How far are the Miami Dolphins from winning a Super Bowl?
It seems a ridiculous question coming off a 6-10 season, but there is a history of losing teams making the jump to NFL champion in the space of just one year.
New England did it in 2001. The Patriots were 5-11 the previous season and there was
nothing much to recommend them except that they never got shut out. Miami suffered that indignity twice in 2017, and it very nearly happened a third time.
The 1999 St. Louis Rams won a Super Bowl after going 4-12 the previous season and sticking Dick Vermeil with the worst record of his 15-year NFL coaching career.
San Francisco won it all in 1981, just one year removed from a 6-10 clunker that was similar in some ways to what the Dolphins are going through. Bill Walsh, for instance, was in his second year as an NFL head coach and he had no more luck igniting his creative offensive ideas with Steve DeBerg at quarterback than Adam Gase did with Jay Cutler.
So what happened to transform those losers into Super Bowl champs so quickly? Obviously there was improvement throughout the rosters, but the most glaring similarity was a significant upgrade at quarterback.
Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Joe Montana all were first trusted to handle full-time starting roles in those breakthrough seasons. They got their teams through some tight spots and continued to do so for years thereafter.
So about those Dolphins. Can’t see Ryan Tannehill or even some first-round draft pick suddenly giving Gase all that he needs at quarterback. It’s not impossible, though.
The Philadelphia Eagles were 7-9 a year ago and it’s not impossible that they might become Super Bowl champs on Sunday, even with a supposed downgrade at quarterback.
The last time the Super Bowl was played in Northern California way back on Jan. 20, 1985, the Miami Dolphins were in the game.
Spoiler alert. They lost, 38-16, to the San Francisco 49ers, who become the first and only team to win a Super Bowl in its home market.
Looking back though, as Carolina and Denver prepare to meet this Sunday at fantastic new Levi’s Stadium, it’s striking to think how different the entire Super Bowl experience has become.
The big game was played that year, for instance, on a college campus, and in a college stadium that was already 64 years old by the time the Dolphins and 49ers got there.
Stanford Stadium had no luxury suites. There weren’t even locker room facilities up to NFL standards. The league built a standard block structure to be used by the Dolphins for dressing and showering on game day. They say it cost $1 million to make, but all I remember is the room being so cramped that you couldn’t get to the players you needed to interview because of all the equipment and shoes and towels piled up between the benches.
We had trouble making it down from the press box to the locker room, too, because the elevator was jammed and the walkways were so crowded that it was impossible to find the colored lines that had been painted on the asphalt to lead the way. Didn’t really matter much in the end. None of Miami’s players really felt much like talking.
It was completely different during the weeklong runup to the game. Mark Duper and Mark Clayton were media stars, laughing their way through hundreds of carefree interviews. Dan Marino had to enter and exit the team hotel through the service and kitchen entrances because there were so many fans waiting for him in the lobby and out by the buses.
Don Shula, meanwhile, was trying to get some improvements made at the Dolphins’ soggy practice field inside Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. The coach cheered up considerably by the time he rode the Bay Area Rapid Transit train to do his major press briefing at the Super Bowl media center in San Francisco. That train system really worked great, he kept saying, and Shula expected his offense would do the same against the 49ers.
Why not? Marino was at his amazing best in the 1984 season, passing for 48 touchdowns and 5,084 yards and doing it all at the age of 23. The Dolphins were such a spectacular story back then, averaging 32 points per game and looking for all the world like they were kicking into the beginning of a second Super Bowl dynasty for the franchise.
Didn’t happen that way, of course. Marino completed just one touchdown against San Francisco, a 2-yarder to tight end Dan Johnson that gave Miami a 10-7 lead at the end of the first quarter. It was all downhill from there, with Joe Montana throwing for three touchdowns and the 49ers defense shutting the Dolphins out in the second half. Overall, San Francisco outgained Miami 537 yards to 314.
Took a while getting out of there that night, with everybody crawling the 40 miles back to San Francisco in a rolling traffic jam. Car horns were blaring all the way, mostly in celebration of the 49ers victory.
For those of us who covered the Dolphins, however, there was the feeling that Miami would be back, again and again. After all, that was the second Super Bowl in the space of three years for Shula. Marino would only get better, it figured. That’s why Diet Pepsi put out a commercial following the game, with Montana buying Marino a can of soda as if they had just bumped into each other in the stadium concourse leaving the game. The ad script ended with Dan saying, “Hey, Joe, next year I’m buying.”
I dredged up my game story from that Super Bowl, a portion of which follows below. It’s still a sore subject, sure, but maybe it helps a little to reflect on when the Dolphins were so close to championship greatness. Some of you are too young to remember, after all.
49ers Win in a Rush, 38-16
By Dave George, Staff Writer
Palo Alto, Calif. – Dan Marino and a new generation of Miami Dolphins got a taste of Super Bowl death warmed over yesterday. For the second time in three years the Dolphins were flattened within sight of their first NFL title since 1973.
The San Francisco 49ers marred Miami’s season this time with a 38-16 victory at Stanford Stadium that never was in doubt after a 21-point scoring blitz in the second quarter by the NFC champions.
Three years ago, before the Dolphins offense was revitalized by Marino, Miami lost Super Bowl XVII to the Washington Redskins when David Woodley’s offense died in the second half. But no one expected to be writing an offensive obituary yesterday for Miami’s league-leading offensive unit.
The 49ers got to Marino like no one has this season, sacking him four times, and the Dolphins defense could do nothing to stop Joe Montana and his talented running mates.
Montana clearly won the battle of the league’s top quarterbacks, completing 24-of-35 passes for a Super Bowl-record 331 yards. He also tied a Super Bowl record with three touchdown passes and rushed for another himself. Marino set an NFL record with 48 touchdown passes this season but could only manage one yesterday, a 2-yarder to tight end Dan Johnson in the first quarter.
Among Marino’s major problems was the fact that Miami managed just 25 yards rushing. Only once, when the Dolphins rushed for 23 yards in a 1967 game against Kansas City, has a Miami team been more inept on the ground.
“The 49ers clearly were a better football team,” said Dolphins coach Don Shula, who has a 2-4 record in Super Bowl games and shares with Bud Grant the indignity of having lost four of them. “They went with a four-man line with six defensive backs in the game and when we couldn’t get anything going running they were able to do a good job on our offense.
“It’s tough to live with this.”
Not so for Montana, who was named Super Bowl MVP after San Francisco’s win over Cincinnati four years ago and won the honor again yesterday.
“All we heard all week long was Miami’s offense and how were we going to be able to stop them,” Montana said. “I think, deep inside, although nothing was said, there was the feeling that we have an offense too and nobody was thinking about having to stop us.”
(There’s much more to that story but you get the picture. Hey, at least the Dolphins were there. Wouldn’t you take that now?)