There were clouds of both the literal and figurative variety hovering over the Dolphins on the opening Sunday afternoon of the 1994 season.
Nobody seemed to know what to expect of Dan Marino, seeing his first action since tearing his right Achilles tendon nearly a year prior.
At least one Dolphin knew what to make of Marino once the returns were in later that day.
“I’m telling you all to kiss his … ,” linebacker Bryan Cox told skeptics about as emphatically as Marino had performed.
It’s a day that comes to mind as the Dolphins rev up offseason training with organized team activities Tuesday, when we could get our first glimpse of quarterback Ryan Tannehill as he attempts a comeback from a second serious knee injury.
Not even the greatest optimist can expect Tannehill to come anywhere close to the magic Marino pulled off in his return: 473 yards and five touchdown passes including a dramatic late score in a 39-35 escape against New England.
If you’re wondering how NFL quarterbacks typically respond from long layoffs, the answer is often, they look more like themselves than you might expect.
Before we start exploring examples from around the NFL, some important semi-obvious disclaimers:
No two injuries are alike, just as no quarterback is like Marino. Besides, while Marino was out for about 11 months, Tannehill will have to shake off far more rust. Assuming he suits up for the opener Sept. 9 against Tennessee, it will be his first meaningful action in 637 days — 1 3/4 calendar years.
Coach Adam Gase has maintained that he believes Tannehill is “ready to go,” and the company line is that the Dolphins expect Tannehill to look like Tannehill, which is a must because this team has no proven backup.
But if Tannehill is storming out of the gate, he wouldn’t even be the second Dolphins quarterback deserving of comeback player of the year consideration. Bob Griese rebounded from a broken ankle to win two Super Bowls, remember.
Speaking of Hall of Fame-caliber QBs, we’ll begin with Tom Brady, who tore his ACL and missed all but one game of the 2008 season. He immediately went to the Pro Bowl the next year, going 10-6 and winning the AFC East. His stats were very Brady: 4,398 yards, 28 TDs, 13 interceptions and a 96.2 rating.
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers fractured his collarbone in 2013 but came out sizzling in ’14 with 38 TDs and only five interceptions. His passer rating was 112.2, eight points higher than his career stat, which ought to encourage Packers fans since he missed nine games last year with another collarbone injury.
Continuing on this theme of Hall of Fame QBs being a different animal altogether, Peyton Manning sat out the 2011 season because of a career-threatening neck injury. With Gase serving as his quarterback coach, Manning immediately put up back-to-back seasons of excellence both from a team perspective (13-3 both years in Denver) and personally (37 and 55 touchdown passes, triple-digit passer rating).
That’s not to say, of course, anyone is preparing a bust in Canton for Tannehill. Let’s turn to mortal passers.
Matthew Stafford played only three games of his second NFL season in 2010 because of a shoulder injury. The Lions obviously didn’t have many concerns about it in ’11, because his 663 attempts led the league. His 5,038 yards were a career high and his passer rating was among his best ever at 97.2.
Carson Palmer, a spectator with the Bengals for a dozen games in 2008 after injuring his elbow, put up more pedestrian numbers when he returned (3,094 yards, 21 TDs, 13 INTs). Ditto for Alex Smith, who missed 2008 with the 49ers because of a bum shoulder, then put up an 81.5 passer rating in ’09.
The Dolphins have to hope Tannehill doesn’t stay on the same track as Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, who missed nine games in 2015 with a string of injuries, played well in ’16, but was back on the shelf again in 2017. Same story for Sam Bradford, who suffered two ACL tears and is now with Arizona, in the likelihood you’ve lost track amid his many travels.
For dreamers out there, that ’94 performance by Marino ranks among his best. It was typical Marino. The Dolphins were down 35-32 and facing a fourth-and-5 with three minutes left. Rather than try a 52-yard field goal from the Marlins’ infield dirt, coach Don Shula liked his chances better by putting the ball in Dan’s hands (go figure). Or maybe Dan’s eyes.
In the huddle, Marino told receiver Irving Fryar if he had one-on-one coverage, he’d be going to him, and when they got to the line of scrimmage, Marino gave him the eye that said all that needed to be said.
Thirty-five yards later, touchdown. It was a play and a day for the ages.
“I felt pretty good about what I did,” Marino said.
“Dan’s back,” Shula said.
Come Sept. 9, Dolphins fans can hope for two words coming out of Gase’s mouth:
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