Miami great answered questions about his health, ability in historic 1994 NFL opener against Patriots
Imagine being in the twilight of your prime and suffering a season-ending injury. Can you come back? You’re thinking, “Have they seen the last of me as an elite player?”
All these questions were asked by Miami Dolphins’ superstar quarterback Dan Marino after he tore his right Achilles tendon in a 1993 regular-season game at Cleveland.
Could Marino, who passed for 40,720 yards and 298 touchdowns, and who made 145 consecutive starts in his first 11 seasons, remain among the game’s elite? Marino and the Dolphins found out in the 1994 season opener as they hosted 1993’s No. 1 overall pick, quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and the New England Patriots at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. With marginal talent surrounding him, Bledsoe had thrown for 2,494 yards passing and 15 touchdowns in 1993, and showed glimpses of the premier talent about which scouts had once raved. Though the two teams were desperate to make amends for recent mediocrity, few could have predicted the epic duel in which the quarterbacks combined for 894 yards and 9 touchdowns through the air on September 4, 1994.
New England jumped to a 7-0 advantage when fullback Kevin Turner capped a 59-yard drive with a 1-yard run. In the second quarter, Pats linebacker Dwayne Sabb intercepted a Marino pass thwarting a Dolphin red-zone opportunity. With the Pats threatening to go up double-digits, Miami corner Troy Vincent picked off a Bledsoe throw in the end zone to keep the margin at 7.
The Dolphins finally got on the scoreboard when Marino found a streaking Mark Ingram for a 64-yard score to tie the game at 7. Bledsoe responded by using heralded tight end Ben Coates, connecting twice for 28 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown pass to regain the lead 14-7.
Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich’s 42-yard field goal made the score 14-10 Pats at halftime.
After a Dolphin punt to open the second half, Bledsoe found Coates up the seam for a 62-yard score, extending the Pats lead to 21-10. Trailing by 11 and needing a response, Marino found receiver Irving Fryar for a 40-yard gain, before connecting with tight end Keith Jackson on a 26-yard touchdown pass, the 300th of Marino’s career. Running back Terry Kirby converted the two-point try to make the score 21-18.
The Pats pounced on a Marino bobbled snap and Bledsoe found receiver Michael Timpson from 5 yards out to cap a 24-yard scoring drive, increasing the Patriot lead to 28-18.
A pass interference call on the Pats set Miami up near midfield, and Marino wasted little time with a 54-yard bomb to Fryar to cut the margin to 28-25.
After forcing a New England punt, the Dolphins ran a flea-flicker, and Marino found Fryar unaccompanied yet again on a 50-yard scoring toss to give Miami its first lead of the game, 32-28. With his fourth touchdown of the day, Marino passed Baltimore Colt legend Johnny Unitas for most four-touchdown games in NFL history with 18.
Not to be outdone, Bledsoe engineered a 67-yard drive culminating with a spectacular diving catch in the end zone by receiver Ray Crittenden to give New England a 35-32 advantage. Starting at its own 20-yard line, Miami looked to Marino for his customary late-game heroics. On third-and-12 from his 18, Marino avoided the rush and found Kirby for 21 yards. The Dolphins advanced to the Patriot 35 before stalling and facing a fourth-and-5. Not wanting to gift-wrap New England better field position with a possible miss by Stoyanovich, Dolphin head coach Don Shula entrusted Marino and the offense to convert. With single coverage on Fryar, Marino found the receiver in stride for a 35-yard score to put the Dolphins back in front.
Two New England drives fizzled out near midfield, and Marino had erased any doubt about his comeback from injury in a heart-stopping, 39-35 Dolphin victory.
Miami went on to win the AFC East with a 10-6 record behind Marino’s 4,453-yard, 30-touchdown campaign. After dispatching Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wildcard Round, a last-second field goal by Stoyanovich sailed wide right in a 22-21 loss to eventual AFC Champion San Diego in the Divisional Round.
Bledsoe, who led the league in completions, attempts and passing yards, guided the Pats to their first playoff berth since 1986. Unfortunately for New England, a Cleveland defense coached by Bill Belichick and Nick Saban suffocated Bledsoe and walked away with a 20-13 win in the Wildcard Round.
But on a glorious September afternoon, the two gunslingers gave NFL fans an all-time quarterback shootout to remember. That day, Marino threw for 473 yards and five touchdowns while Bledsoe passed for 421 yards and four touchdowns, marking just the fourth regular-season contest in league history where both quarterbacks passed for over 400 yards in the same game. H&A
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Cover photo: Irving Fryar | Courtesy of the Miami Dolphins