1994 Miami Dolphins: A Big Missed Opportunity

The 1994 Miami Dolphins were feeling the urgency of the moment. Even with the great Dan Marino at quarterback and the legendary Don Shula on the sidelines, the Fish hadn’t been to a Super Bowl since Marino’s MVP year of 1984, and they had yet to win one with the future Hall of Fame quarterback. Miami certainly flirted with at least returning to the Big Game. But two second-half fades hurt—the first came in the latter part of the regular season, costing the Dolphins valuable playoff position. The second came within the postseason itself.

Marino delivered a Pro Bowl season at the age of 33. His 63% completion rate and 7.2 yards-per-attempt were both top-5 among starting quarterbacks. With a 30-17 TD/INT ratio, he ranked 11th in interception percentage.

The passing game targets were diverse. Irving Fryar could stretch the field, averaging 17.4 yards on his 73 catches, and he made the Pro Bowl. Mark Ingram caught 44 balls for over 500 yards. Marino had a viable target at tight end, and Keith Jackson caught 59 passes. The great quarterback also made use of his backfield, with Bernie Parmalee and Keith Byars combining to catch 83 more balls.

Parmalee was the focal point of the running game, churning out 868 yards. He averaged a respectable, if not spectacular 4.0 yards-per-carry. The offensive line was led by a terrific left side. Richmond Webb as an All-Pro at tackle, while Keith Sims made the Pro Bowl at guard. Miami’s offense scored the third-most points of anyone in the NFL.

It was the defense that was a little spotty. They had one Pro Bowler, in middle linebacker Bryan Cox. Troy Vincent at corner was starting to emerge, and Jeff Cross recorded 9 ½ sacks from his defensive end spot. But that was it. The Dolphin D ranked 17th in a 30-team league for points allowed.

A New England Patriots team on the verge of a breakout year with Bill Parcells coaching and Drew Bledsoe at quarterback, came to Miami to open the season. Marino and Bledsoe put on a passing display, with over 900 yards in total pass yardage. Fryar caught five passes for 211 yards and three touchdowns. The Dolphins survived the shootout, 38-35.

Miami went north to play Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers, and the Dolphins showed they could win more than one way. They enjoyed a 146-38 edge in rush yardage, played turnover-free football and won a 24-14 game more comfortably than the final score suggests.

The New York Jets came out and the result was another easy win. Miami got 100 yards rushing from Terry Kirby and a 100-yard receiving game from Jackson. The defense intercepted Boomer Esiason four times and the Dolphins won 28-14.

After three straight good games, Miami came out flat at playoff-bound Minnesota. The Fish dug themselves a 28-0 hole by the second quarter. Marino led a furious rally, going 29/54 for 431 yards. The Dolphins actually came all the way back and tied it, before succumbing, 38-35.

A road trip to play a lousy Cincinnati Bengals team wouldn’t seem like a marquee date for Sunday Night Football. But this was no ordinary game. Cincinnati was coached by Shula’s son David, and the historic father-son coaching matching was reason for national television. After spotting the son a 7-3 lead in the second quarter, Don’s team took over. The Dolphins forced five turnovers, Marino tossed a couple TD passes and Miami won 23-7.

That set up a road trip to Buffalo. The Bills were merely the gold standard of the AFC, having been to four straight Super Bowls—including 1992, when they stopped the Dolphins in an AFC Championship Game played in South Beach. Miami looked in no position to make a changing of the guard—they were pounded in the trenches, losing rush yardage 214-114. Marino was an erratic 20/43 for 212 yards. The Dolphins trailed 21-3 in the fourth quarter and lost 21-11.

The Los Angeles Raiders would stay in the playoff hunt until the final week. They came into Miami and grabbed a 10-0 lead early in the game. The Dolphins finally broke out of their funk by running the football. Parmalee churned out 150 yards on 30 carries. The defense forced Raider QB Jeff Hostetler into a 9/27 afternoon. Miami rallied to tie, then won in overtime, 20-17.

They were headed into their bye week at a solid 5-2, and against a schedule dotted with playoff contenders. And they came out of the bye humming. The Dolphins went to Foxboro and beat up the Patriots on the ground—140-46 in rush yardage, including 123 from Parmalee. They picked off Bledsoe three times and won 23-3. And at home against a respectable Indianapolis Colts team, they rallied from 21-12 down in the final eight minutes. Marino hit O.J. McDuffie with a 28-yard TD pass, then led a field goal drive to win 22-21.

Riding high at 7-2, those dreams of a Super Bowl were looking good. Miami was a solid seven-point favorite at home against another future playoff team in Chicago. But red-zone execution failed the Dolphins on a couple of key possessions, and they dropped a 17-14 decision.

Pittsburgh and Cleveland were both jousting in the AFC Central (the division format of the time had just an East-Central-West in each conference with three wild-cards), and whomever prevailed would be a prime contender for the #1 seed. Miami’s visit to the Steel City was a big one. Marino threw for 300 yards. But there was no running game, he was sacked four times and mediocre Mike Tomczak answered with a 300-yard day of his own. The Dolphins dropped a 16-13 overtime heartbreaker.

The slump threatened to get worse in the Meadowlands when Miami fell behind the Jets 24-6 in the third quarter. A third straight loss, this one to a bad team, would be a disaster. Marino started answering. He hit Ingram on touchdown passes of 17 and 28 yards, cutting the lead to 24-21. Then the Dolphins drove to the eight-yard line as the clock ticked under 40 seconds. With only one timeout left, Marino was screaming “Clock!” to indicate he would down the ball. But it was a ploy. Marino took the snap and quickly hit Ingram with another TD pass to pull out a 28-24 thriller. “The Clock Game” had taken its place in NFL lore.

With an 8-4 record, Miami was in control of the AFC East, up two games on both New England and Buffalo, and three up on Indianapolis (an AFC East team prior to the realignment of 2002). In the race for the two first-round byes, Pittsburgh/Cleveland in the Central and the San Diego Chargers in the West were both 9-3. There was a lot to play for down the stretch.

It started with a Sunday Night home game against Buffalo. Their dynasty teetering, the Bills had to win, and they played with urgency. Marino threw for 311 yards. But he also threw three interceptions and was knocked out of the game for backup Bernie Kosar. A 42-31 loss seriously damaged the push for homefield advantage and tightened the division race.

Another prime-time home date with a contending team fighting for its life came against the Kansas City Chiefs. Miami led this one 21-14 in the third quarter when Vincent came up with a 56-yard Pick-6 against Steve Bono, starting this game for the great Joe Montana. Parmalee ran for 120 yards, Marino was mistake-free, and the Dolphins rolled to a 45-28 win.

Now 9-5, Miami was holding on to a one-game lead over New England. Buffalo had slipped to 7-7. The Dolphins had the head-to-head sweep on the Patriots, so one win would secure the division. Moreover, San Diego had lost two straight, was 9-5 themselves, and Miami had the tiebreaker. While the Steelers and Browns seemed to have pole position for the top seed (it would go to Pittsburgh), the 2-seed and first-round bye was right there for the Fish to take.

But they couldn’t take it. They went to Indianapolis and gave up an early punt return for a touchdown. That was the only time either team saw the end zone all day. Miami lost 10-6.

The season finale would be on Christmas Night against Barry Sanders and the playoff-bound Detroit Lions, who were also playing for seeding position. Everything was possible. The Dolphins could still lose the division to the Patriots and fall to the 5-seed. Or, they could still pass the Chargers and get the 2-spot. Miami-Detroit was the final game of the NFL regular season, so they would know what was at stake by kickoff.

In the early afternoon on Christmas Eve, New England won and kept the pressure on. In the late afternoon, San Diego won and locked up the bye. It was a big lump of coal for Miami, but they still had to preserve their first-round home game.

The Dolphins kept their focus. Parmalee ran for three first-half touchdowns. They raced to a 24-3 lead and were able to take Sanders’ running out of the equation. Marino went 26/35 for 285 yards. Cross recorded two sacks. Miami closed out a 27-20 win. They had a long playoff road ahead, but at least they were AFC East champs and could begin that road at home.

 Kansas City was the opponent and this time, Montana was playing. The Chiefs took a 7-0 lead. Parmalee answered with a tying touchdown, before Miami gave up a 57-yard touchdown pass. The two teams traded field goals, before a short TD pass from Marino made it a 17-17 tie at the half.

The game was shaping up as a classic between two all-time great quarterbacks. Marino would go 22/29 for 257 yards with no mistakes. He tossed a seven-yard TD pass to Fryar to get the lead, and a later field goal made it 27-17. Just as important is what the defense did—two good KC drives were stopped with turnovers. Miami won 27-17. Montana went off into retirement. Marino went to San Diego.

On the final game of Divisional Round Weekend, Marino came out firing. He would go 24/38 for 262 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on the day. He led Miami to a 21-6 lead in the third quarter. The Dolphins were in control and looked on their way to Pittsburgh.

But they couldn’t run the ball and salt the game away. In fact, Miami only ran the ball eight times on the afternoon. The leaky defense was exposed, and San Diego took a 22-21 lead in the final minute. Marino raced his team into position for a winning field goal. But the otherwise reliable Pete Stoyanovich missed a 48-yard try. The season was over.

It was a missed opportunity that capped a season of missed opportunities. Let’s acknowledge that the Dolphins were not going to win the Super Bowl. The San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league in this era and the 49ers won the title. There’s no reason to think Miami would have beaten San Francisco.

But getting to the Super Bowl had been very realistic. Pittsburgh’s vulnerability was shown when they lost to San Diego. It could easily have been Miami doing that—whether that was by securing the 2-seed and not having to go on the road, or simply salting away this divisional round game. Either way, it was a missed chance.

It was the last best chance for the Shula/Marino tandem. After a first-round exit in 1995, Shula retired. Marino made divisional rounds in 1998 and 1999 with Jimmy Johnson, but their blowout losses those years were expected. 1994 was the window when a viable opportunity existed to reach a Super Bowl. As a stand-alone season, it was a good year. But the historical context makes it not good enough.