Photo courtesy of Associated Press/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 part No. 6, we look back on Shula’s final years:
Down Goes Marino
After reaching the AFC Championship in 1992, the 1993 campaign had high highs and low lows for Shula and the Dolphins. Miami was off to a 3-1 start as it made its way to Cleveland Stadium on Oct. 10, 1993.
With the Dolphins leading 10-7 late in the first half, they were dealt a huge blow. With little contact, All-Pro quarterback Dan Marino went down with what would be a season-ending Achilles tendon tear.
The Dolphins would have to turn to lefty Scott Mitchell. Early on, they saw success in doing so.
Miami defeated Cleveland 24-14 before reeling off home victories over the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs. With those victories, Shula tied legendary Chicago Bears’ head coach George Halas with the most wins in NFL history with 324 career victories. After a 27-10 road loss to the New York Jets, Miami made its way to Veterans Stadium to face the Philadelphia Eagles.
Shula Passes Halas
Against the Eagles on Nov. 14, 1993, things seemed to go from bad to worse for Miami’s quarterback situation. With Marino already done for the year, Mitchell suffered a separated shoulder early in the second half. The Dolphins, at the time, trailed 14-13.
Miami would then turn to rookie Doug Pederson. To that point, he had never thrown an NFL pass.
Pederson would go just 3-for-6 passing, but a pair of long field goals from Pete Stoyanovich was enough to deliver the Dolphins. The defense did the rest as Miami held Philadelphia to 260 yards and forced three turnovers in a 19-14 victory.
With his 325th career win, Shula stood alone atop the NFL’s all-time wins list. His team was 7-2.
With Mitchell on the shelf, the Dolphins signed veteran quarterback Steve DeBerg. DeBerg led the Dolphins to a home victory over the New England Patriots and a memorable 16-14 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. At 9-2, Miami owned the best record in the NFL.
Unfortunately for the Dolphins, they would not win another game in 1993. Miami lost its final five games to finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs. The season ended with a 33-27 overtime loss to the New England Patriots.
The 1994 season for Miami began against the same opponent in which the 1993 season ended. Only this time, Marino was back under center.
Coming off the injury, many wondered whether Marino would be able to return to his Pro Bowl form. At Joe Robbie Stadium on Sept. 4, 1994, Marino put all those doubts to rest.
In a contest where Marino and New England’s Drew Bledsoe both passed for more than 400 yards, the lead changed three times in the final quarter. With Miami trailing 35-32 with over three minutes to play and facing 4th-and-5 at the Patriots’ 35-yard-line, Shula kept his offense on the field.
Marino took the shotgun snap before finding a streaking Irving Fryar down the sideline for a 35-yard touchdown and an eventual 39-35 victory. Marino finished the day with 473 yards passing and five touchdowns.
The Shula Bowl
The Dolphins were 3-1 when they made their way to Cincinnati for an unusual first. Shula had been on the NFL sidelines since the early 1960s, but the opposing coach was one that the coaching legend had known since birth.
Coaching the Cincinnati Bengals was Shula’s son, third-year head coach Dave Shula. It marked the first time in NFL history that there was a head coaching match-up between father and son.
The Bengals were 0-4, but came out fired up for the younger Shula. A 51-yard touchdown pass from David Klingler to Darnay Scott gave Cincinnati a 7-0 lead after the first quarter. The next 45 minutes however, would prove that father knew best.
The Miami defense forced five turnovers en route to a 23-7 win. The Dolphins also possessed the ball for nearly 39 minutes.
The Fake Spike
After a 7-2 start, the Dolphins’ campaign seemed to be spiraling downhill. Following back-to-back 3-point losses to the Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami fell behind 24-6 to the New York Jets in a pivotal AFC East match-up on Nov. 27, 1994.
The Dolphins had climbed to within three after Marino’s second and third touchdown passes of the day to Mark Ingram. With less than a minute to play, the two were in the midst of an 84-yard touchdown march, but time was not on their side.
After an 11-yard hookup between Marino and Ingram for a first down set the Dolphins up with goal-to-go inside the 10, the Miami quarterback signaled to his offense that it was time to spike the ball and stop the clock. That was fully what the Jets expected, but Ingram knew what Marino was up to.
Marino took the snap, but never spiked the ball. Instead, he found Ingram near the sideline in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown in a 28-24 victory. The win proved critical as the Dolphins would finish 10-6 to win the AFC East.
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Miami didn’t manage to get a first-round bye, but hosted the Kansas City Chiefs in an AFC Wild Card showdown. The Chiefs were quarterbacked by Joe Montana, who as a member of the San Francisco 49ers, was the MVP of Super Bowl XIX as Miami was defeated in its last appearance on Super Sunday, 38-16.
Montana would pass for 314 yards and help the Chiefs race to a 17-10 lead, but Marino and Shula had the last laugh. Marino threw a pair of touchdown passes as the Dolphins scored the game’s final 17 points in a 27-17 win. It would be the final game of Montana’s legendary career and the last playoff win for Shula.
The following week, Miami jumped out to a 21-6 lead over the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers scored the game’s final 16 points. After Stan Humphries hit Mark Seay to put San Diego in front 22-21 with less than a minute to play, Marino marched the Dolphins into field goal range.
A regular when it came to winning kicks, Stoyanovich’s 48-yard attempt sailed far to the right. The season was over.
The Final Season
The 1995 season would be the last for Shula. It started promising as Miami began the year 4-0 and was the last team in the NFL to lose.
When all was said and done however, the Dolphins were 9-7 and bound for Buffalo. For the third time in six years, Miami’s season would end at the hand of the Buffalo Bills. In a Wild Card showdown in Orchard Park, Buffalo proved to be too much for the Dolphins, 37-22.
The campaign left much to be desired, but it was a record-breaking season for Marino. In a 27-24 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 9, Marino broke Fran Tarkenton’s career record for completions.
Tarkenton’s career yardage record went down on Nov. 13 as the Dolphins fell to the Patriots, 34-17. In a 36-28 loss at Indianapolis on Nov. 27, Marino’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Keith Byars made him the all-time leader in touchdown tosses — also ahead of Tarkenton.
After reported fallout with ownership, Shula called it quits less than a month after the Wild Card loss to Buffalo. Shula’s career ended with four straight winning seasons and back-to-back playoff appearances.