Remembering the Legendary Don Shula — Part V: The Marino Years

by Mike Ferguson

Photo courtesy of Miami Dolphins

The football world said goodbye to a coaching legend on Monday, May 4 as Don Shula died at the age of 90.

The winningest coach in NFL history, Shula won 347 total games in 33 years with the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins. Shula was a 2-time world champion and played for pro football’s ultimate prize seven times.

In a multi-part series, we’ll be looking back on his legendary career in football. In the fifth part of our series, we look back on Shula’s first 10 years with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, Dan Marino:

The 1983 Draft

After quarterbacks combined to go 4-for-17 in the Super Bowl XVII loss to the Washington Redskins, the Miami Dolphins did something in the 1983 NFL Draft that they had done just twice before. They used their first pick on a quarterback.

With five quarterbacks already off the board, Miami used the 27th overall pick on Pittsburgh’s Dan Marino. Marino had set records for the Panthers, but a disappointing 1982 season and rumors of drug use diminished his draft stock.

Shula was willing to take the chance on Marino. The coaching legend later went on to say that falling to 27th overall was a motivator for Marino.

Marino Takes the Reins

Despite being a unique talent, Marino was not the starter to begin the 1983 season. It wasn’t until Week 3 when Shula realized he had something truly special.

In a Monday night contest against the Los Angeles Raiders, the Dolphins trailed 27-0 late. With the offense stagnant, Marino replaced an ineffective David Woodley and promptly led a pair of touchdown drives in a 27-14 loss.

Woodley would keep his job for another two weeks. In a 17-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints, Marino again replaced Woodley late and led Miami’s only touchdown drive. On Oct. 9, 1983, Marino made his first career start.

It didn’t result in a win, but Marino was nothing short of stellar. In a 38-35 overtime loss to the Buffalo Bills, Marino passed for 322 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.

Miami went 7-1 over Marino’s next eight starts. The Dolphins finished 12-4 before falling to the Seattle Seahawks in the AFC Divisional round, 27-20.

A Record-Breaking Season

Although the Miami Dolphins were unable to return to the Super Bowl in 1983, there was no doubt that Shula had found his franchise quarterback. In 1984, Marino would have a season unlike any ever before seen.

During the 1984 campaign, Marino set NFL records for passing yards and touchdowns. With the help of talented wide receivers, Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, Marino’s 5,084 yards was the most ever and his 48 touchdown passes bested Dan Fouts’ previous record by 12. Marino also led the NFL in passer rating en route to being named league MVP.

The Dolphins finished the 1984 season with a record of 14-2 and earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. After avenging the prior season’s Divisional round loss to Seattle with a 31-10 victory, all that stood between Miami and the Super Bowl was Marino’s hometown team — the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In the AFC Championship, Pittsburgh held a 14-10 lead in the second quarter. Marino however, would not be denied. The second-year quarterback passed for 421 yards and four touchdowns as the Dolphins ran away with a 45-28 victory. For the second time in three years, the Dolphins were heading to the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately for Shula and Marino, that last win proved to be elusive. Against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XIX, the Dolphins led 10-7, but wouldn’t find the end zone again. Marino passed for 318 yards in the Super Bowl, but was outdone by San Francisco’s Joe Montana. Montana passed for 331 yards and accounted for four total touchdowns in the 38-16 victory for the 49ers, who had finished 15-1 during the regular season.

The Point of No Return

For Shula and Marino, the 1984 season would be the final Super Bowl appearance. Moving forward however, there were plenty of memorable moments and close calls.

One of the more memorable performances of the legends’ tenure in Miami came on a warm December night at the Orange Bowl in 1985. The Chicago Bears were 12-0 as they came to South Florida for Monday Night Football. Coached by Mike Ditka and with Buddy Ryan as the defensive coordinator, some still argue that the Bears had the greatest defense of all-time.

That was no problem for Marino.

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With members of Shula’s 1972 team in attendance and hoping to see their perfect season preserved, Marino put on a show. Coming in, the Bears had pitched consecutive shutouts and held their previous three opponents to a combined three points. Marino passed for 270 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-24 Miami victory.

Many thought that a rematch may be in the cards for Super Bowl XX. The Dolphins finished 12-4. After Marino led Miami from a 21-3 deficit to beat the Cleveland Browns in the Divisional playoffs, 24-21, all that stood in the way of return trip to the Super Bowl was the New England Patriots.

The teams split the two regular season meetings, but six Miami turnovers were too much to overcome in the Orange Bowl. New England defeated the Dolphins, 38-14.

With 1990 being the exception, the Dolphins would miss the playoffs in five of the next six seasons. During the 1992 regular season however, Miami would again be the AFC’s top team.

Thanks to back-to-back comeback wins to close the year, the Dolphins finished 11-5 to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. After blasting the San Diego Chargers 31-0 in the AFC Divisional playoffs, the Buffalo Bills came to South Florida for the AFC Championship.

The Bills have eliminated Miami in the divisional round two years prior in Orchard Park and were coming off back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. The teams had split during the regular season with the road team winning each contest.

That trend continued as Miami never led. The stout Bills defense held the Dolphins to 33 yards rushing and forced five turnovers in a 29-10 win.

Legendary Careers

The 1992 season remains the last time that the Dolphins reached the AFC Championship. Miami would have winning seasons in each of the next three seasons and reached the playoffs twice.

At his retirement at the end of the 1999 season, Marino had set NFL records for virtually every passing category. The list included: career completions, career yards, career touchdowns, career 300-yard games and fourth-quarter comebacks.

The final years of Marino’s career were plagued by injuries. The most significant was a tear to his Achilles tendon in the fifth game of the 1993 season at Cleveland.

Mike Ferguson is the associate editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.

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