JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For two of these Hall of Famers, the arrow was so sharp, so sad and so painfully telling.
It came in the form of a poorly timed question, shot from the crowd about halfway through Saturday's media session. And for a second, you had this feeling Dan Marino wanted to fling his microphone into the row of reporters in front of him.
"How ironic," a reporter asked, "is it for you to be at this podium, in this city, when you lost to the Jaguars in that playoff game a few years ago?"
Freeze for a moment. There needs to be context added to understand how palpably embarrassing this question was for Marino.
He and Steve Young had just been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame – both were clearly elated – and in the middle of it all someone brings up Marino's last and arguably worst game ever. It was a day in which his Miami Dolphins lost to Jacksonville 62-7 in the 1999 playoffs and Marino passed for only 95 yards and threw two interceptions.
The second the question started to roll out of the reporter's mouth, you could see an icy look creep onto Marino's face. And why not? Who brings something like that up at a time like this? It's like mentioning how attractive someone's ex-girlfriend is during a wedding toast. In fact, the question was such bad form that Young chimed in and tried to smooth over the awkwardness before Marino could even answer.
"They always remember the bad game," Young said to Marino.
And there it was. Two Hall of Famers, one common thread of caveat.
If you didn't see it, then you weren't paying attention.
Marino and Young were great, two of the greatest ever, but they never received full embrace from the outside world. Like Saturday, someone always seemed to be waiting to sprinkle little shards of glass into the confetti. It happened during their careers. It's happened since they retired. It will probably last forever.
Get Fran Tarkenton on the phone. He'll tell you.
Remember Fran? The Greatest Before The Greatest? The man who, when Marino was in high school, spun up numbers like he was pulling the arm of the world's biggest slot machine: 47,003 passing yards, 374 total touchdowns, nine Pro Bowls. Call NFL Films. Get some tapes. He was amazing – a mini-Marino with a little Michael Vick in his hips, too.
Now? He's a caveat guy, just like Marino and Young. When you hear about Tarkenton these days, he gets respect but there's always that "made it to one Super Bowl and lost" asterisk.
It's inevitable. Records are broken and statistics yellow like the paper they are printed on. But Super Bowl diamonds shine in career portfolios for eternity.
Which makes Marino's and Young's election on Super Bowl weekend so ironic. This game, this stage, is precisely why these two have never gotten everything they truly deserve. In a way, Super Bowl accomplishments may always unfairly dog both of these men.
Marino has all the numbers, but it's hard to call any of them unbreakable – even his 61,361 passing yards and 420 touchdowns. The same things were said of Tarkenton's numbers, after all. Then Marino came along. Now we say such things about Marino, and Peyton Manning has popped up. And when the numbers inevitably fade – when 30 years pass and there is a generation of the NFL who never saw Marino play – well, you get the picture.
Young won't suffer as badly. He got his Super Bowl ring as a starter in 1994. His caveat isn't that he never won the big game. His is that he didn't do four times. His is that he was never Joe Montana. Like Marino, he suffers from an equally unjust standard.
As he uttered to Marino on Saturday, "They always remember &hellip"
Maybe there is a lesson here. Maybe we value Super Bowls too much. Maybe the NFL has created a monster that hurts its players more than it helps them. Or maybe we are bound to criticize and forget champions and their ringless counterparts no matter what.
It's an interesting quandary. And maybe one best addressed by the people who have seen it both ways.
Not long ago, I spent some time talking with legendary Packers offensive lineman Jerry Kramer, a man who played under Vince Lombardi and was one of the bridges from a time when "NFL championship" vindication made the leap to "Super Bowl" vindication. Kramer is a Hall of Famer who achieved both distinctions, yet has bitten his lip for years over the value measurements that go with each.
"(The Super Bowl) carries too much," he said. "People want to make it the (be-all of a) career. What about all the guys (who played) before the Super Bowl existed? There are guys with all the guts of anybody who don't have a Super Bowl – greatest players ever, some of them.
"It's like a player is knocked down if they don't have a Super Bowl ring – or if they don't have two or three. That's ridiculous. It's not right to have all that weight from one thing. You can't measure everything by that."
As Dan Marino and Steve Young sat at a podium Saturday, Kramer's rationale did them justice. Sadly, a future of qualifiers and a history of half-embrace will likely tend to disagree.