In 1990, the Don Shula ended a four-year playoff drought when he brought Miami back to the playoffs and then won the first game. Even though the 1990s would be mostly good years for this franchise, the 1991 Miami Dolphins represented a setback—a .500 season and a late fade that cost them the postseason.
The future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino was at the helm and he enjoyed a Pro Bowl year in 1991. Even though Marino’s 58% completion rate was a touch below the league norm, his 7.2 yards-per-attempt were a key strength and the 25-13 TD/INT ratio was solid by 1991 standards.
Marino’s prime targets on the outside were the two Marks, Clayton and Duper. Each caught 70 passes and averaged 15 yards-per-catch. Tony Paige came out of the backfield for 57 more catches. Marino’s blind side was protected by perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Richmond Webb and Mark Higgs provided support in the ground game, rushing for 95 yards.
Miami ranked sixth in the NFL in scoring offense and they needed those points, because the defense was lacking. They got a decent year from defensive end Jeff Cross, who had seven sacks and free safety Louis Oliver picked off five passes. Rookie outside linebacker Bryan Cox eventually became a Pro Bowl player. But not this year. A defense that failed to put anyone on the All-Pro lists was 24th among 28 teams in points allowed.
That dichotomy between offensive and defensive performance in a big Week 1 game at defending AFC champion Buffalo. The Dolphins jumped out to a 14-0 lead for the late Sunday afternoon national TV audience and still led 24-21 into the fourth quarter. But they gave up nearly 600 yards of total offense and lost 35-31.
A visit from Indianapolis was next and Higgs ran for 111 yards. The Colt offense was too woeful to do any damage and Miami won 17-6. But an erratic performance from Marino the following week at playoff-bound Detroit, combined with the rush defense’s inability to contain Barry Sanders, resulted in a 17-13 loss.
The Dolphins hosted Green Bay, then a bad team that was still a year away from the arrival of Brett Favre. Miami couldn’t run the ball, but they forced three turnovers, got five sacks and Marino went 19/32 for 212 yards to enable a 16-13 escape. But one week later in the Meadowlands, the defensive problems resurfaced against the New York Jets. Miami gave up over 200 yards rushing in a 41-23 loss to a team that would join them in the playoff race.
New England was another team that was bad in 1991 and Marino threw for 321 yards and a pair of second-quarter touchdown passes to lead a 20-10 road win. It was time to face another good opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs in another opportunity at 4 PM ET on Sunday afternoon for a wider audience. It was a disaster. The Dolphins were crushed on the ground and lost 42-7.
A visit from playoff-bound Houston saw Miami play better defense against a high-powered Oiler attack, but the lack of a running game was costly in a 17-13 loss. The Dolphins went into their bye week at 3-5. They were losing to every good team they played and only beating the league’s worst teams with rather marginal performances. The only thing worth getting excited about was that this AFC playoff race would be defined by mediocrity on the fringes.
The pattern continued when Indianapolis paid a return visit to Miami to start November (the Colts were an AFC East team prior to 2002, along with the division’s four current teams). Marino threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Duper in the first quarter, but the offense went quiet and only the utter ineptitude of Indy, the worst team in the league, enabled the Dolphins to hang on to the 10-6 win.
Prime-time football would be in South Beach the next two weeks, with the Patriots and Bills coming in. On a Sunday Night against New England, Marino broke a 20-20 tie in the fourth quarter by hitting Clayton with a 32-yard touchdown pass. It was one of three TD passes for Marino and keyed a 30-20 win.
The Monday Night visit from Buffalo didn’t go quite as well. The Bills were running away with the division and the top seed in the AFC playoffs. The Dolphins turned it over five times, got crushed on the ground again and lost 41-27.
At 5-6, Miami badly needed a win against a decent team and they finally got it on a visit to Chicago. An eight-point underdog to Mike Ditka’s Bears, who were a playoff perennial, the Dolphins trailed 13-3 in the fourth quarter. Marino rallied the troops, tied the game on a short touchdown pass to tight end Ferrell Edmunds and then won it 16-13 in overtime.
Miami was a game back in the AFC playoff push. They needed to catch either the Chiefs or Jets, both of whom they had lost to, and they also needed to beat out fellow 6-6 team Seattle (an AFC team prior to the realignment of 2002).
The schedule got soft and the offense heated up. Higgs ran for 131 yards at home against Tampa Bay, the Dolphins ripped off 24 unanswered points in the second quarter and won 33-14. Duper had a big game on Monday Night against Cincinnati, catching seven balls for 134 yards in a 37-13 win.
Meanwhile, the Jets had hit a tough spot in their schedule and lost consecutive games to Buffalo and Detroit. Seattle fell by the wayside. Miami was 8-6 and in the lead for the final playoff berth, with a season-finale showdown against the Jets looming.
The Dolphins went to San Diego for the regular season’s penultimate game. Early in the day, the Jets lost a third straight game, this one to the Patriots. Miami took the field in the late afternoon knowing they could clinch. They led 23-10 in the third quarter against a mediocre opponent with nothing to play for. But a missed extra point loomed and that shaky defense continued to be the team’s undoing. They gave up nearly 200 yards rushing, allowed four touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone and lost 38-30.
It would come down to a winner-take-all game with New York for the final playoff berth. In today’s NFL world, this game would have gotten flexed to Sunday Night. In the less creative world of 1991, it simply kicked off at 1 PM ET as planned. The game was worthy of a prime-time audience.
Marino was on the brink of bailing his team out one more time. In spite of being outrushed 231-46, he had led a late drive that ended up with a short touchdown pass to Edmunds—shades of the Chicago win. The Dolphins led 20-17 against an opponent that lacked any discernible offensive weapons. The defense let down one more time—they allowed a last drive for a field goal to tie the game and then lost in overtime, 23-20. The season was over.
Miami wasn’t done. They reached the AFC Championship Game in 1992 and had playoff years in 1994 and 1995. The fade of 1991 was a modest dark spot on an otherwise nice resume in the final years of the Shula/Marino combo.