The Miami Dolphins had been the NFL’s great team of the early 1970s, producing an undefeated Super Bowl champion in 1972, and repeating as champs in 1973. But after a last-second playoff loss in 1974 to the Oakland Raiders the Dolphins briefly disappeared from the radar. They missed the postseason three consecutive years. The 1978 Miami Dolphins marked the return of head coach Don Shula to the playoff festivities.
In fairness to Miami, their playoff misses of 1975-77 have to be given some perspective. The first and last of those teams produced records of 10-4, but there were only four teams per conference in the postseason. By the standards of today, the Dolphins of 1975 would have made it. And by the standards introduced for 1978—when the league added a fifth team to the playoffs, along with a 16-game regular season schedule—the Dolphins would also have made it.
That’s all well and good, and appropriate to give some context. But no playoffs is still no playoffs, and this is a franchise that had a reputation for excellence, and there was also a 6-8 clunker of a season mixed in for 1976. To top it off, 33-year-old quarterback Bob Griese was injured to open the 1978 season.
Shula had a competent backup quarterback in Don Strock, and he also had one of the league’s best runners in Delvin Williams, who went for 1,258 yards and was first-team All-Pro. The receiving corps was balanced, led by Nat Moore, who caught ten touchdown passes, and including Duriel Harris. Up front was a veteran offensive line led by another 1st-team All-Pro in guard Bob Kuechenberg.
It added up to a unit that ranked in the top five in the NFL for both rush yards per play and pass yards per play. And the defense, while not having Pro Bowlers, had a core of young talent that would eventually become one of the league’s most respected. And, for that matter, they weren’t bad in 1978, ranking sixth in the league in points allowed.
Perhaps most impressively, was that overseeing all this was not simply Shula, but two exceptionally talented coordinators. Howard Schnellenberger ran the offense and he was on the verge of making his name for building the University of Miami football program into a power and springing one of college football’s great victories at the 1984 Orange Bowl. Defensive guru Bill Arnsparger would also soon become a college coach and lead LSU to a pair of Sugar Bowl appearances.
The season still got off to a rocky start, when the secondary was carved up by New York Jets’ quarterback Richard Todd, who threw for 245 yards and three touchdowns and handed Miami a 33-20 road loss. The Dolphins bounced back with wins over bad teams in the Baltimore Colts and Buffalo Bills, but then saw their offense manhandled in Philadelphia, dropping the record to 2-2.
Miami’s time without Griese was made a little easier by a softer early schedule, and the Dolphins beat non-competitive teams in the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals to 4-2. The Bengal win came on a Monday Night and also marked the first Griese sighting, as the quarterback got some token snaps.
The following week was on the road against an improving San Diego Chargers’ team. Strock started and threw an early touchdown pass, but Griese finished and threw another. They both played efficiently, and even though Charger quarterback Dan Fouts threw for over 300 yards, he also threw two interceptions, his team lost three fumbles and Miami escaped with a 28-21 win that would loom extremely large before it was over.
Miami was tied for first with the New England Patriots at 5-2 and were headed to Foxboro for a late afternoon kickoff. Griese made his first start of the season and played well, going 22/35 for 227 yards. Williams ran well, going for 116 yards. The Dolphins led 21-17 in the third quarter, but the defense could not hold.
The Patriots ran for 225 yards as a team, the big threat being Horace Ivory, and he was the one who broke a 24-24 tie with a fourth quarter touchdown run. Griese was subsequently sacked in the end zone for a safety that ended the game 33-24.
Miami licked its wounds by beating the Colts, and then the Dolphins delivered their most impressive performance of the season.
The Dallas Cowboys, the defending Super Bowl champ, came to the old Orange Bowl for a late afternoon game.
Griese did exactly what a veteran does—he was smoothly efficient, completing 12/18 for 185 yards and made no mistakes. The Cowboys turned it over five times. Miami was ahead 17-0 in the first quarter and never seriously threatened en route to a 23-16 win.
After the Dolphins beat the Bills the following week, they saw the Patriots lose to the Houston Oilers. The AFC East race was tied, both New England and Miami at 8-3, and the season finale would be between the two teams on Monday Night.
But another Monday Night Game would be in Houston, and what the Oilers had given the Dolphins a week earlier, they now took away. Houston’s rookie running back Earl Campbell ran wild, 199 yards and four touchdowns. Griese aired it out and threw for 349 yards, spreading the ball to nine different receivers, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a 35-30 loss.
A worse defeat came a week later. Miami was a 7 ½ point favorite at home against the Jets, but for some reason could not handle New York in 1978. Griese threw three interceptions in an ugly 24-13 loss. The Patriots were now two games up in the AFC East.
The Dolphins and Raiders were right after the Pittsburgh Steelers when it came to the best teams in the AFC in the 1970s—in fact, in December 1978, prior to the Steelers’ third and fourth Super Bowl victories of the decade, it might be fair to say that Miami was leading the race for Team Of The Decade, and Oakland was still in the discussion.
Now, with the Dolphins at 9-5 and the Raiders at 8-6, they would play a game that would likely end the hopes of the loser. It was another late afternoon kickoff down in the Orange Bowl.
The defense that had smothered Washington a week earlier was still going strong. Linebacker Larry Gordon picked off Raider quarterback Ken Stabler three times. Defensive back Gerald Small had two picks of his own, the last of which he took to the house. It was the last season for Oakland coach John Madden and it, for all practical purposes, ended in Miami’s Orange Bowl, as the Dolphins handed him a 23-6 loss.
Miami had clinched a playoff spot with their 10-5 record. Even if they lost to New England, no other contender was higher than 8-7. The big win was San Diego—the Chargers would win their finale, finish 9-7 and had they beaten Miami, it would have swung a playoff berth.
The Dolphins were a game back of the Patriots, but were out of the AFC East race. Miami still needed to win to secure homefield advantage for the first-ever AFC wild-card game, which would be against the Oilers, who finished 10-6 and held the tiebreaker on the Fish. The Dolphins easily beat the Patriots 23-3.
Shula’s return to the playoffs was surprisingly short. They lost at home to Houston. It wasn’t Campbell this time, but the Oiler passing game led by quarterback Dan Pastorini, and a smothering defense that keyed Houston’s 17-9 win.
Even with the loss, the 1978 Miami Dolphins had at least ended a playoff drought, made themselves relevant again and a year later they would be back as AFC East champs.