The previous seven years had seen the legendary Don Shula get his Miami Dolphins teams to the playoffs just one time. That had come in 1990 and it ended with a loss to the AFC East rival Buffalo Bills. The 1992 Miami Dolphins got back into the playoffs, won the first division title since 1985in fact and made the AFC Championship Game before the run again ended with a loss to the Bills.
Dan Marino was at the helm of the Miami attack and he threw the ball more than anyone in the league in 1992. The raw volume of throws might partly explain his NFL-best 4,116 passing yards. But it doesn’t explain how Marino also finished in the top eight among NFL quarterbacks in completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and interception percentage.
Marino’s season gets even more impressive when you consider that his primary targets were running backs and a tight end. Bobby Humphrey’s 54 catches were the most on the team out of the backfield and Mark Higgs’ 48 receptions were tied for second. Tight end Keith Jackson was a Pro Bowl player, but none of the top targets were real threats down the field.
The big play receivers were getting older. Mark Duper was 33-years-old and still averaged 17-plus yards per catch, but he only caught 44 balls. Mark Clayton, another holdover from the prolific offenses of the mid-to-late 1980s caught 43 balls for 619 yards.
Between Marino’s passing, Higgs rushing for over 900 yards , the presence of All-NFL left tackle Richmond Webb and Pro Bowl kicker Pete Stoyanovich, Miami still ranked eighth in the NFL in scoring.
The defense was led by two young players. Bryan Cox was a fiery outside linebacker and at the age of 24, recorded 14 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. On the corner, rookie Troy Vincent was getting started on a stellar career. The defense overall wasn’t a great unit, but they were consistent enough to rank 11th in the league in points allowed.
Miami came blazing out of the gate and won their first six games. The biggest win came at Buffalo when they picked off Jim Kelly four times. The biggest game in the third quarter. The Dolphins led 24-10, but the Bills were on the doorstep. Strong safety Louis Oliver intercepted a pass in the end zone and took it 103 yards to the house. The final score ended up 37-10.
The 6-0 start was followed by a hiccup in divisional play. Miami lost at home to the Indianapolis (the Colts were in the AFC East prior to the realignment of 2002). The Colts were respectable, so that could be explained away. Losing the next week to a bad New York Jets team couldn’t. After an easy 28-0 win over Indy in the rematch, the Dolphins got set for Round 2 with Buffalo.
On a Monday Night in Miami, the Dolphins couldn’t run the ball, nor could they stop the run. Only some red-zone stops on defense kept the final score close in a 26-20 loss. The Fish were a game back of the Bills in the AFC East.
Another difficult Monday Night home game awaited later in November, on the Monday prior to Thanksgiving. The Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans), who had made the playoffs five years running and would again in 1992, were in South Beach.
The Oilers were missing the great Warren Moon at quarterback, but with Marino having an erratic night, the Dolphins couldn’t get separation. Fortunately, Stoyanovich came through with two fourth-quarter field goals, the last one a 52-yarder that won the game 19-16.
Miami’s difficult stretch drive schedule continued with games against the 49ers and the Saints, both of whom would win at least 12 games and make the postseason. Not surprisingly, the Dolphins lost both and dropped to 8-5.
Oddly enough though, that two-week stretch proved to be a net positive. Buffalo also lost both games. Unlike the Dolphins, the Bills lost games they should have won, to the Colts and Jets. Unlike the Dolphins, the Bills had lost games against conference opponents. Thus, Miami not only stayed with one game of the division lead, they now had the tiebreakers in their favor.
The Dolphins played another Monday Night home game, this team beating the mediocre Los Angeles Raiders, 20-7. A home game against the Jets saw Miami turn up inexplicably flat. The Fish trailed 17-10 in the fourth quarter. A touchdown that should have tied the game was followed by a missed extra point. Stoyanovich was finally able to pull out the 19-17 win with another late field goal.
Miami’s playoff berth was clinched as they entered the season finale in New England against the then-lowly Patriots. For the AFC East, the Dolphins needed to win and then hope the Bills lost that night in Houston.
It was an entirely plausible possibility, which makes another flat Dolphins’ performance all the more mystifying. They let a bad team drag them into overtime, but in the end Miami still won, 16-13. And when Buffalo was blown out in prime-time, the Dolphins were AFC East champs and the #2 seed in the playoffs.
After a week off, Miami hosted San Diego in the divisional round of the playoffs. The game was on late Sunday afternoon, the final game of the weekend and reminiscent of 1981, when these two teams played one of the greatest playoff games of all time in this same time slot. This year’s matchup wouldn’t be quite as epic, and that would be just fine with the Dolphins.
With the rain pouring down and the game scoreless into the second quarter, Marino opened up and threw three touchdown passes in the second quarter alone. The Dolphin defense was dominant. A Charger team that was the hottest in football, making the playoffs after an 0-4 start, was sent packing in a 31-0 rout.
The Buffalo Bills were again waiting. The Bills had pulled off the greatest comeback in playoff history in the wild-card round when they rallied from 35-3 down to beat Houston, and followed that up with a dismantling of top-seeded Pittsburgh. Buffalo had momentum, and perhaps Miami’s tendency of playing down in big moments finally caught up to them.
The AFC Championship Game was tied 3-3 after a quarter, but the Dolphins were being manhandled in the trenches on both sides of the ball. They couldn’t protect Marino and he was sacked four times. They were crushed on the ground. By the third quarter, Miami was in a 23-3 hole and the final was 29-10.
It was a disappointing end to a strong year, but it set the tone for a nice string of seasons to end Shula’s career. He coached three seasons beyond this, all winning years and two of them ending in the playoffs. But he and Marino would never again make it as far as they got in 1992.
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.
The legendary Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula was in a slump. The man who won two Super Bowls in the 1970s and reached two more in the first half of the 1980s, spent four consecutive years out of the money from 1986-89. The prime of the equally legendary quarterback Dan Marino, was going to waste thanks to a poor defense. The 1990 Miami Dolphins got it turned around, with excellent defensive play and Marino taking them back into the postseason and kickstarting a new era of contention in South Beach.
Marino’s numbers weren’t great in 1990, but by the standards of the time they were acceptable—he completed 58 percent and his TD/INT ratio was 21-11. He stayed away from mistakes and distributed the ball to a wide range of targets, from speedy Mark Duper to possession receiver Jim Jensen to fullback Tony Paige to Pro Bowl tight end Ferrell Edmunds. It was enough, that in spite of a pedestrian running game and a young offensive line, Miami at least was league average offensively.
And average was all the offense needed to be as they get a long-awaited lift on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Jeff Cross was a Pro Bowler, with 11 ½ sacks. John Offerdahl was one of the best inside linebackers in football. Corner Tim McKyer, along with safeties Jarvis Williams and Louis Oliver were ball hawks in the secondary. The Dolphins finished fourth in the NFL in points allowed.
Miami sent an early message that this season would be different. The Buffalo Bills, the two-time defending AFC East champs came south in Week 2. Renowned for an explosive offense, the Bills were shut down and held to 44 yards rushing. Miami’s defense chased quarterback Jim Kelly from the game, held a shutout into the fourth quarter, and won 30-7. It was the highlight of a 4-1 start to the season where the only loss came to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Over the next seven weeks, the Dolphins held serve. The won all five games they played against mediocre opponents and lost to eventual playoff teams in the Los Angeles Raiders and Washington Redskins. Miami was 9-3 and a game back of Buffalo in the AFC East race, although they still had a game coming up with the Bills and the tiebreaker in hand if they won it.
Before that though, there was a big Sunday Night home game against the playoff-bound Philadelphia Eagles. Marino threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to get the scoring started and the Dolphins led 10-0. But Philly counterpart Randall Cunningham threw two scoring passes of his own and Miami trailed 20-10 into the fourth quarter against one of the league’s great defenses.
Marino rallied his team again. He capped off a night where he went 27/54 for 365 yards and no interceptions, by tying the game in regulation and then pulling out a 23-20 win in overtime.
The Dolphins were 11-3 when they went to Buffalo for the regular season’s penultimate game to settle the AFC East. Kelly was injured for the Bills, but the Miami rush defense did not play well. They allowed 154 yards to Thurman Thomas, while their own Sammie Smith could only generate 28 yards on the ground. The result was a 24-14 loss in the rain and having to settle for a wild-card berth.
Miami was the 4-seed and hosted the Kansas City Chiefs in a late Saturday afternoon kickoff on wild-card weekend. This would be one of the more underrated playoff games of all time, a feather in the cap for Marino’s career.
It didn’t start well—in fact, it went poorly for three quarters. Only a playoff-record 58-yard field goal by Pete Stoyanovich even had the Fish on the board. But the defense made red-zone stops and the deficit was still a manageable 16-3.
Marino flipped a 1-yard touchdown pass to Paige and then got the ball back on his own 15-yard line. A quick 37-yard strike to Edmunds got the drive rolling and it was capped off when Marino rifled an out pattern to Mark Clayton for a 12-yard touchdown pass. The Chiefs came roaring back and attempted a 52-yard field goal on the final play, but it came up just short. The Dolphins had their first playoff win since 1985.
Another trip to Buffalo was the reward, again with inclimate weather. Playing in a steady snowfall, the proud Miami defense finally collapsed. They dug themselves a 27-10 hole in the second quarter and while Marino closed the gap to 30-27, they never got the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. Buffalo promptly drove for another touchdown and the final ended up 44-34.
The season was still a step forward and Miami contended for the rest of Shula’s coaching career, which went through 1995. They made the playoffs three more times, but Buffalo was the hurdle they couldn’t get past, losing the AFC Championship Game to the Bills at home in 1992 and losing a wild-card game in Buffalo in ‘95.
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.
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.
Dan Marino was one of the great quarterbacks of all-time and maybe even the greatest of the modern era of the NFL. The one knock on him was that he never won a Super Bowl, though he certainly dragged some otherwise bad teams to respectability and the playoffs. And he did reach the Super Bowl one time—in his record-setting second season with the 1984 Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins were on a solid foundation when Marino arrived, having won the AFC East in 1981 and reached the Super Bowl in 1982. They did it in spite of instability at quarterback. Marino stepped and led the team to another AFC East title in 1983.
In 1984, he completed 64 percent of his passes and went down the field, averaging nine yards per attempt. He threw for 48 touchdown passes and 5,084 yards. The latter two were NFL records that stood for at least two decades, the TD record until 2004 and the yardage mark until 2011. Marino won the MVP award.
He had a good offensive line in front of him, with 27-year-old center Dwight Stephenson making 1st-team All-Pro for the first time in what would be a Hall of Fame career. Ed Newman, the 33-year-old right guard was also 1st-team All-Pro.
Two dynamic young receivers, 23-year-old Mark Clayton and 25-year-old Mark Duper, each went over 1,300 yards receiving and made the Pro Bowl. Veteran Nat Moore was a solid third target with 43 catches and running back Tony Nathan caught 61 balls out of the backfield.
The running game wasn’t great, and it certainly wasn’t required very often, but the Dolphins did have good balance. Fullback Woody Bennett led the team with 606 yards, with Nathan and 22-year-old Joe Carter not far behind. They were the finishing touches on the most prolific offense in the NFL in 1984.
Miami’s defense had led the way to their last Super Bowl, but defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger had left to take the LSU job and Chuck Studley took his place. The defense would eventually show slippage, but in 1984 they still ranked seventh in the league in points allowed.
Doug Betters, the defensive end who won Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1983, recorded 14 sacks this season, although for some reason didn’t get a Pro Bowl invite. Nose tackle Bob Baumhower did, as did inside linebacker A.J. Duhe. The Dolphins got more pressure on the quarterback from outside linebacker Charles Bowser, with nine sacks in the 3-4 scheme. Strong safety Glenn Blackwood picked off six passes.
And on those occasions when the offense failed? Miami had the NFL’s best punter in Reggie Roby. Head coach Don Shula had his best team since the 1972-73 years when the franchise won consecutive Super Bowls.
The Dolphins opened the season in Washington. The Redskins had reached the Super Bowl each of the last two years and had beaten Miami in 1982. Marino unloaded with five touchdown passes, going 21/28 for 311 yards and no interceptions. Duper caught six passes for 178 yards and Miami’s three third-quarter touchdowns triggered a decisive 35-17 win that got them on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
New England was next, and two interceptions by Blackwood were part of four Dolphin interceptions on the day. This time running back Jim Jensen got in on the passing fireworks, throwing a 35-yard touchdown pass to Duper. Miami won 28-7 over a team that would win nine games in 1984.
A Monday night visit to Buffalo, who was just starting a horrible season, got more interesting than expected. Marino opened up and went 26/35 for 296 yards, spreading the wealth among nine different receivers and Miami led 21-3. The Bills scored two touchdowns before the Dolphins hung on for a 21-17 win. They followed it up with a 44-7 blasting of another bad team in Indianapolis. An 80-yard Marino-to-Duper strike broke a 7-7 tie and got the rout going. The defense got six sacks, three of them by Betters.
The Cardinals were in St. Louis in 1984 and they had a team that stayed in the playoff race to the final game of the season. Marino and Neil Lomax hooked up in a passing war at Busch Stadium. Lomax threw for 308 yards and was not intercepted. But an air war with Marino was tough to win—he countered with 429 yards, no interceptions, with both Duper and Clayton combining for 310 yards receiving. The final was 36-28 Miami.
Another road date followed, this one in Pittsburgh. The Steelers were an above-average team that would steal a weak division title at 9-7. This game was scoreless into the second quarter when Marino threw a couple touchdown passes, Baumhower returned a fumble 21 yards for a score and the rout was on, ending 31-7.
It took the Dolphins a quarter to get started at home against the lowly Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans), but the running game came through in this one. It was Carter’s 105 yards that keyed the decisive edge, while Marino got rolling to a 25/32 for 321 yards, 3 TD/0 INTS stat line. The final was 28-10.
Carter continued to run well in New England the following week, going for 92 yards, while Bennett tacked on 80. The game was close going into the fourth quarter at 30-24, but Marino finished with 316 yards on the day and tacked on two lockup touchdowns in the 44-24 win.
The New York Jets were playing in the Meadowlands for the first time and Miami made a visit there on November 4. The Dolphins got a scare, giving up 200 yards rushing and trailing 17-14 after three quarters. Marino didn’t have his usual high efficiency, going 23/42, but he was getting the ball down the field. He ended up with 422 passing yards, Duper and Moore being the primary targets and once again broke down an opponent late. Seventeen straight points produced a 31-17 win.
Another shaky outing against another sub-.500 team came at home against Philadelphia. The Dolphins, a (-14) favorite, dug a 14-0 hole and eventually came back to lead 24-17. The Eagles scored what should have been the tying touchdown late, but muffed the snap on the extra point and Miami escaped.
The Dolphins were now 11-0 and talk of matching the feat of the 1972 undefeated team was in the works. But the narrow escapes finally caught up to Miami in San Diego. The Chargers were no longer the playoff-quality team that had played an epic January game against the Dolphins in 1981, but Dan Fouts was still one of the few quarterbacks that could go toe-to-toe with Marino.
Miami led 28-14 after three quarters, but this time they were on the wrong end of the fourth quarter outburst. Fouts, who finished with 380 passing yards, tossed a couple touchdowns to tie the game and San Diego won it in overtime, 34-28. Marino had thrown for 338 yards of his own, but losing the rushing game battle 166-96 was the decisive factor.
The undefeated season was now gone—no word on whether members of the ’72 Dolphins continued their self-aggrandizing obnoxious tradition of drinking champagne every time the last undefeated team falls. Miami had the AFC East title all but wrapped up and it was made official a few days later when the Patriots lost in Dallas on Thanksgiving. The Dolphins had at least a 2-seed in the playoffs put away. The #1 seed was still in play though, with Denver and Seattle both with just two losses and battling each other in the AFC West.
Marino didn’t light it up against the Jets the way he had been all year, going 19/31 for 192 yards. But he was excellent in the red zone, throwing four short touchdown passes and leading a 28-17 win. Then came a visit from the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders.
The Raiders were on the heels of the Broncos/Seahawks in the AFC West and needed to win to hold off the Patriots for the final playoff spot. The game was nationally televised in the 4 PM ET window. Marino had the Dolphins driving early, but threw an interception that got taken 97 yards to the house. Marino still threw for 470 yards, but he also threw another pick and Raider running back Marcus Allen piled up 155 yards on the ground. Miami lost 45-34.
The race for the AFC’s top seed was now tied, with Miami and Seattle both at 12-2, and Denver on 11-3. The Dolphins were sluggish for a half in Indianapolis, trailing 17-7 at the half and giving up 170 rush yards on the afternoon. Marino got cooking in the second half, throwing four touchdown passes and finishing with 404 passing yards in a 35-17 win. Miami then got good news elsewhere—Seattle had been blown out at Kansas City.
The Dolphins’ season finale was on Monday Night against the Dallas Cowboys. Before that game, Seattle and Denver would go head-to-head to decide the AFC West. If Seattle won, Miami would clinch the #1 seed. But the tiebreakers went the other way against Denver, and a Bronco victory would give great meaning to the Dolphin finale.
Denver went into Seattle and won decisively, setting the stage for a huge night in the Orange Bowl. Dallas was playing a win-and-you’re-in game, with the New York Giants waiting in the wings. A #1 seed for one team and survival for another hung in the balance.
The first quarter passed scoreless, and Marino found Clayton for a second-quarter touchdown pass and 7-0 halftime lead. A short TD pass to tight end Bruce Hardy made it 14-zip in the third quarter before Dallas awakened and scored twice to tie the game.
Marino, who finished with 340 passing yards, then found Clayton on a 39-yard touchdown pass. After Dallas answered, the Marino-to-Clayton combo delivered from 63 yards and this time the lead stood up. With a 28-21 win, the Dolphins capped off a 14-2 season and were the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
After a week off, Miami faced off with Seattle in a playoff rematch. The Seahawks had come into the Orange Bowl a year earlier and pulled off an upset. Oddsmakers said the Dolphins were a (-5.5) favorite in the upset bid.
The game started the divisional round weekend in the early Saturday afternoon time slot. Nathan’s 14-yard touchdown run put Miami up 7-0 in the first quarter. But a Marino interception set up a Seattle field goal in the second quarter. And another pick appeared to have stalled a Dolphin drive before the quarterback got a reprieve by an offsides call against the Seahawks.
Marino took advantage and found Jimmy Cefalo on a 34-yard touchdown pass, but counterpart Dave Krieg answered with a 56-yard touchdown pass. The game went to the locker room at 14-10.
Miami appeared in trouble when Seattle marched down the field to open the second half. But the drive stalled, a field goal was missed and momentum turned. Marino led a drive that ended with a short touchdown pass to Hardy. A shanked punt set up Miami with good field position and Marino hit Clayton from 33 yards out.
Now it was 28-10, and even though it was the third quarter, the game was all but over. Miami got 76 rushing yards from Nathan and held the ball for over 35 minutes. The final score was 31-10. Now the NFL world anticipated an AFC Championship battle between Marino and Denver’s John Elway, the two second-year stars.
But Denver didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, losing to Pittsburgh late the following afternoon. The Dolphins would be a solid (-10) favorite against a Steeler team they had already manhandled on the road and who appeared to have no ability to keep pace with Marino.
Pittsburgh hung in better than might have been expected. Marino’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Clayton started the scoring, but the Steelers answered. A Dolphin field goal was answered by a long touchdown pass from Mark Malone. Marino kept coming though, hitting Duper with a 41-yard touchdown pass and interception set up a Nathan TD run that made it 24-14 at the half.
A 36-yard Marino-to-Duper connection opened the game up further. The Steelers answered with a touchdown, but the Dolphin offense couldn’t be stopped. A short TD run by Bennett made it 38-21 going into the fourth quarter. Marino threw one more touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, and finished the day 21/32 for 421 yards. He wasn’t sacked the entire day and the final was 45-28.
The only team better than Miami all season was the 15-1 San Francisco 49ers. The battle between Marino and Montana had this Super Bowl battle drawing huge hype, even by Super Bowl standards. This remains the only time in history that two teams with a combined 29 regular season wins met in a Super Bowl.
Miami was a (+3) underdog and for a quarter, it looked the game might meet expectations. Marino led a drive for a field goal, another for a touchdown and the Dolphins led 10-7. Then the roof fell in.
The 49ers were playing six defensive backs, locking up Clayton and Duper and forcing Marino to look underneath. The only way to beat this defense was to make the running game a credible threat and the 25 rushing yards Miami produced for the game don’t exactly qualify as “credible.” San Francisco had a 28-10 lead late in the second quarter.
Marino still kept after it and one good drive, along with Niner turnover led the Dolphins into the red zone twice before halftime. But they had to settle for field goals each time. It was 28-16 at the half and San Francisco quickly eliminated any doubt in the third quarter when they scored ten points. Marino went 29/50 for 318 yards, but had no help on this day on the campus of Stanford. The final was 38-16.
More disappointing than this result was the fact Marino never made it back to a Super Bowl. The defense began to fall apart, as did the running game and after a playoff year in 1985, Marino spent several years propping up teams that were awful in all other phases of the game. Throughout the 1990s, Miami got back on the radar and reached the playoffs, but never again were they a #1 seed. 1984 was the high point for Marino and it’s also the last time the franchise reached a Super Bowl.
The 1983 Miami Dolphins began a great new era in franchise history, as they broke in a rookie quarterback named Dan Marino. In spite of changing quarterbacks mid-stream, the Dolphins rolled to a 12-win season and AFC East title before a disappointing playoff loss finally ended the run.
David Woodley was the quarterback when the season began, and the Dolphins had won the division in 1981 and then reached the Super Bowl in the strike-shortened year of 1982. The wins came in spite of Woodley having to be occasionally pulled and on the strength of the defense.
Undoubtedly today, there would be a screaming crescendo of media voices praising Woodley and saying “all he does is win,”, but in the more enlightened world of 1983, the quarterback was seen as what he was—a drag on an otherwise pretty good football team.
Miami’s defense was the best in the NFL in points allowed and they were led by Defensive Player of the Year Doug Betters. The end recorded 16 sacks and was one of the “Killer B’s”, so nicknamed because of the preponderance of players whose last names began with B.
Other Killer B’s included nose tackle Bob Baumhower, a 1st-team All-Pro that got eight sacks in the difficult role of coming up the middle. Outside linebacker Charles Bowser got 6 ½ more sacks. Other B’s included Kim Bokamper, Bob Brudzinski, and the Blackwood boys, Glenn and Lyle in the secondary.
And there were some talented players whose last names began with other letters. Inside linebacker A.J. Duhe, a hero of the previous year’s AFC Championship Game, added 5 ½ sacks and corner Gerald Small intercepted five passes.
The running game wasn’t overwhelming, but it was consistent, with Andra Franklin and Tony Nathan tag-teaming to combine for over 1,400 yards. Franklin was more the pure inside runner, with Nathan also catching 52 passes. Miami had a good kicking game, with Uwe von Schamann and rookie punter Reggie Roby. They had a talented young receiver in Mark Duper and a good veteran in Nat Moore. What they needed was someone who could get them the football.
The Dolphins opened the season at mediocre Buffalo, and Woodley went 8/20 for 40 yards. Fortunately, Miami won the rushing battle 151-86, got four sacks from Betters and used four field goals to win 12-0. The quarterback was better at home against another mediocre division foe in New England, going 11/20 for 215 yards. The Fish ran out to a 27-3 lead after three quarters and won by a deceptively close 34-24.
A Monday Night game at the Los Angeles Raiders. These teams were not only powerhouses of the previous decade, they had been the top two seeds in the conference the year before and would be so again this year (though they didn’t play for the AFC crown on either occasion).
Miami embarrassed themselves on the national stage and fell behind 27-0, and the nation got its first look at Marino, who came in for mop-up duty in a 27-14 loss. Woodley was back in the saddle at home against the subpar Kansas City Chiefs. He was 10/17 for just 92 yards and threw two interceptions, while the Dolphins also lost five fumbles. The great defense bailed them out again in a 14-6 win.
The first Sunday of October was the breaking point for head coach Don Shula. On the road against the New Orleans Saints, who would finish 8-8, Woodley went 4/12 for 34 yards. The defense couldn’t help this time, allowing nearly 200 yards on the ground. Marino came in and went 12/22 for 150 yards, but couldn’t rally the troops in a 17-7 loss.
Shula pulled the trigger and made Marino the starter after this game. Woodley literally never took a snap the rest of the season.
The move would result in Duper becoming a 1,000-yard receiver. Over the rest of the season, Marino would throw for over 2,200 yards—a high per-game average in the early 1980s—and have a dazzling 20-6 TD/INT ratio. The Dolphins finished the season as the seventh-best offense in the NFL. To say nothing of the Hall of Fame career that was ahead for the quarterback. It’s safe to say this move worked out pretty well.
Marino made his first start at home against Buffalo and got into a passing war with Joe Ferguson. Marino went 1/29 for 322 yards, but Ferguson was even better, 38/55 for 419 yards and the Dolphins lost the shootout in overtime, 38-35.
They were a (+3) underdog for a road trip to old Shea Stadium to face the New York Jets, the team Miami beat in the previous year’s AFC title game. Marino set a quick tone when he hit Moore on a 66-yard touchdown strike. The quarterback added two more touchdowns and Bokamper had 24-yard interception return for a TD in a 32-14 win. The Jets would fall to 7-9 and miss the playoffs. The Fish were off and running.
The defense forced four turnovers at the mediocre Baltimore Colts in a 21-7 win, and the Marino-to-Duper combo delivered a 30-14 at home against the playoff-bound Los Angeles Rams. Duper caught seven passes for 134 yards as the air war trumped the powerful ground game led by the Rams’ Eric Dickerson.
Marino and Joe Montana staged a preview of the Super Bowl matchup that would take place a year later, following the 1984 NFL season when Miami went to San Francisco. Marino hit Moore for a pair of 1st-half touchdowns and then led the drive for the winning field in a 20-17 victory. The quarterback finally had a rough game in New England on November 13, going 14/37 for 141 yards, and the rush defense failed in a 17-6 loss.
Miami came back with a vengeance at home against Baltimore. After a scoreless first quarter, the Dolphins exploded. Marino’s 85-yard touchdown pass to Duper and Mark Clayton’s 60-yard punt return were the highlights of a 24-point second quarter and a 37-0 win.
The Dolphins would blow open the AFC East. Even though all four rivals finished either 7-9 or 8-8, the Patriots, Colts and Bills all faded. Only the Jets, who were 4-7, played well and that just moved them to respectability. Miami’s focus could go outward to their seeding.
In the three division winners/two wild-cards format the existed prior to 1990, Miami was assured of being in the divisional round, but they could be seeded anywhere from 1 thru 3. They were a game back of both the Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Dolphins won a Monday Night game over shaky Cincinnati. Miami blew open a 17-14 game in the second half, as Marino threw a touchdown pass to Duper, the run defense dominated and the final was 38-14. Then they survived a road trip to the awful Houston Oilers (the forerunner of today’s Tennessee Titans). Miami trailed 17-10 before a Marino touchdown pass and Nathan TD run produced a 24-17 win. Pittsburgh started losing and would fade to the 3-seed, assuring Miami of playing the divisional round at home. The Dolphins were a game back of the Raiders, but the Monday Night loss of September loomed large in the tiebreakers.
Shula didn’t go all-out for the top seed, choosing instead to sit Marino. It didn’t hurt, as veteran Don Strock led the team to wins in the last two games, playing exceptionally well in a 31-24 home win over Atlanta, going 17/22 for 229 yards and two touchdowns.
A Raiders’ loss in the penultimate week kept the top seed open, and the Dolphins beat the Jets 34-24 in a Friday night season finale, as backup running back David Overstreet rushed for 96 yards. They watched the Raiders play the Chargers two days later and Los Angeles broke open a close game in the fourth quarter.
Miami would go in as the #2 seed. The playoff rules specified that divisional matchups could not take place prior to the AFC Championship Game. With the Raiders’ rivals, the Seahawks and Broncos, playing in the wild-card game, the Dolphins knew they would draw the winner of that Christmas Eve game.
It was Seattle, with a great rookie talent of their own, running back Curt Warner, that came to the Orange Bowl on a rainy New Year’s Eve. To everyone’s surprise, the dream season of the Dolphins came to an end on day they were eight-point favorites.
Marino finished 15/25 for 193 yards and consistently hooked up with Duper, who caught nine passes for 117 yards. Miami led 20-17 with 3:43 to play, but it could have been more, as they already trailed the turnover battle 3-1, thanks to two Marino interceptions. Seattle drove for the lead touchdown. Miami fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Seattle added a field goal. Another fumbled kickoff took the ball out of Marino’s hands again. The season was over in a 27-20 loss.
This season might have been over, but the Dolphins had their quarterback and a year later, Marino would get them back into the Super Bowl.
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.
Bob Griese enjoyed a Hall of Fame career as the quarterback of the Miami Dolphins, leading them to three Super Bowls and winning two, including the undefeated season of 1972. Officially, he played through 1980. But the 1979 Miami Dolphins were his final year as the regular starter and his last trip into the playoffs.
Miami was coming off a run to the AFC wild-card game in 1978, a return to the playoffs after having missed for three straight seasons (albeit twice with records of 10-4 in an era of more restricted postseasons). The defense was the foundation of the 1979 team, ranking fourth in the NFL.
The Dolphins had good young talent on defense, including two Pro Bowlers in 24-year-old nose tackle Bob Baumhower and 25-year-old outside linebacker Kim Bokamper. A veteran, strong safety Tim Foley, also made the Pro Bowl. And there was an up-and-comer at defensive end. Doug Better was 23-years-old, went 6’7” and was maturing into the player who would eventually win Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1983.
Griese, now age 34, was just one of an older group of offensive players. Larry Csonka, another hero of the early 1970s championship teams, returned to Miami after a four-year absence. Csonka rushed for over 800 yards and won Comeback Player of the Year. The offensive line had four players on the high side of 30.
The offense ranked a respectable 11th in points scored, and it was a balanced effort. Delvin Williams joined Csonka in the backfield and ran for over 700 yards. Duriel Harris and Nat Moore were both in the neighborhood of 800 yards receiving. Williams, Harris and Moore provided the injection of relative youth into the attack.
As for Griese, the signs of the end were at hand—he struggled with leg problems and though he made twelve starts, inconsistency was a big issue, as we’re about to see.
Miami opened the season at Buffalo, and it was a defensive battle. The Dolphins held the Bills to five first downs and Buffalo’s only points came on a blocked field goal return, but Miami still needed a fourth-quarter touchdown to win 9-7 (the extra point was missed).
The offense was much more efficient in a home game with the Seattle Seahawks, who would stay in the mix for a playoff spot into December. Griese went 15/25 for 208 yards, the majority to Harris. The defense picked off Jim Zorn three times in a 19-10 win.
A road trip to the Minnesota Vikings was sluggish for three quarters and the Dolphins trailed 12-7. Don Strock, the backup quarterback who got his share of playing time, came on and went 5/7 for 92 yards. Strock threw a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns as Miami rescued themselves by pulling away 27-12.
Griese stayed on the sidelines the next week at home against the Chicago Bears, a team that would make the playoffs. The defense shut down the great Walter Payton, holding him to 43 yards, while Csonka and Williams combined to lead an attack that went for 193 yards on the ground. Strock was sharp, 12/17 for 207 yards and an impressive 31-16 was the result.
A road trip to old Shea Stadium to play the New York Jets was next, and Griese was back in the lineup. He wasn’t high-percentage, completing 22/45, but he made big plays, throwing for 296 yards. This time though, Miami didn’t run the ball and New York was balanced offensively. And Griese’s one mistake turned into a Pick-6, as the Dolphins lost 33-27.
Griese threw another Pick-6 the following Monday Night in Oakland and in this game neither he, nor anyone else on the offense did anything to counter it. The Dolphins lost to the Raiders 13-3. Miami got back on track with a 17-7 win over Buffalo, but the offense continued to struggle—it took an 86-yard punt return by Tony Nathan to start the scoring.
Miami was 5-2 and getting ready to travel to New England, where the Patriots were the defending AFC East champs and a contender again in 1979. It was tough to know what to make of the Dolphins—they were 5-2, but had played mostly a series of close games against teams (with the exception of the Bears) that would range from 7-9 wins by season’s end. Oddsmakers expressed their skepticism by making the Fish a (+5) underdog in Foxboro.
Concerns weren’t eased by the result. After a fast start, where Griese threw an early touchdown pass and got a 10-0 lead, the offense bogged down. The veteran quarterback finished 12/27 for just 72 yards. Trailing 14-13 in the fourth quarter, Griese threw yet another Pick-6 and the game got away in a 28-13 loss.
The entire team got rolling the next week when they hosted a bad Green Bay Packers team. Griese threw a 37-yard touchdown strike to Harris and finished 19/28 for 304 yards. The Dolphins ran the ball for 195 yards and they controlled the ball, running 78 plays to Green Bay’s 34. The result was a 27-7 win.
But the up-and-down pattern with another embarrassing offensive performance on the Monday Night stage. The Dolphins hosted the Houston Oilers, a rematch with the team that eliminated from the playoffs in 1978. Griese threw two interceptions, the Fish lost two fumbles the Oilers took care of the ball and Miami lost a field goal battle 9-6. In two appearances on MNF, Griese’s offense had failed to score a touchdown.
Once again, a visit from a bad team, this time the Baltimore Colts, soothed wounds. Griese and Moore hooked up for a pair of first half touchdowns in an easy 19-0 win. And once again, a game with more competitive team brought the Dolphins back to earth. They traveled to Cleveland, where the Browns would finish 9-7.
The game was a back-and-forth battle the whole way. Griese was 10/21 for 115 yards, but also threw two interceptions. His injuries eventually forced him out and Strock came on to go 6/10 for 89 yards and threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes. But Cleveland’s Brian Sipe threw for 358 yards, and the Dolphins lost in overtime, 30-24.
Miami was 7-5 and a game back of New England in the AFC East race. The wild-card picture (which allowed for two teams) didn’t look promising. The Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers were in a race in the AFC Central and it appeared certain the runner-up would get one spot. In the AFC West, it was less certain, but the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos were both in good shape. And of the mess of teams below, the Dolphins had head-to-head losses to fellow contenders Oakland and Cleveland.
The Dolphins had their proverbial back to the wall in Baltimore on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and another passing battle ensued, with Strock and Griese again both playing. Strock started and threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Harris. Griese finished, also connecting with Harris and throwing another to Nathan. Miami survived in a 28-24 win.
New England lost in overtime to Buffalo so the AFC East was tied at the top, just in time for the Dolphins and Patriots to meet on Thursday night. Miami trailed 17-13 at the half, but a vintage performance ensued after halftime. Griese found Moore on a 32-yard touchdown pass and Miami never looked back. They forced six New England turnovers on the night, scored 26 consecutive points to pull away and won the football game 39-24. The Dolphins were in first place with two weeks to go.
A terrible opponent in the Detroit Lions awaited, and Griese continued to be sharp. He went 17/22 for over 200 yards and threw two early touchdown passes. The Patriots lost to the Jets and the AFC East race was over. Miami’s three-week surge dovetailed with New England’s three-week collapse.
The Dolphins were locked into the 3-seed no matter what they did and Griese did not play the Saturday finale with the Jets, a 27-24 loss.
Houston beat Denver in the wild-card game and because the Oilers were a division rival of the Steelers, the two teams could not meet each other in the second round, per the rules that existed prior to 1990. That meant Miami would have to go to Pittsburgh and play the defending Super Bowl champions.
While the Dolphins had finished strong, nothing in the course of the 1979 NFL season suggested they were ready to match up with a team the quality of the Steel Curtain Dynasty. Miami was a (+9.5) underdog and even that proved generous. They gave up three first-quarter touchdowns and lost 34-14, with Pittsburgh going on to their fourth Super Bowl title in six years.
The 1979 Miami Dolphins had still gotten back on top of the AFC East and given Griese one more playoff run, including a big prime-time display in the season’s seminal game against the Patriots. The quarterback came back in 1980, but was no longer the starter and he retired after the season. The core of young defensive players Miami had would help lead the team to five straight playoff berths, and two Super Bowl appearances from 1981-85.
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.
Miami got a clutch win at Washington in Week 14, a 16-0 shutout where the Dolphins picked off Redskin quarterback Joe Theisman four times. It set up a big game at home with the Oakland Raiders.
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.