The 1982 NFL season was the strangest in the league’s history. A player’s strike after two games interrupted the season and it didn’t resume until November. When the league picked up on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, there was only time for a nine-game schedule. A decision was made to abolish divisional distinctions, expand the playoffs and just seed each conference 1 thru 8.
The result was a first round of the postseason that had a March Madness feel to it, with four games on both Saturday and Sunday, and jammed into what were then two timeslots (prime-time playoff games were still a ways off into the future).
This blog compilation focuses on the seasons of the league’s six most consequential teams, with a game-by-game narrative of each one. Each article exists individually on TheSportsNotebook.com and has been modestly edited to eliminate obvious redundancies. Playoff games are told in detail from the perspective of the team that won and treated as an epilogue for the team that lost.
You’ll read about the following…
*How the Washington Redskins, in the second year under Joe Gibbs, won the franchise’s first Super Bowl behind the running of big John Riggins.
*The Miami Dolphins made it to a Super Bowl behind a stingy defense, but were held back by offensive shortcomings that led them to draft Dan Marino the following spring.
*The Dallas Cowboys made the NFC Championship Game for a third straight year, but another loss began the gradual descent of the Tom Landry era.
*The New York Jets stepped up and made an AFC Championship Game, with a good defense and some great play from running back Freeman McNeil.
*The Raiders moved to Los Angeles and added two fantastic rookies in Marcus Allen and Howie Long. They rolled to a 1-seed in the AFC before suffering an upset to the Jets.
*The Green Bay Packers made the playoffs for the only time in the nine-year coaching tenure of Bart Starr behind an aggressive passing game led by quarterback Lynn Dickey and talented receivers in James Lofton and John Jefferson.
Miami came into the season licking their wounds from a crushing playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers, in the greatest divisional round game ever played. The 1982 Miami Dolphins made amends for that defeat and went all the way to the Super Bowl behind an outstanding defense.
The Dolphin defense only had one Pro Bowler, nose tackle Bob Baumhower, but the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Coordinator Bill Arnsparger oversaw a unit that ranked second in the NFL in points allowed.
The supporting cast included defensive end Doug Betters, who grew into the Defensive Player Of The Year by 1983. Miami also had Kim Bokamper and Bob Brudzinski at linebacker, along with the Blackwoods, Glenn and Lyle in the secondary. The last names led to the nickname “The Killer B’s”. One non-B player, cornerback Don McNeal, was pretty good himself with four interceptions in a schedule that was only nine games due to a players’ strike.
Head coach Don Shula built his offense around the running game, with Andra Franklin rushing for over 700 yards and making the Pro Bowl. Franklin ran behind an offensive line that had two veteran Pro Bowl guards, Bob Kuechenberg and Ed Newman. In between was 25-year-old center Dwight Stephenson, who ultimately made the Hall of Fame. That’s a pretty good way to establish muscle in the middle.
The running game was badly needed, because David Woodley was a liability at quarterback. His 55% completion rate was about league average in this era, but was poor at getting the ball downfield for chunk yardage and mediocre at avoiding interceptions. It stands to follow that the receivers, Jimmy Cefalo and Duriel Harris, didn’t have good numbers, although it’s fair to wonder where the reason for that ultimately was.
Miami opened the season at the New York Jets, who had made the playoffs themselves in 1981. This was a late Sunday afternoon kick in old Shea Stadium and the Dolphins made an early statement. Tommy Vigorito returned a punt 59 yards for a touchdown. Glenn Blackwood and McNeal each had Pick-6’s. Miami built a 45-14 lead and closed out a 45-28 win.
The Colts were an AFC East rival up until 2002, and they were in Baltimore until 1984. They were also terrible in 1982 and Woodley threw a couple first quarter touchdowns for a quick lead and the Dolphins did just enough the rest of the way for a 24-20 win.
At 2-0, the strike hit and play did not resume until right before Thanksgiving, leaving time for seven more games. The league decided to abolish divisional distinctions and just take the top eight teams in each conference for the playoffs, the one and only time the postseason has been 16 teams.
Miami went to Buffalo for the first game back and got six interceptions from six different players in a 27-10 win. The following Monday Night they played at Tampa Bay, who had reached the playoffs two of the previous three years and would make it again this year. The Dolphins dug a 16-3 hole and Shula pulled Woodley. Don Strock, the epitome of a solid veteran backup, went 17/34 for 204 yards, but also threw four interceptions. Miami lost 23-17.
The defense stepped it up in a home game against the playoff-bound Vikings. Larry Gordon led the way, getting two of the Dolphins’ five sacks and one of their three interceptions. Franklin rushed for 129 yards and the final was 22-14.
Snow pounded New England for a December 12 game against the Patriots. The conditions made moving the ball impossible and kicking no less difficult. Until New England got into field goal range and then a snow plow appeared at a timeout and cleared a space for Patriot kicker John Smith. Miami lost 3-0.
An early Saturday afternoon game with the Jets gave Miami a chance to get their fifth win, which would all but salt away a playoff berth (only seven teams would finish 5-4 or better). In a tight game, Strock again come on in relief and went 7/8 for 54 yards. Trailing 19-17, the Dolphins got a 47-yard field goal from Uwe von Schamaan to win it.
A Monday Night game with Buffalo, who had been to the playoffs in both 1980 and 1981 and was pushing to get back, was next. Miami fell behind 10-0 and Woodley only threw for 88 yards, but Franklin and fellow running back Tony Nathan led the way on a rushing attack that gained 161 yards and the Dolphins closed out a 27-10 win. They finished the season the day after New Year’s in Baltimore. The Colts had a miserable year, only getting one tie. Woodley went 14/22 for 239 yards and three touchdowns in an easy 34-7 win.
Miami was rolling into the playoffs with the #2 seed. The first-round opponent was New England, who finished 5-4. The Snow Plow Game had drawn national attention (they would have called it “Plowgate” today) and the rematch in the warmer conditions of the old Orange Bowl got more focus than it probably deserved, given that the Dolphins were the clearly superior team and came in a 7 ½ point favorite.
The first quarter went by scoreless and the Patriots mounted the first scoring threat, before the Miami defense held inside the 10-yard line and forced a field goal. Miami then began to move the ball, with Woodley tossing a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Bruce Hardy and Franklin going from a yard out. It went to the locker room at 14-3.
The Patriots got another field goal in the third quarter, but there was no two-point conversion in the NFL back then, so it was still a two-score game and when Miami’s Woody Bennett scored on a two-yard run, the Dolphins were firmly in command.
Woodley played an excellent game, going 16/19 for 246 yards and two touchdowns, finished it off with another two-yard flip to Hardy. A meaningless Patriots touchdown ended the game at 28-13. Miami had outrushed New England 214-77 and controlled the game in every way. Now the Dolphins had the rematch everyone really wanted to see—the Chargers were coming back for another divisional round matchup.
Miami didn’t get a lot of respect was listed as a 1 ½ point underdog on their homefield. But they had the revenge factor, and both teams had this incentive—the top-seeded Los Angeles Raidershad been upset by the Jets the previous day. The winner of this game would host the AFC Championship Game.
Woodley delivered another clutch postseason outing, going 17/22 for 295 yards and he got the scoring started with a short first-quarter touchdown pass to veteran receiver Nat Moore. In the second quarter he threw another TD pass, Franklin ran in for one and von Schamaan added a field goal.
The 24-0 score in the second quarter was surreal—it was the same lead the Chargers had in the 1981 playoff game, before the Dolphins began their comeback. So when Fouts threw a 28-yard touchdown pass and ultimately cut the lead to 27-13 by halftime, there was reason to be nervous.
Miami’s second-quarter field goal had come after bogging down inside the 10-yard line. In the third quarter they turned it over twice, once inside the 10-yard line. The defense prevented San Diego from making it closer though, picking off Fouts three times in the second half and five times for the game. Finally, Woodley, ran it in from seven yards out and a 34-13 win was in the books.
Woodley had played the two best games of his career when it mattered most. The ground game pounded out another 214 yards, with Franklin and Nathan more or less splitting the load. Glenn Blackwood had two interceptions and linebacker A.J. Duhe had two sacks. Miami was peaking at the right time.
Rain pounded the Orange Bowl for the AFC title game. Just like the snow game in New England, the extreme weather made doing anything all but impossible. Woodley “only” threw three interceptions, but he got the better of it because Jets counterpart Richard Todd threw five. The teams combined for nine turnovers and 19 punts.
After a scoreless first half, a seven-yard touchdown run from Bennett gave Miami what looked like an insurmountable 7-0 lead in these conditions. Duhe then sealed the deal when he picked off a Todd pass and went 35 yards to the house. The fans went home soaked, but happy. The 14-0 win had the Dolphins in their first Super Bowl since their three-year run atop the AFC from 1971-73.
Miami played the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl, a rematch from 1972 when the Dolphins beat the Redskins to complete their perfect season. This time around it went Washington’s way.
The Dolphins were able to strike on two big plays in the first half, a 76-yard touchdown pass from Woodley to Cefalo and a 98-yard kickoff return by Fulton Walker. They led 17-10 at the half and 17-13 early in the fourth quarter. But the offense was doing nothing and other than the two big plays, there was nary a threat to be found.
Eventually, Washington’s big offensive line and running back John Riggins wore the Killer B’s down. Riggins converted a 4th-and-1 into a 43-yard touchdown run and Miami ultimately lost 27-17.
By the next season, Shula would solve his quarterback problem—he drafted a guy named Dan Marino in the first round and put him in the lineup early in the season. It worked well enough to put the Dolphins in the playoffs each of the next three years, to win another AFC title in 1984 and to settle the quarterback position for nearly two decades.