Another Near-Miss For The 1985 Miami Dolphins

The 1985 Miami Dolphins were in the franchise’s third year with Dan Marino quarterback. The first two years had seen a pair of AFC East titles, a Super Bowl trip and an MVP award. All that was left was to win the Lombardi Trophy itself. The Dolphins didn’t achieve that goal in ’85, but they made a good run at it, and in the process were able to defend their organization’s proudest legacy.

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Marino didn’t win a second straight MVP award, but he did almost everything else. The quarterback with the rapid-fire release was 1st-team All-NFL, throwing over 4,100 yards and 30 touchdown passes. He did it in spite of wide receiver Mark Duper missing a chunk of the season due to an injury.

Mark Clayton, another Pro Bowl wideout, stepped up with 70 catches for nearly 1,000 yards. Veteran Nat Moore caught 51 passes for a little over 700 yards. Bruce Hardy was a reliable target at tight end and no one on the entire team caught more passes than Tony Nathan did out of the backfield, snagging 72 balls for 651 yards.

The offensive line was in good hands, with future Hall of Fame center Dwight Stephenson enjoying a 1st-team All-NFL campaign at age 28. Left guard Roy Foster was also in his prime, at 25, and a Pro Bowl talent. But while the protection was good, the running game was not. Nathan’s 667 rush yards led the team.

Even so, it was the only weakness on an offense that ranked fourth in the NFL in points scored. The defense was starting to show slippage, especially when compared to the first few years of the decade when they carried the team prior to Marino. There were no Pro Bowlers to be found, but ranking 12th in the league in points allowed was still plenty good with an attack like this.

Miami opened the season at the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) and no one saw what was coming. The Oilers had gone 5-27 over the previous two seasons and when the Dolphins got a Pick-6 from corner William Judson and took an early 13-0 lead, and it looked this would be a nice and easy Week 1 tuneup.

What happened is that Marino would be knocked out of the game and Houston’s up-and-coming quarterback Warren Moon went 12/17 for 270 yards. Even with backup Dolphin quarterback Don Strock hitting Duper on a 67-yard touchdown pass and giving his team a 23-19 lead, the Oilers stole a shocking upset with a late touchdown.

Marino returned for a home game with Indianapolis and went 29/48 for 329 yards and no interceptions, repeatedly hooking up with Clayton who went over 100 receiving yards. A 30-13 win got the Dolphins back on track and the quarterback then carved up Kansas City to the tune of 23/35 for 258 yards and spreading the ball to nine different receivers in a 31-0 rout.

Miami went to Denver on September 29 for their first real test. After playing three teams that would all finish 6-10 or worse, a battle between Marino and John Elway, against a team that was coming off an AFC West title and would win 11 games this year, would provide a good barometer for when the Fish really stood.

The test was passed. In a good game, the Dolphins trailed 23-20 in the third quarter, before Marino threw a 46-yard touchdown pass. With a 30-23 lead in the fourth quarter, the defense got a key red-zone stop, forced a field goal and then closed out the four-point win. Marino outgunned Elway with 390 yards, three touchdown and no interceptions.

A rematch of the previous year’s AFC Championship Game came with Pittsburgh. The Steelers were on their way to a 7-9 season, but they played tough in South Beach. Marino threw three interceptions and the Dolphins trailed 20-17, but they were able to put together one last touchdown drive and win 24-20.

It was time for the Monday Night stage, and the opponent would be the New York Jets, who were also 4-1. The performance in the Meadowlands was nothing short of disastrous. Marino didn’t make mistakes, but the Jets kept him firmly under wraps, at 13/23 for 136 yards. And the flaws Miami had up front were exposed, as New York won the rushing battle 245-74 and took the football game decisively, 23-7.

A home game with the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers wasn’t much better, but in this case, the opponent was so bad, that the Dolphins survived. Favored by (-13), Miami blew a 38-21 lead and the game turned into an air war between Marino and Steve DeBerg. The latter actually got the better of Marino in the numbers, with 365 yards and four touchdowns compared to Marino’s 302 and three TDs. But Marino led the drive for a late field goal to win 41-38.

The combination of a loss and narrow escape didn’t shake Miami from the doldrums when they went to Detroit. A team that would finish 7-9 scored ten quick points and Eric Hipple outplayed Marino in a 31-21 loss. Now a big battle awaited at New England, where the Patriots were right in the mix with the Dolphins and Jets for the AFC East title.

Miami took a 10-0 lead, but with the wind blowing and the rain coming down in Foxboro, the Dolphin issues with running the ball couldn’t be overcome. They lost rushing yardage 203-91 and lost the game 17-13, an ominous foreshadowing of how the season would ultimately end.

No one expected the Dolphins to be in third place more than halfway into the season, but at 5-4, that’s where they are, with the Patriots at 6-3 and the Jets setting the pace at 7-2. There were two wild-card spots available and the AFC West had had several teams in the mix.

There wasn’t much cushion left for Miami when the Jets came south for the rematch in the late Sunday afternoon TV window. Marino came up clutch. He hit Duper on a 60-yard touchdown pass, and when the Dolphins trailed 17-14 in the fourth quarter, Marino-to-Duper came through again, a 50-yard scoring strike and a 21-17 win.

It was the lynchpin for a surge to the finish. Marino threw for 330 yards in a 34-20 win at Indianapolis (prior to 2002 the Colts were in the AFC East with the division’s four current teams). Another division road win came at Buffalo. In spite of a sluggish game against terrible team, it was a rare situation where the running game carried the Fish, to a 23-14 win.

The biggest story in the NFL was the play of the Chicago Bears. They were 11-0, had a historically great defense and the possibility of an undefeated season was real. The legacy of the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated champion in the Super Bowl era was at risk, and the nation was ready to tune in when the Bears and Dolphins met in the old Orange Bowl on the Monday Night stage.

Chicago’s defense was historic, but it was Miami’s defense that made the plays on this night. They got six sacks and intercepted three passes. Marino only completed 14/27 passes, but he got the ball downfield and made them count for 270 yards. The team’s best receivers were able to get open, with Duper, Clayton and Moore accounting for all the catches and for three touchdowns. The Dolphins led 31-10 by halftime and won 38-24.

The AFC East race was now a three-way tie, everybody at 9-4. Miami went to mediocre Green Bay, took a 20-3 lead, and then gave up three straight touchdowns. Trailing 24-20, Marino came through again. He went 30/44 for 345 yards and delivered two more touchdowns down the stretch for a 34-24 win.

Out west, the Raiders had taken the division lead, and Denver was now at 9-5 and the only serious contender left for the wild-card spots. The Dolphins had the head-to-head tiebreaker on the Broncos and were in good position. The Miami position got even better the following Saturday when the Jets lost to the Bears. It meant that a Dolphins-Patriots Monday Night game was for sole possession of the AFC East lead.

Miami was a five-point favorite and they took a 27-13 lead. But New England was able to tie the game when a fumbled punt was returned for a touchdown. Marino didn’t have a great night, but strong safety Glenn Blackwood intercepted two passes and the great quarterback led one final drive with the money on the table. A 47-yard field goal produced a 30-27 win.

The win clinched the playoffs for the Dolphins, but they could still range anywhere from first to third in their division. But with their final game at home against the Bills, who were 2-13, no one associated with the Jets or Patriots were under any illusions.

Miami forced six turnovers and coasted to an easy 28-0 win. The win secured at least the 2-seed and the Dolphins still had a chance at homefield advantage going into Monday Night. But the Raiders beat the playoff-bound Rams and secured the top line in the AFC playoffs.

Head coach Don Shula had a week off to get ready for the divisional playoff game with the Cleveland Browns, who had become the first team to make the playoffs at 8-8 in a bad division. Cleveland had a rookie quarterback in Bernie Kosar, who had been hero in South Beach, for leading the Miami Hurricanes to a national title in 1983. The head coach, Marty Schottenheimer, was just starting a successful career of his own.

The Dolphins were a hefty (-10.5) favorite and an early drive produced a 51-yard field goal. Then the Browns started pounding the ball on the ground. They would rush for 251 yards and Earnest Byner ran for two touchdowns, including a 66-yard jaunt in the third quarter that made the score a stunning 21-3.

Marino struck back with lightning speed. He threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Moore, and before the third quarter was out, Ron Davenport bolted 31 yards for a score that made it 21-17 with plenty of time left.

The offense then started to slow, but with Kosar only going 10/19 for 66 yards, Cleveland was unable to get any separation or keep Miami off the field. Marino kept the pressure on, with Nathan coming out of the backfield for ten catches and 101 receiving yards. And with 1:57 left, Davenport scored one more touchdown and the Dolphins had survived 24-21.

Everyone anticipated a trip to Los Angeles for the AFC Championship Game. But the following afternoon, the Patriots upset the Raiders. Miami was now sitting on a home game to get back to the Super Bowl. And by the time they took the field it was known that Chicago would be the opponent.

The rain was coming down in south Florida, the second time the Dolphins and Pats met in inclimate weather, though the wind wasn’t a problem in this game. What was a problem was that Miami couldn’t stop the run. They lost the rushing battle 255-68 and Marino was up and down, throwing for 248 yards, but also two interceptions. The Dolphins trailed 17-7 at half and lost 31-14.

It was a surprise dud of an ending to the season. It’s tough to say Miami blew a golden opportunity, because in spite of the regular season win over Chicago, the Bears would still have been the Super Bowl favorite. But Marino’s quick-strike release was an ideal matchup for the attacking Chicago defense. It would have been interesting to see what happened had the Dolphins not come up small in the rain against the Patriots. And, as it turned out, Miami would not get back to the playoffs until 1990, and still haven’t been back to a Super Bowl.