As the architect of the Miami Dolphins' vaunted No-Name Defense of the 1970s and of the Killer B's of the early '80s, Bill Arnsparger is revered to this day in South Florida. If anything, his legend has grown in the nine years since he resigned as the team's defensive coordinator, because without him the Dolphins became known for having the No Defense. "All you read about," says rookie cornerback Troy Vincent of the media's rehashing of recent history, "was the Dolphins' high-powered offense and how the defense always kept them from going to the Super Bowl."
So you can imagine the emotions running through Joe Robbie Stadium on Sunday, before the start of an AFC divisional playoff, when Arnsparger, now 66, returned to Miami as a reborn defensive coordinator with the long-suffering San Diego Chargers. After an eight-year hiatus from the NFL, during which he coached LSU and was athletic director at Florida, Arnsparger had signed on with new coach Bobby Ross in San Diego. Arnsparger's system of simplified containment was the backbone of the Chargers' surprising AFC West championship season. And with the Dolphins having won the AFC East, the game was perceived by many observers as Miami coach Don Shula versus his old right arm—Arns, as he's known in South Florida.
But it was the Dolphins' current defensive coordinator, the oft-maligned Tom Olivadotti, who emerged as the big winner. Not only did his aggressive young players notch their second shutout of the season, but they also had three second-quarter interceptions that set up three short touchdown drives for the offense in Miami's 31-0 rout in a pouring rain. Vincent had the first two interceptions; linebacker Bryan Cox, the third. Quarterback Dan Marino needed to drive the Dolphins only 48, 37 and 42 yards—he threw TD passes of one yard to fullback Tony Paige, nine yards to tight end Keith Jackson and 30 yards to Jackson again—to ring up 21 points in six minutes.
"As Coach Olivadotti drew up the game plan," recalled Vincent later, "he said, 'If you make these plays, you'll have a lot of opportunities to pick some passes.' Our front seven kept pressure on [Charger quarterback Stan] Humphries all day, and he kept throwing it up for grabs. He was throwing them low, throwing them high, throwing them behind receivers. We just kept taking advantage."
Four of Miami's front seven were playing in their first postseason game: right end Marco Coleman and inside linebacker Dwight Hollier are rookies, and Cox and nosetackle Chuck Klingbeil are second-year men. Sunday wasn't the dawn of a new era of Dolphin defense; it was simply the first opportunity for this jelling unit to be seen at its best on national TV. The Dolphin D had gathered confidence as it gained experience, hitting its stride in the final four games of the regular season.
During that four-game span the defense yielded only six touchdowns. In fact, in a reversal of roles, the defense outperformed the sputtering offense. The Dolphin attack scored only four touchdowns in those four games while allowing opposing defenses to score twice on turnovers. Miami's offense was particularly inept inside the opponent's 20-yard line, scoring only two touchdowns in its last 15 trips inside the red zone. Before Sunday the heralded Jackson, acquired as a free agent on Sept. 29, hadn't caught a touchdown pass since Nov. 8.
However, as Vincent said, referring to his interceptions, "When you make a big play in a big game like this, when everyone's watching on national TV, you get excited. Enthusiasm is contagious, and everybody starts making plays." Marino, who had completed two of his first six passes, converted eight of 11 in the second quarter, including the three TD tosses.
That onslaught blew open a game that had begun to the Chargers' liking. The first quarter resembled the sluggish, rain-soaked first half of San Diego's 17-0 defeat of the Kansas City Chiefs in the wildcard round a week earlier. In that one the Chargers and the Chiefs groveled in the mud for 39 minutes without scoring, before San Diego put 10 quick points on the board and took command of the game with its ball-control offense and the AFC's No. 2 defense.
But the Chargers' situation was reversed when they fell behind 21-0 to the Dolphins. Humphries completed only four of his next 13 passes as San Diego made one first down in five possessions. Miami punter Reggie Roby and the Dolphin defense kept the Chargers penned in their own end of the field until the middle of the fourth quarter.
When Arnsparger visited the Miami coaches' locker room after the game, he congratulated Olivadotti and hugged him. Both men had commented as little as possible on the Arnsmania that had boiled over leading up to the game. "I swear to you, if there's one guy I'm not jealous of, it's Arnsparger," Olivadotti said. "He's a helluva coach. He has won the Super Bowl."
In the previous five seasons Olivadotti coached the defense, it ranked 26th, 26th, 24th, seventh and 25th in the NFL. This year Miami came on to finish tied for 10th. Now the Dolphins are one victory away from giving their no-name defensive coordinator his own shot at winning a Super Bowl. First, though, Miami must get past its archrival, the Buffalo Bills, in the AFC Championship Game this Sunday. "This is the game I want," said Cox. "They gotta come to us. And this time, we don't have to contend with the cold; they have to contend with the heat."
On Sunday morning a headline in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel proclaimed DOLPHINS CAN'T BID FAREWELL TO ARNS. But by Sunday evening they could. On his way out of the coaches' locker room, Arnsparger found Shula, embraced him, smiled and said, "Just keep on going."