October 9th, 1983
Ever since Don Shula took over the Miami Dolphins in 1970, their offensive identity was their rushing attack. The most famous player associated with their famed perfect season was running back Larry Csonka. In Shula’s first 13 seasons with the team, Miami’s running game was statistically better than the passing game in all but two years. Eight of those seasons featured an NFL top 5 running game. Even Miami’s starting QB going into the 1983 season was the NFL’s top rusher from the quarterback position.
On defense, the Dolphins were stout. Nine of Shula’s first 13 years fielded a top 5 unit. In fact, the Miami defense was a top 10 unit in all of Shula’s years except one. Super Bowl VII’s MVP went to Jake Scott, a safety. In their back to back Super Bowl wins, the Dolphins only gave up a single offensive score. Simply put, the Miami Dolphins were known for being a defensive-minded running team.
Those two truths would soon be upended.
On October 9, 1983, Miami Dolphins fans witnessed the beginning of a seismic shift in their franchise. At the time, however, all they knew was that this day would be the first start of their new #1 draft pick, a quarterback out of Pittsburgh named Dan Marino.
Five other teams took quarterbacks ahead of Miami in the 1983 Draft. At that point, none of those other guys were exactly setting the league on fire. John Elway had five starts under his belt, but those included five interceptions and just a single touchdown pass. Todd Blackledge had yet to start a game and had only thrown five passes in the league. Jim Kelly bolted for the USFL rather than play for Buffalo. Tony Eason hadn’t started a game either. His career had consisted of just four passes. The final quarterback taken before Marino, Ken O’Brien, wouldn’t throw a single pass until the next season.
As for Marino? He had shown flashes of his soon to be legendary career in his two prior appearances, throwing for 240 yards, 3 touchdowns, and an interception in just 37 minutes of action. Were those brief glimpses just nothing more than beginner’s luck? Or did it appear that Miami had gotten the best quarterback in the draft?
Marino’s short playing time had raised hopes. Part of this new hope was how much better he looked than fellow rookies. Another part, though, was just how much more impressive he looked than Miami’s starter, David Woodley. It is not often that a Super Bowl quarterback loses his job, much less just five games later, yet the Dolphins were eager to move on from the Woodley era. The 1982 Dolphins passing attack averaged a mere 145 yards per game. Woodley’s ghastly second half performance in Super Bowl XVII featured just one completed pass, and that pass was caught by the Washington Redskins.
As Dolphins fans filed into the hallowed grounds of the Orange Bowl on 10/9/83, they might have been expecting a win. After all, Miami had the Buffalo Bill’s number. They hadn’t lost to Buffalo at home since their inaugural season in 1966. Vegas had Miami as six-point favorites, in part because the Dolphins had already beaten the Bills that year, 12-0. Based on this history, fans probably weren’t anticipating a crazy shootout, but that is exactly what they were about to witness. They would see 73 points scored on this day, which would end up being the second highest points total out of any Dolphins game at the Orange Bowl.
The unfamiliar script revealed itself when the Bills suddenly jumped out to an early 14-0 lead. Miami’s new quarterback would have to respond. He did. Marino and the Dolphins tied up the game five minutes into the third quarter. Buffalo took the lead again on the following possession. Miami answered back. Buffalo kept up the pressure when they retook the lead, 28-21, with 13:18 left in the game. Marino threw two more touchdown passes on the next two drives, which gave the Dolphins a 35-28 edge with only three minutes to go. Unfortunately, Miami’s #1 ranked defense buckled. The Bills scored the game tying touchdown with just 23 ticks remaining.
The pivotal overtime coin toss was won by Miami and Marino’s offense quickly set up a scoring opportunity. But kicker Uwe von Schmann’s 52-yard field goal sailed wide left. Although it was one drive too late, the Dolphins defense then forced a punt. Marino’s offense took the field at their own two-yard line. Once again, Marino led the offense into field goal range, this time setting up a closer field goal from 43 yards out. Once again, Uwe von Schmann missed. Buffalo would win the game on their next possession. Their 38 points was the highest total they had ever scored in Miami at the time.
In the next day’s Miami Herald, legendary columnist Edwin Pope took an optimistic and hopeful outlook on the heart-breaking loss: “The score – 38-35, Buffalo – said sudden death for the Dolphins, and that was no lie. But some day, maybe two years or even one year or maybe just a month from now, the scoreboard will be forgotten, and Don Shula and Dan Marino and 59,948 wrung-out customers will remember this Orange Bowl tidal wave as a cleansing rather than a washout. A beginning, not an end.”
The passage of time allows for insight into the game that Mr. Pope could not have foreseen. Dan Marino’s first starting gig would be the perfect symbol for his Hall of Fame career. This game contained all the ingredients of the Marino experience, from the good: exciting passing, high scoring offense, dramatic comebacks; to the bad: underperforming defense, inadequate running game, and costly mistakes by teammates at the worst possible moments. The Dolphins MO would change from that defensive-minded running team to a squad that had Dan Marino and no one else.
The Marino era was the most bittersweet experience in South Florida sports history. Greatness was on display each and every week. No matter the opponent, fans believed they had a chance to win as long as #13 was behind the center. He was the national face of South Florida sports for an entire generation. For fans who grew up watching him, he was the most beloved player in South Florida sports history.
His exploits now seem like the stuff of legend. Have you heard the tale of Marino crushing the 1985 Bears when they dared to try to take away Miami’s perfect season? The rabid Orange Bowl crowd had to be silenced (unsuccessfully) by referees multiple times during the famous Monday Night game. What about Marino’s first game back from his season-ending Achilles tendon injury? He silenced the doubters and naysayers by slogging in the mud and throwing five touchdowns in a 39-35 thriller.
But no fan can think of those days without recalling the devastation of playoff loss after playoff loss. Some were heartbreaking, more were embarrassing. There is a melancholy feeling which is inseparable from those days. If it was just the selfish moaning of some regional pocket of dejected fans, it could be shrugged off. Instead, it was something far bigger: an injustice. Greatness went unrewarded. Greatness was cheated from attaining the respect that was so rightly deserved.
Because Dan Marino was the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
But, he will not be remembered that way.