The legendary Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula was in a slump. The man who won two Super Bowls in the 1970s and reached two more in the first half of the 1980s, spent four consecutive years out of the money from 1986-89. The prime of the equally legendary quarterback Dan Marino, was going to waste thanks to a poor defense. The 1990 Miami Dolphins got it turned around, with excellent defensive play and Marino taking them back into the postseason and kickstarting a new era of contention in South Beach.
Marino’s numbers weren’t great in 1990, but by the standards of the time they were acceptable—he completed 58 percent and his TD/INT ratio was 21-11. He stayed away from mistakes and distributed the ball to a wide range of targets, from speedy Mark Duper to possession receiver Jim Jensen to fullback Tony Paige to Pro Bowl tight end Ferrell Edmunds. It was enough, that in spite of a pedestrian running game and a young offensive line, Miami at least was league average offensively.
And average was all the offense needed to be as they get a long-awaited lift on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Jeff Cross was a Pro Bowler, with 11 ½ sacks. John Offerdahl was one of the best inside linebackers in football. Corner Tim McKyer, along with safeties Jarvis Williams and Louis Oliver were ball hawks in the secondary. The Dolphins finished fourth in the NFL in points allowed.
Miami sent an early message that this season would be different. The Buffalo Bills, the two-time defending AFC East champs came south in Week 2. Renowned for an explosive offense, the Bills were shut down and held to 44 yards rushing. Miami’s defense chased quarterback Jim Kelly from the game, held a shutout into the fourth quarter, and won 30-7. It was the highlight of a 4-1 start to the season where the only loss came to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Over the next seven weeks, the Dolphins held serve. The won all five games they played against mediocre opponents and lost to eventual playoff teams in the Los Angeles Raiders and Washington Redskins. Miami was 9-3 and a game back of Buffalo in the AFC East race, although they still had a game coming up with the Bills and the tiebreaker in hand if they won it.
Before that though, there was a big Sunday Night home game against the playoff-bound Philadelphia Eagles. Marino threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to get the scoring started and the Dolphins led 10-0. But Philly counterpart Randall Cunningham threw two scoring passes of his own and Miami trailed 20-10 into the fourth quarter against one of the league’s great defenses.
Marino rallied his team again. He capped off a night where he went 27/54 for 365 yards and no interceptions, by tying the game in regulation and then pulling out a 23-20 win in overtime.
The Dolphins were 11-3 when they went to Buffalo for the regular season’s penultimate game to settle the AFC East. Kelly was injured for the Bills, but the Miami rush defense did not play well. They allowed 154 yards to Thurman Thomas, while their own Sammie Smith could only generate 28 yards on the ground. The result was a 24-14 loss in the rain and having to settle for a wild-card berth.
Miami was the 4-seed and hosted the Kansas City Chiefs in a late Saturday afternoon kickoff on wild-card weekend. This would be one of the more underrated playoff games of all time, a feather in the cap for Marino’s career.
It didn’t start well—in fact, it went poorly for three quarters. Only a playoff-record 58-yard field goal by Pete Stoyanovich even had the Fish on the board. But the defense made red-zone stops and the deficit was still a manageable 16-3.
Marino flipped a 1-yard touchdown pass to Paige and then got the ball back on his own 15-yard line. A quick 37-yard strike to Edmunds got the drive rolling and it was capped off when Marino rifled an out pattern to Mark Clayton for a 12-yard touchdown pass. The Chiefs came roaring back and attempted a 52-yard field goal on the final play, but it came up just short. The Dolphins had their first playoff win since 1985.
Another trip to Buffalo was the reward, again with inclimate weather. Playing in a steady snowfall, the proud Miami defense finally collapsed. They dug themselves a 27-10 hole in the second quarter and while Marino closed the gap to 30-27, they never got the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. Buffalo promptly drove for another touchdown and the final ended up 44-34.
The season was still a step forward and Miami contended for the rest of Shula’s coaching career, which went through 1995. They made the playoffs three more times, but Buffalo was the hurdle they couldn’t get past, losing the AFC Championship Game to the Bills at home in 1992 and losing a wild-card game in Buffalo in ‘95.