The 1984 Miami Dolphins: Dan Marino’s Super Bowl Season

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.

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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.