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JOHNSON FORCED TO SINK OR SWIM WITH MARINO

With the season out of his team's control, Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson continues to stand behind quarterback Dan Marino publicly.

But the reality, a source close to Johnson told the Miami Herald, is Marino's play continues to be the most wearing factor on Johnson's frayed psyche. If not for the firestorm of controversy that benching Marino would cause at this point, Marino could already be sitting.

"What's beating him down is the quarterback situation," the source said. "He just feels like he can't do anything about it. If he pulls Dan, he'll get crucified by the fans and the media, and he thinks the players still believe that Dan can carry them."

When asked to evaluate Marino's performance against the Jets on Monday night, which included three touchdowns passes and three interceptions among his season-high 52 passes, Johnson said there was good and bad.

"Dan has been inconsistent since he came off the injury, and that's to be expected," said Johnson, referring to the bulging disk and nerve injury that knocked Marino out of six games. "He did some outstanding things and, obviously, we're disappointed with some of the plays. We've tried to open it up more, tried to do some things. We are audibling more than we have in past years, but this is two weeks in a row that we've messed up a critical audible."

The play he was referring to in Monday's game was a botched handoff between Marino and J.J. Johnson. Nevertheless, Johnson announced, "Dan is our quarterback and we're going to stay with Dan."

The season finale at Washington on Sunday is strategically meaningless. Either Kansas City (at home against Oakland) or Seattle (at the New York Jets) must lose for the Dolphins to make the playoffs. Both of the latter games should be finished by the time the Dolphins and the Redskins start playing at 4:15 p.m.

Johnson is hoping the Dolphins can get help and then begin to rejuvenate themselves with a win over the Redskins.

"We need the Washington game just for our own pride, just to get back on the winning track," Johnson said.

As part of that scenario, Marino needs to perform consistently.

Marino's performance during a 38-31 loss to the Jets on Monday night covered the gamut as he completed 29 of 52 passes for 322 yards.

While Marino was mostly sharp in the early going, he made two critical errors. Jets cornerback Marcus Coleman returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, the fifth interception return for a score that Marino has given up this season, including four in his past six games.

In the third quarter, Marino threw an interception to Jets linebacker Roman Phifer that Phifer returned to the Miami 1-yard line to set up a touchdown. The interception by Phifer was especially infuriating to the coaches because Marino seemed to panic in the pocket before he threw. As a result, he threw wildly toward fullback Stanley Pritchett.

Finally, Marino played poorly in the fourth quarter. He completed 6 of 19 passes for 79 yards. Four of his throws were nearly picked off.

Just as frustrating to the Dolphins and Johnson is coaches from around the league keep defending Marino in public.

"What do you expect them to say, that he's terrible?" the source said. "Jets coach Bill Parcells says all these things publicly, then he tells his friends around the league that Marino can't play."

Parcells again defended Marino on Tuesday. "I hear this stuff going on now, and I'm really saddened by it," he said. "I really am because he is a champ. I've told him several times he's a champ."

Jets finding positives

HEMPSTEAD -- For a team expecting to make the Super Bowl, a .500 record isn't exactly rewarding. Still, if the New York Jets get there with a victory in their season finale against Seattle, they will have quite a few worthwhile memories.

One is the development of Ray Lucas into an NFL-quality quarterback. Another is the work of rookies Randy Thomas and Ryan Young on the offensive line. There is the strong running of workhorse Curtis Martin and the all-around receiving skills of Keyshawn Johnson. And the emergence of Marcus Coleman at cornerback.

Of course, that's not nearly enough.

"Woulda, coulda, shoulda," Lucas said Tuesday. "The fact of the matter is we are not going to the playoffs. I don't do that woulda kind of stuff."

What is keeping these Jets going? Just getting to 8-8 after starting 1-6, some say. Pride and poise, say others of a Raiders mentality. But several Jets offered a bumper-sticker sentiment: Save the Tuna.

"Hopefully, Bill will stick around another year," strong safety Victor Green said of efforts to keep Bill Parcells from retiring after this season. "He'll give it another shot with everybody healthy next year."

Around the league

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder made it official: Coach Norv Turner will be back for the 2000 season.

Steve Muhammad of the Indianapolis Colts faces a March 21 hearing in connection with charges he beat his pregnant wife days before she died of labor complications. Muhammad is free on $30,000 bail and has been playing for the Colts.

Former Carolina Panthers receiver Rae Carruth underwent DNA tests to determine whether he fathered the baby whose mother he is accused of killing. Confirmation was needed for a custody hearing on Thursday.

Tennessee Titans safety Marcus Robertson needed 150 stitches to close facial cuts received in a motorcycle accident, according to the Nashville Tennessean. Robertson lost control of the motorcycle, falling off as it slid to the ground and losing his helmet on impact. Coach Jeff Fisher said Roberts is expected to miss Sunday's game at Pittsburgh.

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