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The Pro Game

Ascending Mt. Marino: Brees within striking distance

About the Author

Tom Danyluk
Contributing writer

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Posted Dec. 22, 2011 @ 1:16 p.m. ET
By Tom Danyluk

On Monday night the Saints will tighten their laces for the Atlanta Falcons. Another spiffy dome affair, which means those New Orleans pass catchers will have no problem stretching their legs and running their breezy little wind sprints, and somewhere in the fourth quarter of that thing we should witness a great burst of history ... Drew Brees planting a banner in untouched, virgin ground. The record for total passing yards in an NFL season. Oh boy, for sure, one of the biggies.

Currently its name is Mt. Marino - 5, 084 yards of elevation, the highest peak ever scaled in pro football. It was reached 27 years ago, during Dan's second season with the Miami Dolphins, and the yardage mark has been barely breathed upon ever since.

Brees himself came close three seasons ago ... clutching, gasping, reaching, but coming up 15 yards short. Kurt Warner, with 4,830 yards in '01, made an admirable push. But the rest who've tried ... not so close.

Warner and Brees both have been indoor operators. So, to me, the most impressive liner note on Marino's 1984 masterpiece was the number of dome games he played that season - only one. Brees, once his totals clear final audit, will have played in 11 this year. The domification of football ... those climate-controlled corner routes, a sincere gripe for the purists. Like a passage from Henry Miller's "The Air-Conditioned Nightmare."

The most air any Don Shula QB had ever accumulated prior to Marino was 3,481 yards - those were John Unitas yards, back in 1963, Shula's first year as a head coach. "I would lean toward a balanced attack," he was quoted as the season kicked off. "I plan on having a diversified offense." That was a sensible plan. Except the Colts were terribly thinned-out at running back, so it became a season of Unitas going out and cranking it up and leading the world in pass yardage and completions.
Now here was Shula's new wonderboy, Marino, gunning it 35 ... 39 ... 42 times a game, and I remember his bitter tone after Miami had lost big to San Francisco for the title, when a writer asked him if he felt uncomfortable with his all-pass, no-run attack. The writer said Shula looked like a frantic coachman trying to hang on to a team of wild horses.

"We reached the Super Bowl with this kind of team!" Shula fired back. "What do you want us to do, throw 15 passes a game?"

Remind Shula of that story today and he gives it a laugh.

"Hey, if we would have had Marino do what Griese did, I would've had every defensive coordinator in the league calling me and congratulating me on my gameplan!"

And now he reminds you that his top coaching vow was to embrace flexibility, to mold his offensive style around the goods on-hand, not jamming the wrong bodies into some stubborn, rigid system.

"If you look at my career, I always tried to adjust my style to the people I had to work with," Shula says. "That was my style. I didn't ask Griese to do Marino things, and I didn't ask Marino to hand the ball off. Same thing with Unitas. They all had their special qualities, and it was my job as a coach to determine what these qualities were and then give them the tools and opportunity to utilize them.

"And when you've got a Csonka in your backfield, you'd be an idiot not to give him the ball as many times as you could. With Csonka, I never worried about getting the first down on the field, and I didn't have to kick field goals down near the goal line because we got the touchdown.

"With Marino it was all about the deep balls. He just had that great knack, that sense of timing and accuracy for throwing it deep, putting it up there high and outside where the receiver had a great chance of beating the defensive back and getting the ball. A guy who had an unbelievable confidence in his ability to throw the football.

"We never felt we were out of a game with Dan, that we could always come back."

Marino's aces back through the 1980s were the Marks Brothers -Duper and Clayton, a pair of 5-foot-9 jumping beans who grabbed over 1,300 yards apiece in '84 and added to the Christmas-morning grin that was already smeared across Shula's face.

"Back then everybody was looking for the tall receiver that could get back into the secondary and out-jump you for the ball," Shula says. "Well, Clayton and Duper were short guys, but they had the knack of getting open. When they got to the ball they had great vertical leaps and could go up and get it. And with Marino, no matter what the coverage was, he thought he could fit it in there and make the completion. That made our passing attack pretty exciting to see."

Lord, was it ever. Five thousand eighty four — a journey that's held up for 27 years, when mileage didn't come as cheaply as today. I'll get a little nostalgic over this one. I'll be sad to see it go.


Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at You can contact Tom at


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