It's hard to believe this year marks the 34th anniversary of the last time the Miami Dolphins appeared in a Super Bowl, but here we are, three decades later. In 1984, Dan Marino demolished just about every NFL record into the stars on his way to engineering the Dolphins to a 14-2 record, an AFC Championship, and a trip to Super Bowl XIX to face off against Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers. The battle of two Western Pennsylvania High School football legends. Dan Marino, a city boy from Central Catholic High School and Joe Montana from Ringgold High School about 25 miles south in Washington County in the coal mining town of Monongahela. The Dolphins would lose 38-16 in the title game, but it was automatically assumed that the Miami Dolphins would be back in no time with a QB like Marino. The future was looking bright. Nope. Never happened. Not since.
We sit here 34 years later wondering how it all went wrong and how Marino never got back to the Super Bowl. It's depressing to even discuss. He was 23 years old when that game ended. What went wrong over the next 34 years?
In 1985, the Dolphins won their 4th straight AFC East title and appeared in the AFC championship game where they lost to Tony Eason’s New England Patriots. Dan Marino had an offseason holdout after his record setting 1984 campaign and Mark Duper was injured for most of the first half of the season and the Miami Dolphins were only 5-4 through Week 9 before getting their act together to win the last 7 games.
In 1986, it fell apart and the Phin’s ended the season at 8-8. In the middle of the 1985 season, Shula gave up their 1st and 2nd round picks in 1986 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the hope that Hugh Green was the missing piece to the defensive puzzle. While Green went on to have solid years with Miami, he wasn’t the X factor that Shula was looking for. The Miami defense gave up an average of 34.5 points per game in all 8 of their losses. While Marino threw for 44 TD passes that season, they couldn’t overcome a porous defense.
1987 & 1988 were even bigger disappointments for Shula’s Dolphins. They recorded an 8-7 record in 1987 (NY Giants game was cancelled) and in 1988, Shula’s last losing season as Miami head coach, they went 6-10. In both years and in all 17 losses, their defense gave up an average of 28.74 points per game. The offense scored an average of 16.9 points per game in those losses.
From 1988 through the 1993 season, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed became Miami’s Achilles heel. Led by Harvard grad Marv Levy, the Buffalo Bills dynasty was as frustrating for Dolphins fans as the Patriots recent domination of the AFC East. Why? Because we had Dan Marino and Don Shula at the helm. Every time Marino took the field, we felt something good was going to happen. But this was a different era. To win in the NFL thought the 1980’s and 1990’s, a strong run game was required. And Miami never had one. We were a one- dimensional team for a long time. And every defensive coordinator knew it. #13 ruptured his Achilles tendon in October of 1993 and Scott Mitchell came onto the scene.
The 1994 season was the beginning of the end. While Marino won comeback player of the year with 30 TD passes and Miami won the AFC East , the Dolphins fell short in the divisional playoffs to the Chargers 22-21. Joe Robbie had completed the sale of majority ownership to Wayne Huizenga and Don Shula was being forced out of Miami behind closed doors. Shula would coach his last season in 1995 where Miami lost the wildcard game to Buffalo 37-22 and the Jimmy Johnson era was about to begin. Could the curse be over?
In 1996, former Hurricanes and Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson came to help Dan Marino get that elusive ring he had been waiting for. The three biggest things that happened in 1996 under Johnson’s watch was they drafted Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas and they had their first and ONLY 1000 rusher in Kareem Abdul-Jabaar under Dan Marino’s guidance since he was drafted. The years following never seemed to blossom the way Johnson’s Cowboys did. By the time Jimmy came to Miami, Dan was truly on his last legs. He had been beat up and was taped like a mummy when he took the field. His last game was a 62-7 drubbing by Jacksonville where Damon Huard played the 2nd half. It always broke my heart that Marino went out like that.
Marino led the league in passing yards per game four times, led the league in passing yards total five times, led the league in passing touchdowns three times and went to the playoffs 10 times.
One player during the entirety of Marino's career ran for 1,000 yards. John Elway was an all-time great quarterback drafted in 1983 like Marino -- he didn't win any Super Bowls until Terrell Davis showed up. Marino's defense wasn't ever consistently great either. Only five times in his 17-year career (1983, 1984, 1990, 1995 and 1998) did the Dolphins have a defense ranking top-10 in points allowed.
Run the ball and stop the run. The axioms remain true today to a degree but they were requirements in the '80s and (much of the) '90s if you wanted to win Super Bowls. It was just a different era.
All of this is to point out the Dolphins had an all-time great quarterback on their roster playing at a high level and staying relatively healthy (despite taking a beating) for 17 years. SEVENTEEN YEARS. In an era where passing wasn't encouraged and defenses could destroy quarterbacks. If Marino played now he would likely average 5,000 yards a year over a decade stretch and single-handedly take the Fins to multiple Super Bowls.
Time and talent conspired against him, and Miami failing to win a title with one of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks is a flat-out shame.
Since Dan Marino hung up his spikes, the Miami Dolphins organization has been a disaster marred with terrible decisions, terrible ownership, terrible coaching and terrible overall draft choices. The fan base is as fractured as any. The current owner who I can’t even bring myself to type his name has been taking this fan base on a wild goose chase. Why should we believe that this time will be different?
This story was written by James Barbaro. Follow him on Twitter @thebigbear1977
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