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TIME IS CLOSING IN ON THE NFL STARS WHO ROSE IN THE '80S

If you listened closely to Dan Marino in the aftermath of Miami's elimination from the NFL playoffs Sunday, you heard what amounted to farewell remarks.

What Marino actually said was "you never know when you've played your last game."

Marino knew. At least he knew that he had just played his last game for the Miami Dolphins after 15 seasons. The sum total of his final three games was one touchdown and three disasters, the 41-0 loss to Indianapolis and the two floggings at the hands of New England.

In his State of the Dolphins address Monday, Jimmy Johnson said he wanted Marino back next season, but his words had the ring of insincerity. Johnson wants a quarterback he can control and, even in the winter of his career, Marino is not easily controlled.

It was a great career, but it's over. In fact, it's the end, or near the end, for a lot of those great stars who ascended during the 1980s.

In his last three games, Marino looked like Jim Kelly did in his final month with the Bills: Immobile, unable to make plays and tormented by frustration.

It happens to the best of them. Emmitt Smith, Dallas' great back, is washed up. So is Sam Mills, the wonder middle linebacker for Carolina. Reggie White of the Packers is running on an eighth of a tank. The same for Thurman Thomas.

Others are perilously close to the cliff. San Francisco's Steve Young is 36 and playing well, but he's one more concussion away from retirement. Bruce Smith was spectacular in the first half of Buffalo's season but in the last five games he had one sack. He'll be 35 next year.

It was amusing to hear Johnson. He kept saying it wasn't his kind of team, and the coaches who put together his offense left something to be desired. Are there any NFL head coaches left who take responsibility when things go wrong?

J.J. knew Marino, with his history of abandoning the running game, was a bad fit for the Johnson Way when he was hired to replace Don Shula in 1996. But Johnson didn't have the guts to start all over without Marino at quarterback because he didn't want to look bad doing it.

Instead, he looked bad doing it with Marino. Like most Golden Oldies, Marino had enough good games to allow people to kid themselves about him. Jimmy kept talking about biting the bullet and benching Marino for Craig Erickson, yet he never could bring himself to do it.

Misjudging older players isn't all that uncommon. Take the Bills' decision to sign Smith to a huge six-year contract, which included a $6 million signing bonus. Pass rushers who remain consistently effective at the age of 35 are as rare as white rhinos. The Bills should have thought back at the way Bruce ended up the two previous seasons: In bed with the flu during the Pittsburgh playoff game and then made to vanish by Jacksonville's Tony Boselli in last year's playoff loss in Rich Stadium.

The smart teams judge older players in late November and December, when the intensity increases and the cold wears on their bodies.

Years ago, we used to watch players retire gracefully before their skills betrayed them and they embarrassed themselves in public. Now, the money is too good for that. Less than an hour after he publicly embarrassed himself in New England, Marino was talking about "still wanting to play . . . I think I can still play at a high level."

With whom? It would have to be a warm-weather team which could protect him almost flawlessly and had a chance to win big. To say nothing of paying a huge salary to an antique. Which team answers that description?

There are enough freaks of nature in the NFL to cause the old guys to delude themselves. Darrell Green looks almost as fast playing cornerback for Washington as he did when he started. Warren Moon, at 41, quarterbacked Seattle to respectability, if not the playoffs. Boomer Esiason had enough good games to delude Cincinnati into junking the development of Jeff Blake, who had thrown 52 touchdown passes the previous two seasons.

Yet Marino is proof that age catches up with the best of them.

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