MIAMI (AP) — It was 1 p.m. on an October Sunday in 1983, and Miami Dolphins rookie Dan Marino was about to take the field for his first NFL start when veteran teammate Lyle Blackwood approached him on the sideline.
“I was always joking around too much,” Blackwood says in his Texas drawl. “Dan was as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs, and I said, ‘Dan, this whole season is riding on your shoulders.’”
That’s the case now with Tua Tagovailoa, even if his teammates are too tactful to tell him so. The Dolphins are again promoting a first-round draft pick at quarterback, and following a bye this week, Tagovailoa will replace Ryan Fitzpatrick and make his first start Nov. 1 against the Los Angeles Rams.
Tua has thrown only two NFL passes, but he’s the Dolphins’ most heavily hyped draft pick since Dan became the Man. Hopes are high the former Alabama star will be the best of the 22 quarterbacks to start for Miami since Marino retired following the 1999 season.
There are more differences than similarities regarding the situation, however, and not just because Tagovailoa is left-handed.
In 1983, Marino joined a team that had reached the Super Bowl the previous season. Tagovailoa is taking the reins with Miami in Year 2 of a rebuilding project under coach Brian Flores.
The Dolphins are 3-3, second in the AFC East and basking in consecutive wins over the 49ers and Jets by a combined score of 67-17. But they’ve used three rookie draft picks in the offensive line, which raises questions about how well they can protect Tagovailoa’s surgically repaired right hip as he returns from the injury that prematurely ended his college career nearly a year ago.
Marino worked behind a veteran line anchored by future Pro Football Hall of Famer Dwight Stephenson. Unlike Tagovailoa, Marino played in preseason games as a rookie, and threw three touchdown passes subbing for David Woodley in the regular season before coach Don Shula made him the No. 1 QB.
Even so, there were glitches in Marino’s first start. He threw for 322 yards and three scores, but the Dolphins lost in overtime to the Buffalo Bills, and play calling was sometimes a problem.
“Shula forgot he had Dan on the field at one point,” says Nat Moore, a receiver on the 1983 team. “Shula was going after an official about a bad call and failed to send in the play. It was third-and-13, and he realized the play clock was running out, so he started waving at Dan, and Dan said, ‘What is that?’
“I said, ‘That means call your own play.’”
“Dan called a play-action pass, but the bad part was we didn’t have a running back in the game. We didn’t want to waste a timeout, so I lined up at running back. Dan also called a left formation, and we never ran that play from a left formation. But he throws a quick slant to Mark Duper for a first down anyway.
“Shula goes, ‘What the hell was that? We don’t have that play.’
“I said, ‘We do now.’”
These days Marino is a Dolphins special adviser who prefers to stay in the background. An interview request was submitted to him this week, and — wait for it — he passed.
Joe Rose, who caught the first of Marino’s 420 touchdown passes, remembers the improvised completion to Duper and other frantic ad-libs in 1983. Simply calling the play is a big challenge for any rookie quarterback, Rose says.
“You might say the color wrong, or the number,” he says. “You say it wrong, and everybody in the huddle is going, ‘This ought to be interesting.’ Because you’ve only got a few seconds to call the play, and you’ve Aaron Donald on the other side.”
Next week Tagovailoa will get to meet Donald, the Rams’ two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Later come matchups against the other first-round picks starting at quarterback this year, Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers (Nov. 15 ) and Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals (Dec. 6).
Thanks to Tagovailoa, the Dolphins will go into those games with star power they’ve lacked for most of the past two decades.
“My goals are to do whatever I can do to help this team become successful,” Tagovailoa says.
That’s another way of saying the whole season is riding on his shoulders.
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