The 1981 Miami Dolphins marked a new era in franchise history. Bob Griese, the quarterback who led the team to the undefeated season of 1972 and another Super Bowl win in 1973 was retired. This season was marked by a back-and-forth between two quarterbacks, young David Woodley and Don Strock that was never more evident than in this season’s epic final game.
Miami was coming off an 8-8 season that had ended a string of two straight postseason appearances. Regardless of who was at quarterback, this was a team that head coach Don Shula had built on defense.
Nose tackle Bob Baumhower was the only Pro Bowler on defense, but there were several other notable young players. Defensive end Doug Betters was a rising star, and would win Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1983.
Linebacker A.J. Duhe and defensive back Don McNeal were both young and would be key parts of a defense that carried the Dolphins until they drafted Dan Marino two years later.
The team also had one Pro Bowler on offense, right guard Ed Newman. He led an offensive line that blocked for a running game that was a tandem between Andra Franklin inside and Tony Nathan, who ran outside and caught passes. The two backs combined for nearly 1,400 yards, more or less evenly split.
Duriel Harris led all receivers with 911 yards, while Jimmy Cefalo and Nat Moore were other targets. Woodley was the starting quarterback–albeit one on a fairly short leash. He completed a respectable 52% of his passes for an equally respectable 6.7 yards-per-pass, but the TD-INT ratio was stuck at 12/13. Hence, Shula’s willingness to go to the 31-year-old Strock more than once.
Miami ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed, while coming in 11th in points scored. They got the season off to a strong start in St. Louis, completely shutting down a mediocre Cardinals team in a 20-7 win.
The following Thursday Night–a stage not common in the NFL at this time–the Dolphins hosted the Steelers and played well again. Miami led 13-10 in the third quarter, when Woodley found Nathan on a 13-yard touchdown pass, and then Tommy Vigorito brought a punt back 87 yards to the house, sealing a 30-10 win.
Woodley had still been erratic against Pittsburgh, going 14/34 for 161 yards against a defense that, even though just two years removed from the Steel Curtain Dynasty, was in decline to mediocrity along with the rest of the team.
Strock made his first relief appearance the following week in Houston. He went 7/10 for 62 yards and flipped a three-yard touchdown pass to Franklin to pull out a 16-10 win over the Oilers. Houston was another team declining into mediocrity, in this case, after three straight playoff seasons.
A visit from the Baltimore Colts, with a defense that would prove to be historically awful, was just the right medicine for Woodley. The 23-year-old quarterback went 19/30 for 309 yards, no interceptions and spread the ball to eight different receivers. He won a shootout with veteran quarterback Bert Jones, the league MVP in 1977, 31-28.
The New York Jets were struggling at 1-3 when they came to South Beach for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff. The undefeated Dolphins didn’t play well and Strock was again summoned. He went 18/29 for 279 yards, with Moore having a huge day receiving with 210 yards.
But the defense was pounded on the ground, losing the rush yardage battle 242-98. They were also shredded in the secondary, allowing 310 pass yards to Richard Todd. Fortunately, the Fish forced three turnovers and took perfect care of the ball themselves. It got them to overtime at 28-28 and the game ended in a tie.
The failure to take care of their homefield wouldn’t be decisive in this AFC East race, but it would loom very large throughout late November and December. And Miami followed it up by going to Buffalo–the defending AFC East champ–and playing their worst game of the season, trailing 31-7 at half. Strock got the start, but he apparently preferred to work in relief, throwing four interceptions. The final was 31-21, but this was never a game.
Woodley returned to the lineup at home against the Redskins and went 15/28. More important, he stretched the field with some big throws to Harris and Cefalo, piling up 296 yards passing. In a game where both teams ran the ball well, Woodley outplayed counterpart Joe Theismann in a 13-10 win. These same two quarterbacks would meet a year later in the Super Bowl and Woodley would not fare quite as well.
Miami went to Dallas, where the Cowboys were in the midst of a 12-4 season. It was a marquee battle that went to the national audience on late Sunday afternoon. Woodley was simultaneously spectacular–408 passing yards–and awful, with five interceptions. Both were season highs. Harris and Cefalo did most of the damage receiving and the Dolphins led 27-14 in the fourth quarter. But they couldn’t close and lost 28-27.
A road trip to New England, where the Patriots were having an awful season and would ultimately get the first pick in the draft, was next. But the Patriots, for a 2-14 team, played unusually feisty most weeks and this game was no different. Miami was in a 17-6 hole at the half.
They were able to rally and take a 27-24 lead behind a great day from Harris, with eight catches for 145 yards. They also intercepted four passes, two by linebacker Bob Brudzinski. Even though the Pats tied the game 27-27, the Dolphins got the field in overtime to win it.
The Oakland Raiders were the defending Super Bowl champs, but by November 15, the new reality, that this was a 7-9 team, had set in. Which made Miami’s poor home performance so disappointing. They gave up three touchdown passes to Marc Wilson and fell behind 21-0. Strock came on in relief and went 16/25 for 169 yards, cutting the lead to 24-17. But Oakland pulled back away and won 33-17.
Miami now traveled north to face the Jets at old Shea Stadium, known for its swirling winds. New York had turned its season around and were right in the mix with the Dolphins and Bills for the AFC East title. Woodley only threw for 63 yards, though he played the entire game. Miami got some clutch red zone defense to hold on to a 15-9 lead, in spite of seeming to take the worst of it much of the day.
It caught up to them in the end, as a Richard Todd-to-Jerome Barkum touchdown pass in the closing seconds beat the Dolphins 16-15. They ended the day tied with the Jets for first place at 7-4-1, with the Bills in close pursuit at 7-5. Because Miami hadn’t beaten New York head-to-head at home, they were on the wrong end of the tiebreaker with the Jets.
And a tough Monday Night game was on deck with the Philadelphia Eagles, the defending NFC champs and in a fight with Dallas for the NFC East crown. It was a defensive battle that the Dolphins trailed 10-3 going into the fourth quarter. Enter Strock. He went 4/6 for 37 yards, tied with a TD pass to Harris and then won it in overtime. Miami had kept pace with New York and maintained the half-game edge on Buffalo.
New England’s return trip to South Beach was next and again, the Patriots put up a fight, with the game tied 14-14 in the third quarter. This time a powerful running attack helped the Dolphins win. Nathan ran for 119 yards, the team as a whole went for 212 and the final was 24-14. The news from the west later in the day was even better–the Jets had been upset at Seattle and Miami was back in first place.
Woodley struggled in a road game at Kansas City, where the Chiefs had to win to stay alive. Miami still led 10-7 at half, but Strock came on the second half. He threw for 109 yards and put a touchdown on the board, though he did throw two picks. Regardless, the defense was stellar in a 17-7 win. The Dolphins had guaranteed at least a wild-card spot. The Bills had kept pace, a half-game back, also clinching a playoff berth. The two teams would play head-to-head in the finale for the AFC East crown.
It was a Saturday game, scheduled for late afternoon and Woodley struck the first blow, throwing a 7-yard touchdown pass to Vigorito. It turned out that was the only significant offensive blow for either team. Miami took better care of the football, winning turnovers 3-1 and that, along with the early touchdown, was the difference in a 16-6 win.
The Dolphins had clinched at least a home game in the divisional round and could rise to the #1 seed if the Cincinnati Bengals lost on Sunday. That didn’t happen. Miami’s two AFC East rivals would meet in the wild-card game of what was then a five-team conference playoff format based on three divisions (as MLB uses today). The Dolphins knew they would host the San Diego Chargers in two weeks.
On late Saturday afternoon, the day after New Year’s, the Dolphins and Chargers staged one of the great playoff battles in NFL history. I was eleven years old when I watched, as a basically neutral fan (I was cheering for the Dolphins, but they were never a favorite team) and still haven’t forgotten the rapt tension of the game.
It didn’t start out that way. Miami combined poor defense, a special teams miscue and an interception from Woodley to dig a 24-0 hole early in the second quarter. Strock had to come on. He followed with the game of his life.
Strock went 29/43 for 403 yards and threw four touchdowns, including a memorable hook-and-trail pass that went from Harris to Nathan and cut the lead to 24-17 by halftime. Miami actually got in control, leading 38-31 and driving for a lockup field goal with less than five minutes to play. But Franklin fumbled and San Diego got another chance.
Dan Fouts led the most productive offense in the league and the Chargers tied with less than a minute to play. Strock promptly ran the Dolphins back to the 26-yard line and got kicker Uwe von Schamaan a chance to win it. Instead, San Diego tight end Kellen Winslow got up and blocked the kick. It was part of a 13-catch, 166-yard showing for Winslow who had to be helped off the field from dehydration when this game finally ended.
And it didn’t end anytime soon. Even though the Chargers won the overtime toss and drove inside the red zone, the Dolphins got new life when a field goal was pulled left. Miami got its own chance to win, with von Schamaan trying a 34-yarder. This one too was blocked. The Dolphins had used up their last chance. With 1:08 left in the fifth quarter, San Diego got the field goal to win it.
The biggest memory of this game is Winslow being carried off the field, but no one who watched it has ever forgotten Strock or the hook-and-trail either. It was a heartbreaking ending for the 1981 Miami Dolphins, but they went down swinging with everything they had.
And the best was yet to come. This was the first of five straight AFC East titles for the Dolphins. They made two Super Bowls, in 1982 and 1984 and later brought Marino into the fold. There’s never a bad time to be in South Beach, but the early 1980s were particularly good if you were a Dolphins fan.