A chartered jet touched down at an airport in San Francisco in January 1985. It carried what looked like a burgeoning NFL dynasty, its roster stocked with future All Pros and Hall of Famers, its offense set to revolutionize professional football, one deep touchdown pass at a time. What the Miami Dolphins had to do to set all that in motion was win Super Bowl XIX, the game they had flown in for. They had to beat Joe Montana and Bill Walsh and the 49ers.
As the plane landed on the runway, the Dolphins’ second-year quarterback donned sunglasses, even though the team had landed at night. The quarterback’s name was Dan Marino, but in that moment, he called himself something else.
“The Terminator has arrived,” Marino announced, as teammates laughed.
Want to feel old? The Terminator came out in 1984, featuring a cyborg—half man, half machine—played by Arnold Schwarzenegger after all the bodybuilding but before he entered politics. Marino, with passes he didn’t throw so much as launch, seemed like a reasonable comparison. His 1984 regular-season numbers certainly appeared inhuman: 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns, and that was before anyone ever called the NFL a passing league. Asked this week about the Terminator story, Marino laughs. That was 30 years ago. “It could be true though,” he says. “I might have said that.”
The Dolphins and 49ers spent the 1984 season on parallel paths that ended in the same place. San Francisco won 17 games, playoffs included, and lost just once before Super Bowl XIX. The Dolphins went 16-2. Here were the best two teams in professional football. Their combined record was the best in the history of the championship.
After they landed, the Dolphins traveled across the bay to Oakland, where they settled in at the Hyatt Regency. The 49ers were already deep into game film. They were looking to find one poor game by Marino in the 1984 season, one instance in which a defensive coordinator had muzzled Miami’s offense; some plan, any plan, they could later emulate. They did not find one. There wasn’t one to find.
“We were basically the first team in the NFL to throw as much as we did,” says Mark Duper, a receiver who played 11 seasons with the Dolphins, from 1982 through ’92. “We started something that people couldn’t stop. I’ll never forget when we arrived there at the Super Bowl. I was like, We better get used to this. We’ll be here the next three, four, five years.”
In other words, Marino could repurpose Schwarzenegger’s signature line from The Terminator.
I’ll be back.
The 1984 campaign did not mark the Dolphins’ first Super Bowl appearance. From the 1971 season through ’73, Miami advanced to three straight title games, winning twice. The ’72 squad remains the only team in NFL history to finish a season undefeated, and they famously pop champagne every time the last no-loss NFL team falls in any given season.
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In 1982, the Dolphins returned to the NFL’s final game for the first time in a decade. They met the Redskins in Super Bowl XVII on Jan. 30, 1983. They took a 17-10 lead into halftime at the Rose Bowl, behind a 98-yard kickoff return by Fulton Walker, only to fall, 27-17. Their quarterback, David Woodley, finished with four completions in 14 attempts for 97 yards, a touchdown and an interception—a quarterback line among the worst in title game history, the kind that does not encourage a replacement so much as it begs for one.
The seeds for 1984 were actually sown then. “That was probably the pinnacle of our defensive core,” says Doug Betters, a Dolphins defensive end from 1978 to ’87. “The Killer B’s. We were playing at the top of our game, but our offense was lagging behind. If we had Dan in that Super Bowl, we could have beaten the Redskins.”
All season, Betters says, the Dolphins’ defensive coaches told them not to worry about the offense, to shut down teams and seize games on their own. But this was before defenses regularly substituted. The cumulative impact was a defense worn down by the time it reached the Super Bowl. “We felt like we had been a quarterback or a player away from winning it all,” says Nat Moore, a Miami receiver from 1974-86.
The Dolphins needed a quarterback, and—blessed by good fortune, or, in hindsight, doomed one year too late—the 1983 NFL Draft was filled with more elite signal callers than any edition in league history, before or since. That group included Marino, who tossed 37 touchdowns as a junior at Pittsburgh but returned to a team that struggled his senior year, when he had only 17 TD throws. To explain the drop off, rumors of drug use by the Panthers ran rampant in the lead up to the draft, with Marino no exception. (He has denied them.)
The draft was full not only of quarterbacks but of elite talent. Six future Hall of Fame players went in the first round. Don Shula, the Miami coach, didn’t expect Marino to be available when the Dolphins picked 27th. But he did meet Marino at the NFL Combine and came away impressed that the quarterback did not make excuses for how poorly his senior season went. Shula filed that nugget away.
As the draft approached, Shula targeted a defensive lineman from Syracuse named Mike Charles. (He got him anyway, in the second round. Charles played nine seasons with three franchises, including 1984 with the Dolphins.)
When the draft started, John Elway went first overall to the Colts, who traded him to the Broncos. The Chiefs took Todd Blackledge seventh, the Bills took Jim Kelly 14th, the Patriots took Tony Eason 15th and the Jets took Ken O’Brien 24th. Suddenly, Shula had to make an unexpected decision that wasn’t a difficult choice at all. Marino was the Dolphins’ pick, one of four members of his quarterback class to lead a team into the Super Bowl and one of three, along with Elway and Kelly, now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Dolphins teams that seized Super Bowls in the 1970s did so behind running backs. Miami had more than seemed fair, with Mercury Morris, Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick all patrolling the same backfield. Then Marino arrived. “They were nobody’s idea of an exciting team,” says Greg Cote, a longtime writer for the Miami Herald. “Marino was the opposite. He was a sexy, curly-headed kid with a lot of bravado about him.”
In his first practices, Marino impressed Shula. He was better than expected: stronger arm, quicker release, faster at making decisions. He also had an innate sense of when the pass rush was closing in and a nifty slide step to avoid pressure. That bought him extra time to throw farther down the field.
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Teammates noticed, too, the way the ball whistled when it left Marino’s hands. Receivers told Betters they worried that a particularly hard throw would break a finger in practice. “He had a reputation from college as being very confident,” says Jim Lampley, the broadcaster and television personality who did pre- and post-game work at the Super Bowl in 1985. “But it was what he did on the field that was amazing. He’s the first guy I remember who could make the back-shoulder throw. He had a unique arm. Unbelievable velocity.”
Marino didn’t open the 1983 season as the starter, though, a decision that Shula later admitted was a mistake. Marino first played in Week 3, against the Raiders, and again in Week 5, against the Saints. His started for the first time against Buffalo in Week 6, and he threw for 322 yards and three touchdowns, although he was intercepted twice. The Dolphins lost all three of those games but still managed a 12-4 season that culminated in a playoff berth.
The Dolphins and their rookie signal caller hosted Seattle in the divisional round on Dec. 31, 1983. Marino threw two touchdowns and two interceptions and his rookie campaign ended. “We didn’t know how good we could be,” says Tony Nathan, a Dolphins running back from 1979-87.
Expectations increased the next off-season. They had to. Here was a team two years removed from a Super Bowl it led at halftime, with a quarterback who sparked a playoff run in his first season. The Dolphins had nowhere to go but up—and not that far up to go.
But what casual fans did not notice is how different the Dolphins’ 1984 roster was from even two years earlier. Of the 22 offensive and defensive players who had started the Super Bowl, only 12 remained, and both the kicker and punter had also been replaced. The offense in particular had turned over. From the 1982 Super Bowl team, only Nathan, left tackle Jon Giesler and center Dwight Stephenson remained.
Those changes did little to diminish the team’s outlook. “We had something special going,” Nathan says. “We could be as good as we wanted to be, if we put points on the board and kept our defense off the field. Our only problem was scoring too quick.”
That offense … whew. Marino targeted the receivers known as the Marks Brothers, or Mark Duper and Mark Clayton. Neither player stood out for their height—Duper was 5’9”, Clayton 5'10"—but both excelled down field. “They were both dynamic,” Shula says. “Both could leap. They’d go up and get the ball.”
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Teams didn’t throw downfield all that often in those days, before the NFL introduced a series of rules to make it easier to pass. Defenders could grapple with receivers down the field. Contact figured into almost every play. But that didn’t stop Shula from altering his offense to suit Marino’s strengths, no matter what conventional wisdom (run the ball, control the clock, allow defenders rest) said. “Things completely changed when we got Dan,” Shula says. “We went the other way.”
“It’s not like some big secret,” he continues. “If I had him hand the ball off, every defensive coach in the league would have been patting me on the back.”
“We’ve become accustomed to those kinds of statistics with this current generation of quarterbacks,” Lampley says. “Back then, if you completed 18 of 35 passes, you had a whale of a game. But we hadn’t seen anybody throw it the way Marino could. Then you had the Marks Brothers. They were just this spectacular offensive machine.”
Duper says they built that chemistry in practice, where all three worked as backups early into Marino’s rookie season. Duper says they used to obliterate the first-team defense. He says they beat them 90 percent of the time. “I think I had more fun in practice than I did in front of 70,000 people,” he says.
So many deep routes required time for targets to get down the field and open, and for all the focus on Marino and his receivers, it was the Dolphins’ offensive line that gave its quarterback time to throw. Stephenson was an All-Pro center; Ed Newman, a Pro Bowl guard. In fact, throughout the 1984 season, the Dolphins allowed only 13 sacks and none in the playoffs before the Super Bowl. The running backs, Shula notes, also excelled in blitz protection. “Our offense set a ton of records,” Marino says.
“It was a deep-threat, exciting offense,” says Cote. “Now, if the Dolphins top 30 points in a game, there’s a proclamation from the mayor. In those days, it was expected.”
The Dolphins’ 1984 season started in Washington, against the team that defeated them in the Super Bowl two years earlier. Marino threw for 311 yards and five touchdowns, a harbinger to what lay ahead. Duper hauled in a 74-yard score.
The offense accumulated unheard of statistics as the season unfolded, along with win after win. Marino threw for at least one touchdown in every game, and the Dolphins won their first 11 games, scoring no fewer than 21 points each time.
In Week 11, against Philadelphia, Marino was held in relative check. The Eagles ran the football to keep the ball away from Miami’s offense. They lined up for an extra point to tie the game at 24 late in the fourth quarter. Betters was able to push through the scrum and bat the attempt away. He remembers Ron Jaworski, the Eagles quarterback, “just fell down on it, completely exasperated.”
“I would have gotten a flag today,” Betters says. “I was standing over him and yelling in his face. I’ve gotten more feedback from that block than anything I’ve done in my entire career. We thought we were a team of destiny after that. We thought we had Lady Luck on our side.”
The eleventh win continued to mask the cracks that had started to show in the Dolphins defense. In Miami’s two regular-season defeats in 1984—at San Diego in overtime in Week 12 and at home against the Los Angeles Raiders in Week 14—the defense allowed a combined 79 points. It finished the regular season ranked 19th in yards allowed. “Defensively, we were kind of held together by duct tape by the end of the season,” Betters says. “We were trying to ride along with Dan.”
The Dolphins closed out the regular season with a 28-21 victory over the Cowboys. Marino threw four more touchdown passes in that game. He had broken most every NFL single-season passing record, from completions to yards to touchdowns. Duper snagged 71 passes from Marino, for 1,306 yards and eight scores; Clayton caught 18 touchdowns to break the NFL single-season record.
“This has been one of the most enjoyable years of coaching I’ve had,” Shula told the Associated Press in January 1985. “To see how these young guys have developed, come along, is very satisfying.”
Now, the Dolphins will admit they kept an eye on the NFC powerhouse that played across the country in San Francisco. The 49ers also passed the ball more than most teams, although they threw quickly and often underneath, an offense that came to be known by where it originated—the West Coast. They didn’t amass statistics like the Dolphins, but behind Roger Craig, they ran the ball better, and they still finished the season ranked second in scoring and total yards. They also had Super Bowl experience, having captured the title after the 1981 season. In that game, Montana was named Super Bowl MVP.
All of that was obvious, but the 49ers defense remained at least somewhat overlooked. It led the NFL in fewest points allowed, started four Pro Bowl defensive backs (Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Dwight Hicks and Carlton Williamson) and had Dwaine Board, who posted 10 sacks, on the d-line.
First, the Dolphins needed to navigate through the AFC playoffs. Again, they met the Seahawks in the divisional round, but this time Marino tossed three scores in a 31-10 victory.
In the conference championship, Marino met his hometown team, the Steelers. Shula and Chuck Noll, the Pittsburgh coach, “were archrivals,” Betters says. With something extra to play for, Marino set conference title game records for passing yards (421) and touchdown passes (four). “What happened in ’84 was so electrifying,” Cote says. “It was the biggest thing since the perfect season in ’72. Thirty years later, South Florida at large still thinks of Dan Marino as the all-time greatest local athlete.”
Only the Super Bowl remained.
Nathan says the Dolphins treated Super Bowl XIX like any other game, or tried to. But there were differences. The biggest: all the family members who needed tickets, all the distractions that enveloped them.
The venue also was unusual. The Dolphins would meet the 49ers at Stanford Stadium, in Stanford, Calif., in only the fourth time a stadium primarily used for college games had played Super Bowl host. Lampley says the biggest issue for broadcasters was how jammed the roads would be once the game ended, and they brainstormed the best routes for the quickest exits. But the site presented a larger problem for the Dolphins: it was practically a home game for their opponent.
On the Thursday before, Marino experienced dizziness in practice. He asked the team doctor if he could still have jetlag. This predictably ballooned into a national story, one that Marino played down as “nothing” and “a good example of Super Bowl hype.”
President Ronald Reagan is publicly sworn into office for his second term (he was sworn in privately the day before, a Sunday, at the White House). It was the coldest Inauguration Day on record, with a noon temperature of 7 degrees, so the ceremony was held indoors, in the Capitol Rotunda.
“It’s much different now than it was then,” Marino says of Super Bowl week. “But I think because of how great the teams were that year, it was pretty crazy.”
Before the game, Betters, per routine, exited first from the tunnel onto the field, as if shot from a cannon. “Don’t embarrass yourself” was his internal monologue, but truthfully, he felt fine. “We were all pretty loose, pretty cocky and confident,” he says.
In another twist, President Ronald Reagan did the coin toss from the White House via satellite. The game, played on Jan. 20, also marked the first day of his second term.
The New York Times described the television audience as 120 million people in the United States alone. On top of that, 84,059 occupied the stands at Stanford Stadium, and at least 30 other countries broadcast the game.
Shula, asked a few weeks back what he remembered about the game, did not respond for several seconds. Then he said, “They had a pretty good quarterback, right?”
Indeed. Montana threw for 331 yards, a Super Bowl record, and scrambled for 59 yards on the ground. He accounted for four total touchdowns. He turned a 10-7 deficit after the first quarter into something else, something no one expected—a blowout. At one point, the 49ers scored on five straight possessions.
Betters remembers that the weather changed as the game did. Fog rolled around, in his recollection, and blocked out the sun. Meanwhile, the cracks that had shown in the Dolphins defense only widened. Roger Craig scored three times. Not only could Miami not tackle him, they couldn’t cover him. “Our defense let us down,” Duper says.
Marino played well, just not as well as he had played that season, or as well as he would play in future campaigns. He managed to accumulate 318 passing yards. But he was also sacked four times and intercepted twice. “After the game I was already into my depression of losing a second Super Bowl,” Moore says. “When we lost in ’82 was gut-wrenching. To come back two years later and not just lose, but we weren’t that competitive … I still believe if we played them 10 times we would win six. It wasn’t that we were outclassed.”
In each of their Super Bowl losses, the Dolphins had one thing and needed something else. In ’82, their defense needed a better quarterback. In ’84, their quarterback needed a better defense. “Our defense didn’t peak at the time Dan started peaking,” Betters says.
After the game ended, Marino acknowledged the 49ers defensive scheme that so disrupted him, as they often dropped seven players into coverage and rarely rushed more than four. He said he had chances to connect on passes but did not. He said they “took us out of our game.” He found no consolation in reaching the Super Bowl in only his second season. Montana, meanwhile, called the 49ers’ execution the best of his career to that point.
His coach also spoke to reporters after he addressed the team. Dolphins remember Shula’s reaction differently. Nathan says he “took it harder than the majority of us did.” Betters found him mellow. Shula told the assembled that “Dan Marino certainly didn’t play the way he had done all year.”
He added: “The disappointment of not getting it done today will live with all of us.”
He had no idea. None of them did.
After the Super Bowl, one prominent soda company made a commercial that featured Montana and Marino. One scene ended with Marino telling Montana, “Next time it’s my turn.”
“The last thing in the world you thought was that because Miami lost that Super Bowl that Dan would never get one,” Lampley says. “That was the last thing that entered your mind. With the talent they had, that coaching staff, it was only a matter of how many.”
Training camp for the 1985 season started on July 25. Marino showed up and walked out the next day, upset over promises he believed had been made by Joe Robbie, the Dolphins owner, before the Super Bowl about a larger contract.
Camp, according to a report from the Chicago Tribune published before the season started, began with 12 veterans unsigned. “This has been the most disheartening, confusing and disruptive time I’ve ever had in coaching,” the Tribune quoted Shula as saying.
He is then said to have added, “You hate to see Marino out of camp.” He had, after all, accounted for 72 percent of the Dolphins’ offense the year before.
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By the opener, Marino had returned. But five starters from the Super Bowl team would not play in that game, due to injuries, against the Oilers on Sept. 8. (Miami lost, 26-23.) “That was his deal,” Nathan says. “That’s what he felt like he needed to do. You can’t hold that against anybody.”
But the Dolphins did lose four of their first nine regular-season games in 1985, before they recovered and won the rest. In Week 13, they hung 38 points on the Chicago Bears and their vaunted ’85 defense, a unit widely considered among the best, if not the best, in NFL history. Miami handed the Bears their first loss and allowed the ’72 team to pop another bottle of champagne (or five).
Still, the Dolphins lost to the Patriots—and Eason, another ’83 draft quarterback alum who was benched in the Super Bowl—in the AFC championship game. No one knew it then, but that defeat marked the beginning of the end.
“That window opened and shut on us,” Betters says. “After ’85, you started to see our demise. Our defense slipped back. We lost key players and coaches. From ’82 to ’85—that was our window.”
Defenses started to adjust to Shula’s offense. They learned from the 49ers’ championship strategy and dropped more and more defensive backs into coverage to prevent the deeper routes. Marino continued to improve as a quarterback, on his way to becoming one of the best ever. He learned patience, threw the ball underneath more, became more accurate.
What he never did is win a Super Bowl, or even return to one, two facts that have been repeated to him a few thousand times over the years in interviews and casual encounters—which is a few thousand more times than he wanted to address them.
Images from the lone Super Bowl in which Marino played are difficult to escape. There are clips from the game in the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; along with another movie, Any Given Sunday, in which a fictional Pantheon Cup is won by San Francisco over Miami. The director of that movie, Oliver Stone, is, naturally, a 49ers fan.
Marino has always expressed disappointment over never winning a Super Bowl. Who wouldn’t? But he always makes it a point to add that his lack of championship rings should not define his career, even if, on some level, it always will. When Elway became the first ’83 quarterback to win a Super Bowl (after the 1997 season and after the Broncos found a stud running back in Terrell Davis), Marino also wondered what it felt like.
He’ll never know. He reached the AFC Championship game again in 1992 (where he lost to Kelly and Buffalo) and retired after another playoff defeat in 1999. Montana and the 49ers became the dynasty (with an assist from Steve Young). Marino and the Dolphins became the bridesmaid. Thus Marino cannot separate from what he didn’t do, even as he emphasize his myriad accomplishments. “Just because you didn’t win a Super Bowl,” Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga told Marino the day he retired, “doesn’t mean you aren’t a champion.” Those words, nice as they were, offered little solace.
Marino points to 1993 as the year he had the best chance to return to the Super Bowl. That was also the year he tore his Achilles. “That was a really special team,” he says. “Also, all the times we played Buffalo or lost in the AFC Championship game. Buffalo gets a lot of grief but they were a great team. If it wasn’t for them we may have been back to a couple.”
Asked about his legacy, Marino says, “I think back about being competitive, consistent, and playing at a high level every week. I think about my teammates and the organization. All the yards and touchdowns are nice, but playing all the years I did in Miami is very special. I made so many great relationships. It meant a lot to me I did it all with the Miami Dolphins.”
Shula has said many times, including a few weeks ago, that his single-biggest career regret is the ring he never could get for Marino. That’s also a touchy subject for Shula, who lost four Super Bowls. Cote ventures that the championship defeat Shula suffered with Marino probably hurt the most. “Shula realized what Marino had done for the city and franchise,” Cote says. “That it wasn’t Dan’s fault. There was always something missing.”
“I’m shocked Marino never made it back,” Moore says. “But that’s a perfect indication that it’s really about the 53-man roster.”
The Super Bowl run that culminated in that January 1985 defeat raised expectations in South Florida that the Dolphins have yet to fulfill. But it also started a legend they will not soon forget. “The ’84 team was the birth of Dan Marino,” Cote says, and that’s true, even if the narrative that endured isn’t exactly how Marino wants to be remembered.