Marino's future hangs in the balance after he opts out at Miami

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 February, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 February, 2000, 12:00am

On a day when Dan Marino opted out of the final two years of his contract, the Buffalo Bills broke their last ties with their AFC championship teams of the 1990s.

The Bills cut defensive end Bruce Smith, running back Thurman Thomas and wide receiver Andre Reed, all Pro Bowl players.

Buffalo felt pressured by the salary cap, needing to trim more than US$10 million.

The three players hoped to finish their careers with Buffalo, but all said they planned to continue playing.

With Marino, the NFL's leading career passer, the situation was not as clear. Dave Wannstedt, the new Dolphins head coach, has said privately that it would be best if the 17-year veteran retires since the team is putting in a new offence, but nobody has put pressure on Marino to end his career.

'I'm not going to speculate about what Dan is going to do,' the Dolphins' president Eddie Jones said. 'He's a great athlete, and he's done everything possible he can do in football.

'I'm sure he's going through the thought process of, 'Do I still want to do this?' He had the injury last year, and his knees are not getting any better. I'm sure that's what he's thinking about.' Marino's agent Marvin Demoff was seen at last week's Pro Bowl talking with Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy. There has been speculation that the Bucs would like Marino to join a quarterback corps that includes Shaun King, who was a rookie last season.

Since then, Tampa Bay have issued a statement saying they have not talked with Marino. Of course, it would be illegal if they had, until today. Now 38, Marino threw 12 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions last season, missing five games and part of a sixth because of a neck injury.

Wannstedt has said privately that he likes the third-stringer Jim Druckenmiller as Marino's ultimate successor, although Damon Huard, 4-1 last season when he started, might get the initial nod.

Marino's teammates seem to favour him returning to Miami. 'I just hope and pray he doesn't leave us,' cornerback Sam Madison said.

'I could see him retiring or going somewhere else. If he went somewhere else, it would hurt my heart because he's done so much for this organisation.' Offensive guard Kevin Donnalley said: 'He certainly has the prerogative to do what he wants because of all he's done here, but if he does come back, we want him out on the field playing for us.' Marino's decision to opt out of his contract will save the Dolphins almost US$6 million. They will be able to spend that on free agent signings.

'He did us a favour,' Jones added. 'He helped us keep some unrestricted free agents and be able to go after others.' Jones is aware there may well be a backlash to the Dolphins for appearing not to care about Marino returning.

'You would expect it to be,' he said. 'Dan has a tremendous following. But we'll continue to do everything we can to make this a team the community is proud of, whether Dan is the quarterback or not.' There is no timetable for Marino to make a decision, but he may act before March 20, when the team begins its off-season workout programme. But Wannstedt said Marino, who holds the bulk of career passing records in the NFL but remains chagrined that he has never won a Super Bowl, would be expected to participate should he re-sign.

Besides Marino, the Dolphins released their starting tight end, Troy Drayton, in another move that had salary cap implications. Drayton said that if Marino feels anything like he does, he does not want to have his career end on the 62-7 drubbing by Jacksonville that Miami endured in the playoffs.

'I don't think anybody wants to end a career on the kind of game that we played in Jacksonville,' Drayton said. 'He deserves to go out on a white horse and with lots of fanfare.'