Greatest gadget play ever? Dan Marino's fake spike turns 29

ByRich Cimini ESPN logo
Friday, November 24, 2023

It's Thanksgiving week and the Miami Dolphins are in New Jersey to face the New York Jets (3 p.m. ET, Prime Video). It's impossible not to think about what happened 29 years ago -- the Fake Spike game.

The circumstances are different than in the 1994 contest. The Dolphins (7-3) are in first place, just like then, but the matchup doesn't have the same juice because the Jets are three games behind in the AFC East standings.

Still, it's part of Dolphins-Jets lore. Even though most of the current players weren't born when Dan Marino fooled the Jets with his legendary gadget play, it's a timeless moment that warrants a look back.

This oral history was published on the 20th anniversary of the Fake Spike, a play that arguably changed lives and deeply impacted the two franchises.

[Editor's note: This story was originally published on Nov. 26, 2014. Since then, former Dolphins coach Don Shula, who is quoted in the story, died in 2020 at age 90.]

On Nov. 27, 1994, Dan Marino capped the 39th game-winning drive of his career with his 323rd touchdown pass. The actual throw was unremarkable -- 8 yards to an open Mark Ingram -- but it is perhaps the most famous of Marino's 420 scoring passes. It endures because, let's face it, everybody loves a punking.

Twenty years later, the Fake Spike still lives.

It lives with the middle-aged Miami Dolphins, whose voices pulse with excitement as they recall the time 'ol Danny pulled a fast one on the New York Jets.

It lives with their forever coach, Don Shula, 84, who marvels at the number of fans who approach him and ask about the play. He smiles and engages them -- unless they're Jets fans. He doesn't speak to them.

And it lives with the Jets, who wish it didn't.

"Oh, s---," former quarterback Boomer Esiason said. "Why do you want to bring that up?"

The Jets are tormented by the Fake Spike because it cost them a big game, ruined a promising season and sent the franchise into a two-year tailspin. It's not an overstatement to say it altered careers and changed lives.

First, let's set the scene.

The stakes were significant (first place in the AFC East) and the game was filled with stars. It included four future Hall of Famers (Shula, Marino, Ronnie Lott and Art Monk), a former NFL MVP (Esiason) and a future Super Bowl-winning coach (Pete Carroll).

The day began with so much promise for the Jets, who were 6-5 under their popular first-year coach. The Carroll-led Jets held an 18-point lead late in the third quarter; they were that close to a watershed victory.

The 7-4 Dolphins were on a two-game losing streak, watching their season fall apart at the old Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey -- until Marino punctuated an incredible comeback with one of the greatest gadget plays in NFL history. The 28-24 victory revived the Dolphins, who went on to capture the division title in Shula's next-to-last season.

The demoralized Jets lost their remaining four games, fired Carroll and became a laughingstock under Rich Kotite. From the Fake Spike to Bill Parcells' arrival in 1997, the Jets lost 32 of 36 games.

"Basically, we fell for the banana-in-the-tailpipe trick," said former Jets defensive end Marvin Washington, referencing a memorable scene from Eddie Murphy's "Beverly Hills Cop" movie. "Twenty years later, it's still embarrassing."

The buildup

Jeff Dellenbach, Dolphins center: With Dolphins-Jets at the time, every game seemed to have consequences on the line -- a lot of big shootouts, a lot of points scored both ways. I think the Jets pretty much hated us and we didn't have a whole lot of good feelings for them. Every time you lined up to play the Jets, it was a major ordeal.

Jeff Lageman, Jets defensive end: There was a tremendous feeling going into that game. We had Pete [Carroll], and everybody loved Pete. For a change, we were headed in a positive direction.

Esiason: I remember being so up for that Miami game because it was so important to us. I can remember practice that week; it was unbelievable. The meetings were great. We put a lot of effort into that game. It was a huge game. It was for first place in the division.

The comeback

Esiason's second touchdown pass to Johnny Mitchell made it 24-6 with 3:39 remaining in the third quarter. After that, Esiason turned cold, fueling the collapse with two interceptions. He paced the sideline, nervously blowing bubbles with his gum and glancing at the clock as Marino answered with a spectacular passing display. Over his final four possessions, he completed 20 of 24 for 227 yards and three touchdowns. Down by a field goal, he got the ball at his own 16 with 2:34 remaining. Six completions later, Marino was at the Jets' 8-yard line.

Troy Vincent, Dolphins cornerback: All of a sudden, Dan got hot. Things started clicking. As Coach Shula used to say, "Hey, don't get in the man's way, let him throw the ball." I remember [linebacker] Bryan Cox going up and down the sideline, going nuts, saying, "Hey, Danny's hot, we gotta get him the ball back." Before you knew it, we were back in the game.

Paul Maguire, NBC color analyst: My favorite guy to work with was Marv [Albert]. During the course of the game, I'm sure he said, "It doesn't matter what the score is with Marino." I can almost hear him say it because we did Marino [games] enough times. Like now, when they say [Tom] Brady is out of a game or [Peyton] Manning is out of a game, that's bulls---. The great ones are never out of the game.

John Nicholas, Jets staffer: I was holding [defensive coordinator] Greg Robinson's headset cord on the sideline. Around the two-minute warning, I remember looking over to Pete Carroll and thinking, Why doesn't Pete have his headset on? We were only up by three. I don't know, maybe he was thinking it was going to overtime. I walked away, scratching my head.

Bernie Kosar, Dolphins backup quarterback: Even just to get to that clock play, so many things had to go right for us. You go from halfway through the third quarter, thinking you're going to fly home from New York with a loss, to scoring three or four touchdowns in a real hour. You thought one thing at about 2:30 in the afternoon and, by 4 o'clock, our lives had changed.

Rob Moore, Jets wide receiver: I got a concussion in the third quarter. Before I got the concussion, we were winning by a lot. I was pretty out of it and, by the time I gathered myself, there was about two minutes left in the game. My parents ended up taking me home after the game and I got the news the next day. I read the paper and watched the film. I said, "I can't believe that happened." That's my recollection of the game. I kid you not.

Shula: To turn the game around like that, after being down by 18, that's why the game is so great.

The Fake Spike

With less than 30 seconds to play, and the clock running, the Dolphins hurried to the line of scrimmage. Marino yelled, "Clock! Clock! Clock!" and gave the spiking motion with his right hand. On the air, Maguire said, "He still has one timeout. He'll save that for the field goal."

Marino wasn't thinking field goal -- he fired an 8-yard touchdown to Ingram in the right corner of the end zone with 22 seconds left. The unsuspecting Jets, anticipating a spike, didn't react on the snap. Only three defenders moved: Washington, the left end; left tackle Paul Frase; and cornerback Aaron Glenn, who covered Ingram on the back-shoulder pass.

Mike Westhoff, Dolphins special teams coach: We always referred to that as Bernie's play. He came up with it.

Shula: Bernie's play? Who told you that, Bernie? It was a play we practiced during the week.

Kosar: If you watch the Jets-Browns [playoff] game in 1986, you'll see the first two times the clock play was run. With about a minute to go [in regulation], on the 2- or 3-yard line, I used the clock play. Webster Slaughter was open and I underthrew him. Eight years of my life, everywhere I went, we practiced that play, whether it was the Browns, the Cowboys or the Dolphins. It took eight years for the stars to be aligned for that situation to come up again.

Dellenbach: We worked on it on a weekly basis. Watching film, we saw some of their guys weren't really doing a whole lot when they knew the ball was going to be spiked, so we talked about this could be the week we do this.

Kosar: I was on the headphones to Dan. We had it called even before he got inside the 20-yard line. Don Shula, [offensive coordinator] Gary Stevens, Dan Marino ... we were in it together. Whether I called it or not, it didn't matter. We were so ingrained that we knew what we were going to do. Aaron Glenn was a phenomenal rookie cornerback, and he went on to have an excellent career, but we had Mark Ingram and Dan Marino. We decided to pick on the rookie.

Esiason: Bernie tried that bulls--- against us when he was with the Cleveland Browns and I was in Cincinnati.

Marino: I was more involved in trying to get our team into position in hopes of having a chance to tie the game or win the game. I give Bernie Kosar credit. He brought the spike play to us from Cleveland, and he actually mentioned in my ear, "Think about the clock play, think about the clock play." It was perfect and we did it.

Lageman: I was in a two-point stance, standing up, waiting for him to clock it. I didn't come off the ball at 100 mph like I normally did, because we never saw anyone fake it. We'd never seen a fake clock play up until that moment.

Frase: I could've been the hero. I bull-rushed my guy [right guard Bert Weidner] and I got close, real close to Marino. Two or three feet, that's what separated hero from goat. I knocked down three Marino passes in my career -- one hit my helmet and two I batted down. I needed that fourth one. It left a sick feeling in my stomach.

Kosar: [Weidner] was one of my roommates, and he didn't even block. He let the tackle come right through. If anyone should've known the play, it should've been him. He blew it, but Marino covered for him.

Washington: I recognized the play pretty quickly. I knew he wasn't going to spike it. I could tell by his short setup and the way he opened up his hips. All I could do was get my hands up and try to block the pass. I don't think I missed it by that much, maybe a few inches. I just wish I could've tipped it. Maybe I could've changed history.

Glenn: It seems like that play was in slow motion, in my view, from beginning to end. The receiver was lining up and I'm looking at Marino's face. When I finally caught on, the ball already was snapped. It was one of those plays where ... you know sometimes in your life when you have a feeling that something is about to happen and you just react? I had that feeling, but my reaction wasn't quick enough.

Marvin Jones, Jets linebacker: That play was ahead of its time. To run that s--- at that time, no one did that. I was thinking it was some type of illegal play. We were out of sync. After he threw it and Ingram caught it, I was like, "What the hell just happened?" I guess he had some secret signal with the receiver.

Kosar: There is no signal, that's the beauty of it. A signal will give it away. It's on the quarterback to decide if he spikes it. The receiver might as well run the route. You may get it one out of 10 times ... one out of 100 ... one out of 1,000. But if that one out of 1,000 works, you have a monumental win.

Albert, NBC play-by-play announcer: Paul Maguire and I, we looked at each other in the booth and we each gave an indication of a spike. We both saw it, but we weren't sure. We said that to each other, just by hand signals. That's something, in the heat of the action, you could miss because it happened so fast.

Maguire: Watching Marino do that, you throw your hands up, like, "Who the hell would think about doing that?"

Vincent: If any player tells you we were going to do what we did, no, that's the furthest thing from the truth. The truth was, the best thing we could do was tie the game and go to overtime.

Dellenbach: We weren't 100 percent sure [the fake] could happen at that moment, or when it was going to happen, but we were attuned to what was going on.

Albert (on the telecast): "We are seeing another spectacular effort by Marino, who fires ... touchdown!"

Maguire: "You know what the Jets are thinking? He's gonna take the ball and throw it into the ground. ... They all stopped. If you take a look at it, the offensive linemen, all they did was stand up. And Marino says to Ingram, that's a communication thing they have. I mean, this is a beautiful play. They catch the Jets napping."

Jeff Bergman, line judge: I looked over to [back judge] Bill Lovett, who signaled touchdown, and I saw a shocked look on his face. I remember dead silence. I guarantee you, the entire stadium was in shock. The cornerback was in shock. The only two people not in shock were Marino and the wide receiver, and the receiver had this look on his face, like, "Does this really count?"

Vincent: Next thing you know, you could hear a pin drop. Then you could hear our sideline erupt -- a pin drop to an eruption. You're not even looking at the JumboTron. You're looking and saying, "What just happened? Why are we all cheering like this?" You see those stripes with those hands up and you say, "We just scored. Whoa!"

Bergman: When the play was over, Bill Lovett and I got together. I asked him, "You ever see anything like that?" He said, "Nope, never seen anything like that."

The fallout

The Dolphins went on to win a playoff game before elimination in the divisional round. Ingram, who scored four touchdowns in the Jets game, played only two more years. In 2008, he received a seven-year prison sentence for money laundering and fraud. Two more years were added to Ingram's sentence when he jumped bail. He declined to be interviewed for this story, according to an official at the Yazoo City Federal Correctional Complex in Mississippi.

The Jets never recovered, finishing the season at 6-10 amid turmoil in the locker room. The team was dismantled by the new administration. Carroll, blindsided by his ouster, was hired by the 49ers as their defensive coordinator. He coached the Seahawks to the Super Bowl title last February at MetLife Stadium, celebrating on the same plot of land where the Fake Spike occurred.

Glenn: It's a play I'll never forget because it went to my guy, but I remember telling Victor Green on the sideline, "I'm going to get Dan back for that." Two years later, I had my 100-yard interception return against him.

Esiason: After the game, I got stuck in traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel. I remember listening to the radio, people calling in and getting roasted. There was a fender bender, with a woman slumped over her steering wheel. I was debating whether or not to get out of my truck. If I got out and played hero, everybody around me was going to know who I was. I got out and, sure enough, it was like being back in the stadium, getting heckled. It was one of those surreal moments, one of those surreal Jets moments.

Washington: The next day, Ronnie Lott went into the PR office, made copies of the standings and passed them out in the locker room, showing everybody we were still in the race. It was too late, our morale was crushed. The next week, we got blown out by New England, the strangest game I've ever been in. No one was saying anything in the huddle -- total silence. There was no rah-rah stuff, no one was saying, "Nice play, way to go." We were a bunch of robots.

Jones: I think that one game beat us four more games. We let one game beat us for the rest of the season.

Frase: We were in a state of shock. It was just ridiculous. We couldn't get our heads back in the game. Oh, man, it was frustrating.

Washington: Some of the guys, to be honest, quit on Pete. That was the shame of it. That loss exposed some of our wounds. It ripped the scabs off the wounds we already had. Some guys just flat-out quit.

Lageman: It's one of those memories you put away into one of the places in your brain you never want to remember.

Marino: I think playing the Jets made it memorable, beating them the way we beat them and came back. We were behind, and we had four touchdown passes in the second half -- and also because no one ever really did [a fake spike] before in a national kind of spotlight game. That's what made it memorable.

Albert: It was probably one of the most memorable plays [I've covered as a broadcaster]. I'd have to put it right at the top. You don't see chicanery. It's like something you'd pull on the schoolyard. It was extraordinary. You don't see many plays like that, plays that would end the game and turn a season. It led to the changing of lives, with coaches fired and players on the move. It really will live on.

Bergman: The fake spike still comes up every week. Now, when we meet with head coaches before the game for the walk-through, we ask them to alert us to certain plays. We actually ask the coaches, "Do you have a fake spike? If you do, you need to make us aware." The last people you want to surprise and shock are the officials. It's a little preventive officiating.

Jim Sweeney, Jets center and Marino's former teammate at Pitt: It doesn't help that he's a friend of mine. For years after that, all I heard was, "Your buddy Marino did that to us." What do you want me to say? He was smarter than us. He fooled me, too. I thought he was going to clock it.

Shula: You never know when it's going to come up, but it has come up through the years at a lot of different events. It's a play everybody enjoys reminiscing about, keeping it alive. I enjoy talking about it, but never with Jets fans. I don't talk to Jets fans in South Florida. Or in New York. Or in the United States.

Frase: I live in Jacksonville, and I ran into Marino one time at Jim Furyk's charity golf tournament. Actually, I bumped into him at a Walgreens. I said, "Hey, Dan." He said, "Hey, Paul." We didn't talk about the spike play, but we were both definitely thinking about it.

Dellenbach: I was at the scouting combine last year. I went out to dinner and the place I was at, the Seahawks were having a team get-together -- the coaching staff, the front office, whatever. I had a chance to talk to Pete Carroll, and I had to bite my tongue because I was ready to bring up that play, but I didn't think it was appropriate at the time. I definitely thought about it.

Esiason: I sat across from Dan for 10 years on "The NFL Today," and he brought it up on the air a lot. Anytime there was an anniversary or something, he always made mention of it. I always had to be the foil, so people could laugh at it. Dan's a beloved player and everything, but, boy, he loves to torment Jets fans.

Sweeney: Dan used to come up for the Pitt offensive line camp, and we always told old stories. Did the Fake Spike come up? No, because he's still alive. I would've killed him if he brought it up.

Washington: I got a bunch of crap from the people in my old office at Merrill Lynch. Every so often, the Fake Spike would come up. Someone would punch it up on YouTube and show it around the office, and everybody would be laughing. It's embarrassing, but it's also part of history. At least I can say I gave effort on the play.

Lageman, Jaguars radio analyst: Early in the season, Blake Bortles actually ran a fake clock play and it ended up as a touchdown pass toCecil Shorts. It was funny. During the broadcast, I said, "That brings back a lot of memories."

Marino: It comes up all the time. Sometimes, it comes up with just Jets fans that I see around, going places and doing things. It will always come up, like, "You tore my heart out because of that clock play." [Laughing.] My statement to them always is: "You have to get over it. That was a long time ago and you need to leave it alone."

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