The Miami Dolphins were on relative hard times for the Don Shula era coming into 1989. They had missed the playoffs each of the previous three years, bottoming out with a 6-10 finish in 1988. The ‘89 team got back into contention and even though they ultimately came up short, set the stage for another run of winning seasons in the decade ahead. Here are the noteworthy points about the 1989 Miami Dolphins…
*Miami made it back to .500 in 1989 in spite of a down year from Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino. His 24/22 TD-INT ratio, while not as disastrous as it would be in today’s game, was still below what Marino was accustomed to producing. Nor were the interception problems counterbalanced by more big plays—the 7.3 yards-per-attempt was pedestrian.
*Mark Clayton enjoyed a 1,000-yard season at receiver and tight end Ferrell Edmunds made the Pro Bowl. It was Mark Duper, the other key wideout, whose production went down with Marino’s. The offense finished 15th in a 28-team NFL in scoring offense.
*Defense was the Dolphins’ problem, even in their run to the Super Bowl in 1984, and this season was no different. The only bright spot was Pro Bowler John Offerdahl, in the midst of a five-year stretch as one of the game’s top inside linebackers. But without help, Offerdahl alone wasn’t enough to stop the defense from ranking 22nd in points allowed.
*Miami lost three of their first four games. Some of this was due to schedule—they lost a close game at home to Buffalo and were buried by the Houston Oilers, both consistent playoff teams in this time period. But one of the losses was to the lowly New York Jets, a shootout where Marino was outgunned by Ken O’Brien. And Marino himself did not play well in the 24-10 win over New England in Week 2, throwing three interceptions.
*By rights a difficult October schedule should have finished the Dolphins, but instead it’s where they bounced back. They won in Cleveland, who reached the AFC Championship Game. Miami beat Cincinnati, the defending AFC champ, and they knocked off Green Bay. Both the Bengals and Packers were in playoff contention to the final week.
All three wins were thrillers—the Browns game was in overtime, the Dolphins rallied from ten down to beat the Bengals and the Green Bay victory came on a Pete Stoyanovich field goal after Miami had blown a two-touchdown lead. The only loss in the season’s second quarter came at Buffalo.
*After playing that kind of competition, the schedule was bound to lighten up and Miami took advantage. They rattled off three more wins. A 19-13 home win over Indianapolis came thanks to 123 rushing yards from Sammie Smith. Trailing the Jets 20-10 on the road in the third quarter, Marino rifled touchdown passes of 78 & 65 yards to key the 31-23 triumph. The winning streak ended with a 17-14 win at home over Dallas, after falling behind 14-3 in the first half.
*Miami was 7-4 and in a balanced AFC, were in prime position to make the playoffs and maybe even rise as high as the 2-seed. But the Cowboy game had the warning signs—Dallas was the worst team in football, starting a major rebuilding project under Jimmy Johnson, and they still outrushed Miami 167-65. The Dolphins would come crashing back to earth in the season’s final five weeks.
*The schedule was challenging, though not unbearable. Miami lost badly at home to Pittsburgh, a team that eventually made the playoffs at 9-7. This game proved to be where the Steelers and Dolphins essentially crossed paths. Miami lost twice to Kansas City (prior to 2002, the last-place schedule in five-team divisions had those teams playing twice), who ended up narrowly missing the postseason in their first year under Marty Schottenheimer. The worst loss was a 42-13 massacre at Indianapolis in the second-to-last game, with both teams badly needing the win. Only a home date with New England provided any solace in December.
The 8-8 finish might have felt disappointing in the moment, but after the rough 1988 year and the poor start to this season, it represented a nice comeback. And better days were immediately ahead. Marino’s game returned to normal and Miami made the playoffs in 1990, starting a run of four postseason appearances in six years.