Bob Griese enjoyed a Hall of Fame career as the quarterback of the Miami Dolphins, leading them to three Super Bowls and winning two, including the undefeated season of 1972. Officially, he played through 1980. But the 1979 Miami Dolphins were his final year as the regular starter and his last trip into the playoffs.
Miami was coming off a run to the AFC wild-card game in 1978, a return to the playoffs after having missed for three straight seasons (albeit twice with records of 10-4 in an era of more restricted postseasons). The defense was the foundation of the 1979 team, ranking fourth in the NFL.
The Dolphins had good young talent on defense, including two Pro Bowlers in 24-year-old nose tackle Bob Baumhower and 25-year-old outside linebacker Kim Bokamper. A veteran, strong safety Tim Foley, also made the Pro Bowl. And there was an up-and-comer at defensive end. Doug Better was 23-years-old, went 6’7” and was maturing into the player who would eventually win Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1983.
Griese, now age 34, was just one of an older group of offensive players. Larry Csonka, another hero of the early 1970s championship teams, returned to Miami after a four-year absence. Csonka rushed for over 800 yards and won Comeback Player of the Year. The offensive line had four players on the high side of 30.
The offense ranked a respectable 11th in points scored, and it was a balanced effort. Delvin Williams joined Csonka in the backfield and ran for over 700 yards. Duriel Harris and Nat Moore were both in the neighborhood of 800 yards receiving. Williams, Harris and Moore provided the injection of relative youth into the attack.
As for Griese, the signs of the end were at hand—he struggled with leg problems and though he made twelve starts, inconsistency was a big issue, as we’re about to see.
Miami opened the season at Buffalo, and it was a defensive battle. The Dolphins held the Bills to five first downs and Buffalo’s only points came on a blocked field goal return, but Miami still needed a fourth-quarter touchdown to win 9-7 (the extra point was missed).
The offense was much more efficient in a home game with the Seattle Seahawks, who would stay in the mix for a playoff spot into December. Griese went 15/25 for 208 yards, the majority to Harris. The defense picked off Jim Zorn three times in a 19-10 win.
A road trip to the Minnesota Vikings was sluggish for three quarters and the Dolphins trailed 12-7. Don Strock, the backup quarterback who got his share of playing time, came on and went 5/7 for 92 yards. Strock threw a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns as Miami rescued themselves by pulling away 27-12.
Griese stayed on the sidelines the next week at home against the Chicago Bears, a team that would make the playoffs. The defense shut down the great Walter Payton, holding him to 43 yards, while Csonka and Williams combined to lead an attack that went for 193 yards on the ground. Strock was sharp, 12/17 for 207 yards and an impressive 31-16 was the result.
A road trip to old Shea Stadium to play the New York Jets was next, and Griese was back in the lineup. He wasn’t high-percentage, completing 22/45, but he made big plays, throwing for 296 yards. This time though, Miami didn’t run the ball and New York was balanced offensively. And Griese’s one mistake turned into a Pick-6, as the Dolphins lost 33-27.
Griese threw another Pick-6 the following Monday Night in Oakland and in this game neither he, nor anyone else on the offense did anything to counter it. The Dolphins lost to the Raiders 13-3. Miami got back on track with a 17-7 win over Buffalo, but the offense continued to struggle—it took an 86-yard punt return by Tony Nathan to start the scoring.
Miami was 5-2 and getting ready to travel to New England, where the Patriots were the defending AFC East champs and a contender again in 1979. It was tough to know what to make of the Dolphins—they were 5-2, but had played mostly a series of close games against teams (with the exception of the Bears) that would range from 7-9 wins by season’s end. Oddsmakers expressed their skepticism by making the Fish a (+5) underdog in Foxboro.
Concerns weren’t eased by the result. After a fast start, where Griese threw an early touchdown pass and got a 10-0 lead, the offense bogged down. The veteran quarterback finished 12/27 for just 72 yards. Trailing 14-13 in the fourth quarter, Griese threw yet another Pick-6 and the game got away in a 28-13 loss.
The entire team got rolling the next week when they hosted a bad Green Bay Packers team. Griese threw a 37-yard touchdown strike to Harris and finished 19/28 for 304 yards. The Dolphins ran the ball for 195 yards and they controlled the ball, running 78 plays to Green Bay’s 34. The result was a 27-7 win.
But the up-and-down pattern with another embarrassing offensive performance on the Monday Night stage. The Dolphins hosted the Houston Oilers, a rematch with the team that eliminated from the playoffs in 1978. Griese threw two interceptions, the Fish lost two fumbles the Oilers took care of the ball and Miami lost a field goal battle 9-6. In two appearances on MNF, Griese’s offense had failed to score a touchdown.
Once again, a visit from a bad team, this time the Baltimore Colts, soothed wounds. Griese and Moore hooked up for a pair of first half touchdowns in an easy 19-0 win. And once again, a game with more competitive team brought the Dolphins back to earth. They traveled to Cleveland, where the Browns would finish 9-7.
The game was a back-and-forth battle the whole way. Griese was 10/21 for 115 yards, but also threw two interceptions. His injuries eventually forced him out and Strock came on to go 6/10 for 89 yards and threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes. But Cleveland’s Brian Sipe threw for 358 yards, and the Dolphins lost in overtime, 30-24.
Miami was 7-5 and a game back of New England in the AFC East race. The wild-card picture (which allowed for two teams) didn’t look promising. The Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers were in a race in the AFC Central and it appeared certain the runner-up would get one spot. In the AFC West, it was less certain, but the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos were both in good shape. And of the mess of teams below, the Dolphins had head-to-head losses to fellow contenders Oakland and Cleveland.
The Dolphins had their proverbial back to the wall in Baltimore on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and another passing battle ensued, with Strock and Griese again both playing. Strock started and threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Harris. Griese finished, also connecting with Harris and throwing another to Nathan. Miami survived in a 28-24 win.
New England lost in overtime to Buffalo so the AFC East was tied at the top, just in time for the Dolphins and Patriots to meet on Thursday night. Miami trailed 17-13 at the half, but a vintage performance ensued after halftime. Griese found Moore on a 32-yard touchdown pass and Miami never looked back. They forced six New England turnovers on the night, scored 26 consecutive points to pull away and won the football game 39-24. The Dolphins were in first place with two weeks to go.
A terrible opponent in the Detroit Lions awaited, and Griese continued to be sharp. He went 17/22 for over 200 yards and threw two early touchdown passes. The Patriots lost to the Jets and the AFC East race was over. Miami’s three-week surge dovetailed with New England’s three-week collapse.
The Dolphins were locked into the 3-seed no matter what they did and Griese did not play the Saturday finale with the Jets, a 27-24 loss.
Houston beat Denver in the wild-card game and because the Oilers were a division rival of the Steelers, the two teams could not meet each other in the second round, per the rules that existed prior to 1990. That meant Miami would have to go to Pittsburgh and play the defending Super Bowl champions.
While the Dolphins had finished strong, nothing in the course of the 1979 NFL season suggested they were ready to match up with a team the quality of the Steel Curtain Dynasty. Miami was a (+9.5) underdog and even that proved generous. They gave up three first-quarter touchdowns and lost 34-14, with Pittsburgh going on to their fourth Super Bowl title in six years.
The 1979 Miami Dolphins had still gotten back on top of the AFC East and given Griese one more playoff run, including a big prime-time display in the season’s seminal game against the Patriots. The quarterback came back in 1980, but was no longer the starter and he retired after the season. The core of young defensive players Miami had would help lead the team to five straight playoff berths, and two Super Bowl appearances from 1981-85.