Associated Press Photo
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. This next part takes us from the middle parts of the 1970’s to the early parts of the 1980’s:
The End of a Championship Era
After becoming the first AFC team to repeat as Super Bowl champions in 1972 and 1973, the Miami Dolphins were ultimately supplanted by the Pittsburgh Steelers as the premier power in the AFC. The Steelers would go on to win four of six Super Bowls to close the decade.
Miami wouldn’t return to the Super Bowl until the 1982 season, but remained competitive under Shula. From 1974 to 1979, the Dolphins won at least 10 games in five of six seasons. The exception was a 6-8 finish in 1976.
As the decade wound down, the key pieces of the Super Bowl teams slowly moved on. After the 1974 season, running back Jim Kiick, fullback Larry Csonka and wide receiver Paul Warfield all left to join the new World Football League. Csonka would spend his final season in 1979 with the Dolphins.
The 1975 season would be the last for defensive standouts Manny Fernandez and Jake Scott. Fernandez, a defensive tackle, retired after the 1975 campaign. Scott, a safety and MVP of Super Bowl VII, joined the Washington Redskins.
Running back Mercury Morris’ final season in Miami was also 1975 before spending one year with the San Diego Chargers. Pro Bowl tackle Norm Evans left the Dolphins after the 1975 season to become part of the expansion Seattle Seahawks.
After missing all of 1975 to injury, linebacker Nick Buoniconti played just one more season in 1976 before retiring. The 1976 season would also be the last for defensive end Bill Stanfill.
By 1981, few faces from the championship teams remained. Kicker Garo Yepremian’s final season in Miami was 1978. All-Pro center Jim Langer left after the 1979 season before spending his final two years with the Minnesota Vikings. Quarterback Bob Griese and guard Larry Little — both now Pro Football Hall of Famers — retired after the 1980 season.
There were a few exceptions. Offensive lineman Bob Kuechenberg and defensive end Vern Den Herder played into the early 1980’s. Both were part of one more Super Bowl run.
Droughts and Heartbreaking Endings
After reaching three straight Super Bowls and winning the last two, the Miami Dolphins went eight straight seasons without a playoff win. The Dolphins won the AFC East in 1974, 1979 and 1981, but were unable to advance in the postseason.
The Dolphins went 10-4 in both 1975 and 1977, but missed the playoffs both years. Miami made the playoffs as a Wild Card in 1978, but lost to the Houston Oilers, 17-9. That contest was tied 7-7 entering the final quarter before the Oilers pulled away.
As far as playoff losses go, however, that paled in comparison to other heartbreakers.
Miami was two wins away from a fourth straight Super Bowl appearance in 1974 and that number looked to soon be one. Against the Oakland Raiders in the Divisional playoff, Benny Malone’s 23-yard touchdown had give Miami a 26-21 lead with 2:08 to play.
With less than 30 seconds to play and Oakland inside the Miami 10 on the next possession, quarterback Ken Stabler appeared to be going down for a sack when he lofted a desperation pass into a crowded end zone. The ball found the hands of Clarence Davis for the winning touchdown. Oakland defeated the Dolphins 28-26 to end Miami’s reign in the AFC.
Epic in Miami
In one of the more memorable playoff games in NFL history, the Dolphins were defeated by the San Diego Chargers in the 1981 Divisional playoff game. Miami fell behind 24-0 after a quarter, but stormed back with 24 unanswred points. The first half ended with a Miami touchdown as Don Strock hit Duriel Harris, who lateraled the ball to Tony Nathan for a walk-in touchdown.
Miami took its first lead on the first play of the fourth quarter as Nathan scored from 12 yards out to make it 38-31. That lead would not last as San Diego drew even in the final minute on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Dan Fouts to James Brooks.
Kicker Uwe von Schamann had a chance to win the game for Miami late in regulation, but tight end Kellen Winslow blocked his 43-yard field goal attempt. The Chargers eventually won the game 41-38 on Rolf Benirschke’s 27-yard field goal in overtime.
Fouts and Strock each finished with more than 400 yards passing for their respective teams. Winslow finished with 13 catches for 166 yards to go with the block that forced overtime in a contest for the ages.
The Killer Bs
By the early parts of the 1980s, Shula and a new group of Miami Dolphins had South Florida believing once again. The biggest reason was the defense.
The legendary “No-Names” may have virtually all been gone. That made way for the “Killer Bs”.
The defense got their name because so many of the players’ last names started with the letter B. Notables included defensive end Kim Bokamper, defensive tackle Bob Baumhower, linebacker Bob Brudzinski and safeties Glenn and Lyle Blackwood. Linebacker A.J. Duhe and cornerback Don McNeal were both excellent players as well.
On the offensive side of the ball, Miami played musical quarterbacks with Strock and David Woodley. Fullback Andra Franklin and Nathan, a tailback, shared carries. Out wide, Duriel Harris, Nat Moore and Jimmy Cefalo were a talented trio of wide receivers complimented by tight end Joe Rose.
A Short, But Magical 1982
A players’ strike shortened the 1982 season from 16 games to nine. The playoffs however, expanded to eight teams per conference.
While short, the 1982 season was a special one for Miami. The Dolphins led the NFL in total and scoring defense en route to a 7-2 finish. For Miami, the AFC playoffs was largely a breeze.
After a 28-13 win over the New England Patriots in the Wild Card game, the Dolphins flipped the script on San Diego and avenged the prior season’s Divisional loss. As the Chargers had done the year prior at the Orange Bowl, Miami raced to a 24-0 lead en route to a 34-13 victory.
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The Miami Dolphins were one win away from their first Super Bowl appearance in nine years as a familiar foe came to the Orange Bowl. On a sloppy field in South Florida, the New York Jets came calling.
The Jets finished the regular season 6-3 with two losses coming to the Dolphins. During the playoffs however, they would handle the Cincinnati Bengals before rallying past the Los Angeles Raiders. At the rain-soaked Orange Bowl, the Killer Bs would dominate.
That day, Miami held the New York offense to a mere 139 yards while intercepting Jets’ quarterback Richard Todd five times. Duhe was responsible for three of those interceptions.
After a scoreless first half, Woody Bennett’s short touchdown run gave the Dolphins a 7-0 lead in the third quarter. Duhe’s 35-yard interception return for a touchdown in the final period capped a 14-0 Miami victory.
For the first time in nine years, the Dolphins were Super Bowl bound.
Super Bowl XVII
As was the case 10 years prior during Miami’s perfect season, the campaign in 1982 would end with a trip to California to face the Washington Redskins. The Redskins had lost just once all season and breezed through the NFC playoffs.
That evening at the Rose Bowl, Washington outgained Miami by a large margin, but for most of the night, the Dolphins led. Miami managed just 176 yards of offense, but 76 came on one play as Woodley found Cefalo for a long scoring strike to get the scoring started.
After Washington tied the game at 10 on a touchdown pass from Joe Theismann to Alvin Garrett late in the second quarter, Fulton Walker put the Dolphins back in front with the first kickoff return for a touchdown in Super Bowl history. Walker’s 98-yard touchdown gave Miami a 17-10 halftime lead, but the Dolphins would not score again.
The Dolphins led 17-13 after three quarters, but over the final 15 minutes, the Killer Bs had no answer for Washington’s John Riggins. As a team, the Redskins ran for 276 yards. Riggins finished with 166 yards on 38 carries while being named the game’s MVP.
Riggins’ 43-yard touchdown run early in the final quarter put the Redskins ahead for good before Theismann’s touchdown pass to Charlie Brown with less than two minutes to play cemented Washington’s 27-17 victory. Washington finished with 400 yards of offense to 176 for Miami.
Dolphins’ quarterbacks, Woodley and Strock, were a combined 4-for-17 passing for 97 yards in the loss. In the following draft, Shula would find his franchise quarterback.