golden wing. If he could have had just one Terrell Davis or Roger Craig or Marshall Faulk, things could have been different. On defense, just one Reggie White, Derrick Thomas, Lawrence Taylor or Bruce Smith could have alleviated the pressure. Even a Corey Dillon or Ray Rice would have been better than the parade of stiffs that toted the rock for Marino. Championship-wise it would have been much different, but that’s an organization and personnel problem. Marino won the Dolphins enough games by himself for me to never question his championship pedigree.
He was football’s Ernie Banks in a way. Banks played for the Cubs his entire career, many at shortstop and then later outfield and first base. He was the shining spot on a perennially-losing franchise, but still mustered 512 career home runs over a 19-year career and made the Hall of Fame. His status among the game’s greatest players is a bit undervalued because he never got to play on that grand postseason stage. Back when Banks played in the 50s, 60s and 70s, there was no ESPN or national coverage for players. Most fans knew the top dawgs by the back of a baseball card and the local papers. Banks was undeniably one of the best and maybe the best (clean) power-hitting shortstop of all time.
Marino probably has the edge as far as all-time ranking for his respective sport is concerned, but both men shared a common theme of having a poor supporting cast and bad historical timing.
At the time of his retirement after the ‘99 season, Marino owned 19 NFL records outright and shared five others. Among his marks: Leading the league in completions six times, throwing for at least 20 touchdown passes 13 times, throwing at least four touchdown passes in a game 21 times (six in 1984), having 13 400-yard passing games (peaking at 521) and having 13 3,000-yard passing seasons.
"There were times on the field when I felt like I couldn't miss," said Marino, whose record as a starter was 147-93.
His durability is mythical. He started 145 consecutive non-strike games before a torn Achilles' tendon in his right leg in 1993 ended the longest consecutive-game starting streak by a quarterback since the 1970 merger. In his last few seasons, Marino performed on bum knees, a badly atrophied ankle and wicked nerve root irritation in his neck that weakened his arms and legs.
The more passing records that are smashed as the NFL dulls down defense in the name of safety—and toughness evaporates like a pile of coke on Scarface’s table—the more Dan Marino’s records get pushed further down on the all-time lists and the more the names Tom Brady and Peyton Manning begin to surpass the true king.
At least NFL.com’s Greatest Quarterback of All Time bracket had Marino ranked 5th overall in 2014. He finished behind the man who won NFL’s Bracketology in Johnny Unitas (third), two of the game’s greatest currently playing in Manning (fourth) and Brady (second) and Joe Montana (first).
Not shabby at all. With the exception of O.G. Unitas and Montana who was his contemporary, Marino is the other QBs' daddy. He was the barometer when these guys were coming up and his exploits on the football field revolutionized the position. If you wanted to put up 5,000-yard passing seasons and 40-plus TD seasons, Marino was the blueprint. These more modern cats have built upon his legacy, played on much better squads in a defensively castrated era and won championships. But none of them has surpassed Marino as far as his impact on the QB position and how QB’s are game-planned.
A similar comparison would be KRS-1 and NAS in hip-hop. While there have been rappers who surpassed these guys in accolades, record sales and paper, there’s no doubt that they are the Godfathers of most of these rappers' styles no matter what part of the country they are from.
Dudes like KRS and NAS spit it like no other and had the “it” factor. They didn’t need to copy anybody’s style. They didn’t need great producers, ghost writers, top flight management and a go-hard marketing team to convince the world that they were experts and innovators of their craft. Neither did “Dan The Man.”
With the Miami Dolphins picking late in the first round, they didn't even work out Marino, part of the Quarterback Class of '83 that is recognized as the finest in history. Coach Don Shula didn't give the University of Pittsburgh quarterback much thought because Marino had the confidence and the rocket arm plus the 6-foot-4 size that NFL execs dreamed of. He was a pocket-passing python with a nasty grip on the game. "I never dreamed we'd get a shot at him (at No.27)," Shula said.
A poor senior season and some unsubstantiated drug rumors led to John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien all being picked before Marino, who became Miami’s starter in the sixth game. The Pennsylvania native threw 20 touchdown passes and became the first rookie since the merger in 1970 to lead a conference in passing. He also took the Dolphins to the AFC East title and was voted the Rookie of the Year and the first one to start at QB in the Pro Bowl.
The next two seasons after Marino went for 5,084 yards passing and 48 TDs (1985), he threw for almost 9,000 yards and 74 TD’s. It wasn't until 1999 that another quarterback even reached 40 (Kurt Warner with 41). Four QBs (Manning, Brady, Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees) have since thrown for 5,000 yards, but it just doesn’t mean as much as when Marino did it.
Time goes on and people forget. Generations claim greatness and history survives to the extent that present minds allow it too. The QBs of today may be on par with Marino as far as taking his jewels and applying it to their skill sets and even mastering or surpassing certain aspects. But if you never saw Marino air it out to the Marks Brothers back in the 80s and 90s then you're lacking a key ingredient in deciding who the best QB to ever do it is. You always have to start with the originator and work your way down.