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The Day NFL Teams Passed on Dan Marino

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Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images
Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images

The 1983 draft makes for an interesting chapter in National Football League history, a tale of six first-round quarterbacks. The backstory of Dan Marino, one of three Class of ’83 quarterbacks to make the Hall of Fame, is packed with rumors, lack of follow-up, a surprise pick ahead of him, heartbreak for another first-rounder and vindication for the man taken 27th overall.

Marino would leave the game after 1999 with the most yards passing and the most touchdown passes, among more than 40 league records that highlighted his career. But on draft day, April 26, 1983, his stock dropped.

Whispers swirled around Marino’s so-so senior performance at the University of Pittsburgh: bad knees and recreational drugs were speculated. If the city of Pittsburgh heard the rumors — which went unsubstantiated — then surely NFL scouts picked up on them.

The 1983 class was especially prized at the quarterback position. The focus was on Stanford’s brilliant John Elway, but he wanted no part of playing for the Baltimore Colts, the team holding the top overall pick. 

Back then, the draft lasted 12 rounds, all packed into one day. Bob Oates, writer for the Los Angeles Times, summed up the crowded schedule through the lens of consensus quarterback opinion: “Of the rest (after Elway), Miami’s Jim Kelly could be drafted before breakfast, Illinois’ Tony Eason before lunch, Penn State’s Todd Blackledge before dinner, and Pittsburgh’s Dan Marino before midnight, when the NFL promises the long day will surely end.”

In the days leading up to decision day, the Colts went shopping the No. 1 pick, but all barter failed. Out of options, they used only nine seconds to call Elway’s name. He later would be traded to the Denver Broncos, for whom he’d win two Super Bowls on the way to the Hall of Fame.

As expected, the Los Angeles Rams next took tailback Eric Dickerson, and a stream of offensive stars followed. The next quarterback taken was Blackledge at No. 7 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Buffalo Bills used the 14th pick on Kelly, who also was headed to the Hall of Fame.

The New England Patriots quickly jumped on Eason.

Four quarterbacks were off the board after 15 picks. No more had been taken before the Pittsburgh Steelers, Marino’s hometown team, stepped up at No. 21.

Pittsburgh really didn’t need another quarterback. Terry Bradshaw had tied for the most TD passes during the 1982 NFL season. The Steelers had a good No. 2 in Cliff Stoudt and had used a No. 1 pick on Mark Malone in 1980.

Steelers coach Chuck Noll believed in defense first, and his team was about to jump for the first time into a 3-4 scheme. It was essential to find a standout nose tackle, so with the choice, the Steelers took Texas Tech’s massive, nimble Gabe Rivera.

After the next two picks, the Jets were up. To this point, New York Times writer Michael Janofsky’s mock board had nailed the first four quarterbacks to their teams. Janofsky predicted Marino for the Jets.

The Jets shocked the world with an unknown from Division II California-Davis: strong-armed Ken O’Brien. Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula -- later identified by Pitt coach Foge Fazio as the only NFL coach sufficiently thorough to call him about Marino’s alleged drug dalliances --  asked when O'Brien's name was called, “Who’s he?”

The surprised Shula was plenty ready when the Dolphins went on the clock with the 27th pick. He wasted no time tapping Marino as the sixth first-round quarterback.

The Steelers would find nothing but bad luck. Rivera was emerging as a cornerstone of the new defense after six games when he was involved in an automobile accident.  He was paralyzed and never walked again.

Bradshaw, the 35-year-old future Hall of Famer, had an elbow injury that ended his career. Enter Stoudt, Malone, and young Bubby Brister. Goodbye Super Bowl appearances until 1995.

Prolific Pittsburgh sports author Jim O’Brien said it well: “Marino goes to Miami: good weather, good receivers, good coach. I don't think Danny Marino would have been the same Danny Marino in Pittsburgh he was in Miami.  Sometimes you just have to leave home.”