This is the first post in a series about the best teams that never won a championship in the NFL.
The story of the 1984 Dolphins actually starts in the 1983 draft. 1983 is remembered by all as the “Year of the Quarterback”, as 6 were selected in the first round alone, 3 becoming Hall of Famers later on. Among these were Stanford’s John Elway, who after shunning the Colts that year decided to become a Bronco, and Miami’s Jim Kelly, who went on to take the Bills to 4 straight super Bowls. Although Kelly did not play for the Bills immediately and decided to run away to the USFL for 3 years because “the weather was nicer” (and they offered more money), he returned to Buffalo in 1986 and gradually turned them around into a perennial Super Bowl contender.
John Elway during the infamous 1986 AFC Championship Game’s final drive.
Jim Kelly was a steal at Pick 14. He gradually turned the Bills from a national laughing stock into serious contender in the late 80s, turning around a team that had only won 4 games in 1984 and 1985.
These two were picked with the 1st and 14th picks, respectively.
Illinois’ Tony Eason went to the Patriots, who promptly took them to a Super Bowl in 1985, lost, and faded into obscurity, being waived by the Pats by 1989.
Tony Eason on the turf in Super Bowl XX, a sight that was commonplace throughout his career.
Todd Blackledge came from Penn State, went to the Chiefs, and was far and away the worst quarterback of the draft, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns in his career and never making more than 9 starts in a season. He was waived by the Chiefs at the end of 1987.
Blackledge in one of his 29 career starts. He went 15-14 as a starter, losing his only playoff game in 1986.
Then came Ken O’Brien from California-Davis, who was a nice NFL quarterback, but he was a sack machine, and Jets fans can’t bear the fact that he was chosen two picks before the Miami Dolphins’ selection.
Ken O’Brien with the Jets. He was a successful quarterback, but he could never deliver to New York what the other quarterbacks selected around him could.
Dan Marino was selected with the 27th pick from Pittsburgh, and it changed the Dolphins’ direction for years and years to come.
Dan Marino in one of his 34 career games against the Buffalo Bills.
In 1982, the Dolphins were the best team in the AFC, with a quarterback tandem of inexperienced David Woodley and veteran Don Strock. Because of this, the team was centered around a very strong defense and a good running game. Well, in 1983, Marino came in and threw all that out the window. They went 12-4 as Marino rapidly showed more and more talent as the season went on. The season ended with a stunning loss in the playoffs to the Seahawks.
Onto 1984, where people thought the Dolphins were going to be very, very good, but certainly not what they would become. The Dolphins opened up their season against Washington, a team that had been superb in 1983 and was looking to try and make a run at a title in ’84. Not so fast. Marino smoked the Redskins for 311 yards and 5 touchdowns in a 35-17 blowout. The Dolphins continued to roll as they raced to an 11-0 start, clobbering Indianapolis and Buffalo 44-7 and 38-7 on the way. After sputtering through 3 weeks where they lost 2 games, Miami finished 14-2 and were a sensation across the country.
Part of Miami’s success could be credited to the great receiving core Marino had. Mark Duper, 85, and Mark Clayton, 83, formed a tandem that at times seemed absolutely unbeatable. Clayton finished 1984 with 73 catches for 1,389 yards and 18 touchdowns, while Duper finished the year with 71 catches for 1,306 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Nat Moore was nearing the end of his career, but he produced a solid season with 43 catches for 573 yards and 6 touchdowns.
The long lost Tony Nathan also produced a great season, catching 61 balls for 579 yards and 2 touchdowns.
But of course, the season couldn’t be ignored for the amazing play of Dan Marino, who proved to the 26 teams that picked before him in the ’83 draft that they had made a heinous mistake. Marino shattered records in 1984, 6 to be exact. But two stood out the most, and two are remembered by all:
- 48 touchdowns, shattering the previous record held by Y.A. Tittle (36)
- 5,084 passing yards
The Dolphins were the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and they cruised through the AFC playoffs, first with a 31-10 beating of the Seahawks (a game that held special revenge value because of the year before) and a resounding 45-28 stomping of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game.
As the Dolphins approached the Super Bowl, the media started to bring the attention of a few holes in the team. The Dolphins’ great defense from 1982, the Killer Bees, was starting to lose their sting. Miami was an average defensive team, allowing the anonymous Dave Krieg and Olympian Mark Malone combine for almost 600 yards in the playoffs. The Dolphins finished 19th in the league in yards allowed.
The last thing that stood in between Marino and the Dolphins and the Lombardi trophy were the 15-1 San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers steamrolled through their season in a similar fashion, with Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Dwight Clark, a rookie Jerry Rice and a suffocating defense. But who cared? Marino was going to blow out the 49ers, through and through. Some critics raised points about the defensive deficiencies, and they wondered what would happen against the equally high-powered 49ers if they had so much trouble against the two playoff quarterbacks. “One can only imagine what will happen against Montana and the 49ers.”
And, well, it kinda did.
The 49ers layed out the Dolphins in a 38-16 slamming that sent shockwaves throughout the league. San Francisco riddled Miami’s defense for 537 yards, 211 of which came on the ground. The biggest issue was Roger Craig, whom the Dolphins had no answer for. He rushed 15 times for 58 yards and a touchdown, and caught 7 balls for 77 yards and 2 touchdowns. Joe Montana also had a great day, completing 24 of 35 passes for 331 yards, 3 touchdowns and no turnovers to speak of.
Dan Marino, who was rarely sacked, spent the game on his back, as he was hit often and hard. The 49ers had designed a scheme to pressure him and get him to throw the ball before he was ready, and it worked even better than they had hoped.
Although Dan Marino’s Hall of Fame career was great, he never returned to a Super Bowl, and we’re sitting here wondering what if after that stunning loss on January 20th, 1985.