Dan Marino entered the locker room, stepped into a horde of waiting reporters and frowned at the notepads and microphones thrust in his face.
"Back up a little bit, please," Marino mumbled.
That is to say: Back up, and back off.
Marino tried to defuse the Miami Dolphins' quarterback controversy Wednesday, taking the high road in response to coach Jimmy Johnson's criticism of him. But the issue will likely linger until Marino shakes his slump, perhaps Sunday when Miami (2-1) plays at Indianapolis (2-1).
"My play has been inconsistent," he acknowledged. "I'm very critical of myself, probably more so than anybody else. We need to play better as a group, no doubt."
Reaction was less muted elsewhere to criticism of the most prolific passer in NFL history.
"How can you not say nice things about Dan Marino?" Colts coach Jim Mora said. "My God, he's as good as any quarterback who has ever played the game."
But Marino's productivity has declined with each game this season, and his quarterback rating of 74.3 is a career low. Following Monday's 23-18 loss to Buffalo, Johnson said Marino became flustered by the Bills' pass rush and was at fault on two interceptions and a fumble returned for a touchdown.
Such a severe assessment from a coach was unprecedented in Marino's 17-year career.
"It doesn't bother me," he said. "It's part of the position."
Those close to him suggested otherwise.
"Criticism bothers anybody, and Dan is no different," said Joe Rose, a former teammate and current sportscaster. "It bothers him."
Teammates rallied to Marino's defense and predicted he'll respond well Sunday.
"This is not his first rodeo," receiver Oronde Gadsden said. "He's been doing this for a while. I think he'll come out with a great game."
Still unclear were Johnson's reasons for criticizing his quarterback. The coach prides himself on his mastery of psychology, and there was speculation that he's trying to stoke Marino's competitive fire.
"No one needs to motivate me," Marino said.
Johnson denied any ulterior motive behind his criticism.
"People say, `Jimmy is trying to motivate Dan.' I'm not trying to motivate anybody," Johnson said. "It's not any finger-pointing. It's a matter of assessing where we are. We've got to play better."
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