The 1983 Miami Dolphins began a great new era in franchise history, as they broke in a rookie quarterback named Dan Marino. In spite of changing quarterbacks mid-stream, the Dolphins rolled to a 12-win season and AFC East title before a disappointing playoff loss finally ended the run.
David Woodley was the quarterback when the season began, and the Dolphins had won the division in 1981 and then reached the Super Bowl in the strike-shortened year of 1982. The wins came in spite of Woodley having to be occasionally pulled and on the strength of the defense.
Undoubtedly today, there would be a screaming crescendo of media voices praising Woodley and saying “all he does is win,”, but in the more enlightened world of 1983, the quarterback was seen as what he was—a drag on an otherwise pretty good football team.
Miami’s defense was the best in the NFL in points allowed and they were led by Defensive Player of the Year Doug Betters. The end recorded 16 sacks and was one of the “Killer B’s”, so nicknamed because of the preponderance of players whose last names began with B.
Other Killer B’s included nose tackle Bob Baumhower, a 1st-team All-Pro that got eight sacks in the difficult role of coming up the middle. Outside linebacker Charles Bowser got 6 ½ more sacks. Other B’s included Kim Bokamper, Bob Brudzinski, and the Blackwood boys, Glenn and Lyle in the secondary.
And there were some talented players whose last names began with other letters. Inside linebacker A.J. Duhe, a hero of the previous year’s AFC Championship Game, added 5 ½ sacks and corner Gerald Small intercepted five passes.
The running game wasn’t overwhelming, but it was consistent, with Andra Franklin and Tony Nathan tag-teaming to combine for over 1,400 yards. Franklin was more the pure inside runner, with Nathan also catching 52 passes. Miami had a good kicking game, with Uwe von Schamann and rookie punter Reggie Roby. They had a talented young receiver in Mark Duper and a good veteran in Nat Moore. What they needed was someone who could get them the football.
The Dolphins opened the season at mediocre Buffalo, and Woodley went 8/20 for 40 yards. Fortunately, Miami won the rushing battle 151-86, got four sacks from Betters and used four field goals to win 12-0. The quarterback was better at home against another mediocre division foe in New England, going 11/20 for 215 yards. The Fish ran out to a 27-3 lead after three quarters and won by a deceptively close 34-24.
A Monday Night game at the Los Angeles Raiders. These teams were not only powerhouses of the previous decade, they had been the top two seeds in the conference the year before and would be so again this year (though they didn’t play for the AFC crown on either occasion).
Miami embarrassed themselves on the national stage and fell behind 27-0, and the nation got its first look at Marino, who came in for mop-up duty in a 27-14 loss. Woodley was back in the saddle at home against the subpar Kansas City Chiefs. He was 10/17 for just 92 yards and threw two interceptions, while the Dolphins also lost five fumbles. The great defense bailed them out again in a 14-6 win.
The first Sunday of October was the breaking point for head coach Don Shula. On the road against the New Orleans Saints, who would finish 8-8, Woodley went 4/12 for 34 yards. The defense couldn’t help this time, allowing nearly 200 yards on the ground. Marino came in and went 12/22 for 150 yards, but couldn’t rally the troops in a 17-7 loss.
Shula pulled the trigger and made Marino the starter after this game. Woodley literally never took a snap the rest of the season.
The move would result in Duper becoming a 1,000-yard receiver. Over the rest of the season, Marino would throw for over 2,200 yards—a high per-game average in the early 1980s—and have a dazzling 20-6 TD/INT ratio. The Dolphins finished the season as the seventh-best offense in the NFL. To say nothing of the Hall of Fame career that was ahead for the quarterback. It’s safe to say this move worked out pretty well.
Marino made his first start at home against Buffalo and got into a passing war with Joe Ferguson. Marino went 1/29 for 322 yards, but Ferguson was even better, 38/55 for 419 yards and the Dolphins lost the shootout in overtime, 38-35.
They were a (+3) underdog for a road trip to old Shea Stadium to face the New York Jets, the team Miami beat in the previous year’s AFC title game. Marino set a quick tone when he hit Moore on a 66-yard touchdown strike. The quarterback added two more touchdowns and Bokamper had 24-yard interception return for a TD in a 32-14 win. The Jets would fall to 7-9 and miss the playoffs. The Fish were off and running.
The defense forced four turnovers at the mediocre Baltimore Colts in a 21-7 win, and the Marino-to-Duper combo delivered a 30-14 at home against the playoff-bound Los Angeles Rams. Duper caught seven passes for 134 yards as the air war trumped the powerful ground game led by the Rams’ Eric Dickerson.
Marino and Joe Montana staged a preview of the Super Bowl matchup that would take place a year later, following the 1984 NFL season when Miami went to San Francisco. Marino hit Moore for a pair of 1st-half touchdowns and then led the drive for the winning field in a 20-17 victory. The quarterback finally had a rough game in New England on November 13, going 14/37 for 141 yards, and the rush defense failed in a 17-6 loss.
Miami came back with a vengeance at home against Baltimore. After a scoreless first quarter, the Dolphins exploded. Marino’s 85-yard touchdown pass to Duper and Mark Clayton’s 60-yard punt return were the highlights of a 24-point second quarter and a 37-0 win.
The Dolphins would blow open the AFC East. Even though all four rivals finished either 7-9 or 8-8, the Patriots, Colts and Bills all faded. Only the Jets, who were 4-7, played well and that just moved them to respectability. Miami’s focus could go outward to their seeding.
In the three division winners/two wild-cards format the existed prior to 1990, Miami was assured of being in the divisional round, but they could be seeded anywhere from 1 thru 3. They were a game back of both the Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Dolphins won a Monday Night game over shaky Cincinnati. Miami blew open a 17-14 game in the second half, as Marino threw a touchdown pass to Duper, the run defense dominated and the final was 38-14. Then they survived a road trip to the awful Houston Oilers (the forerunner of today’s Tennessee Titans). Miami trailed 17-10 before a Marino touchdown pass and Nathan TD run produced a 24-17 win. Pittsburgh started losing and would fade to the 3-seed, assuring Miami of playing the divisional round at home. The Dolphins were a game back of the Raiders, but the Monday Night loss of September loomed large in the tiebreakers.
Shula didn’t go all-out for the top seed, choosing instead to sit Marino. It didn’t hurt, as veteran Don Strock led the team to wins in the last two games, playing exceptionally well in a 31-24 home win over Atlanta, going 17/22 for 229 yards and two touchdowns.
A Raiders’ loss in the penultimate week kept the top seed open, and the Dolphins beat the Jets 34-24 in a Friday night season finale, as backup running back David Overstreet rushed for 96 yards. They watched the Raiders play the Chargers two days later and Los Angeles broke open a close game in the fourth quarter.
Miami would go in as the #2 seed. The playoff rules specified that divisional matchups could not take place prior to the AFC Championship Game. With the Raiders’ rivals, the Seahawks and Broncos, playing in the wild-card game, the Dolphins knew they would draw the winner of that Christmas Eve game.
It was Seattle, with a great rookie talent of their own, running back Curt Warner, that came to the Orange Bowl on a rainy New Year’s Eve. To everyone’s surprise, the dream season of the Dolphins came to an end on day they were eight-point favorites.
Marino finished 15/25 for 193 yards and consistently hooked up with Duper, who caught nine passes for 117 yards. Miami led 20-17 with 3:43 to play, but it could have been more, as they already trailed the turnover battle 3-1, thanks to two Marino interceptions. Seattle drove for the lead touchdown. Miami fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Seattle added a field goal. Another fumbled kickoff took the ball out of Marino’s hands again. The season was over in a 27-20 loss.
This season might have been over, but the Dolphins had their quarterback and a year later, Marino would get them back into the Super Bowl.