Many people on this board believe that the demise of the Dolphins began when Dave Wannstedt took over this football team, however the slow, steady decline of this once proud franchise began almost twenty seasons ago.
It all began on a rainy, cool late afternoon in the Orange Bowl on January 12, 1986. The Miami Dolphins were coming off a thrilling divisional playoff victory over the Cleveland Browns and were slated to play the wild-card New England Patriots for the AFC Championship. Now, the Dolphins had defeated New England 18 consecutive times at the Orange Bowl and seemed to be a lock to capture their third AFC Title in four seasons. However, something terribly unfunny happened on the way to this feat. They were soundly defeated by the scrappy Patriots, 31-14 thanks to six turnovers.
In spite of appearing in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, many pundits believed the Dolphins were on their way down, mainly because of a so-so run game and a shaky defense. They were right, Miami began the 1986 season with a 50-28 humiliation at San Diego which sparked a 1-4 in which the defense let up 176 points, Miami's weaknesses had been exposed and in spite of a brilliant season by Dan Marino, the Dolphins finished with a mediocre 8-8 record. What was exposed during the '86 season became the story for the remainder of the decade. It was sad, Marino put up amazing numbers, but that was sometimes never enough as the defense remained porous and the running game was never improved in spite of various solutions such as, Lorenzo Hampton, Troy Stratford and Sammie Smith.
However, by the early 90s, coach Shula had plugged some of the holes on defense and Miami showed marked improvement by capturing two playoff berths in three seasons to begin the decade. However, in the playoffs the Dolphins failed to defeat their new nemisis, the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo exposed Miami's lack of running game and took advantage of weaknesses in a young defense in both playoff matchups. After a Marino-less 1993 team started 9-2, the Dolphins collapsed in December, to finish 9-7 and out of the postseason. In 1994, Marino was back with a vengence and led the Dolphins to a division title. After a thrilling playoff win over Joe Montana's Chiefs, Miami was slated to play in San Diego for a divisional playoff tilt. The Dolphins led 21-6 at halftime and appeared to be cruising to Pittsburgh to play for the AFC Championship. It didn't happen, the upstart Chargers rallied for a 22-21 win after Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich shanked a potential game winning field goal. With Don Shula entering his twenty fifth season as the Dolphins head coach, may felt that 1995 would be his last hurrah. Many felt the 1994 squad was close to being a great team, as a result the Miami braintrust opened their wallets and went on a spending spree to make the Dolphins into a serious contender. The result, was one of the most dissappointing seasons in team history. After a 4-0 start, Miami sagged to 9-7, only capturing a playoff spot with outside help. What was supposed to be "Miami's year" ended with a 37-22 loss to the hated Bills and with that Don Shula's reign in Miami came to an abrupt, uncerimonious end.
Miami began 1996 by shocking the NFL in naming former Cowboys' head man Jimmy Johnson as head coach. Any worry that the Dolphins would be lost without Shula were eased. Johnson had big plans for the Dolphins proclaiming that Miami would have their third Lombardi Trophy by 1999. JJ began by laying the foundation for a strong defense consisting of hand picked players. He also wanted to rebuild the offense to be based around a strong running game, complimented by timley passing by Dan Marino (this was essentially the offensive strategy of Jimmy's Super Bowl Cowboys of the early 90s). While the new systems were still gelling, the Dolphins finished at 8-8 in Jimmy Johnson's first season. In 1997, Miami returned to the playoffs, but the relationship between head coach and Dan Marino began to fray. Marino was upset with his reduced role in the offense and felt that his passing would lead to more wins, then JJ's running attack. By the following season, Johnson's defense had come together and was the top unit in the NFL. It was also in this season that Marino had something of a resurrection as JJ allowed him to pass Miami to some late season victories when Johnson's running game stalled. The '98 team finished up at 10-6 and got revenge by knocking off Buffalo in the wild-card round.
With the team improving every season under Jimmy Johnson, many felt that the Dolphins were primed to go even further in 1999, some even predicted the Super Bowl. But, after a 2-0 start, Dan Marino had a poor showing against the Bills and JJ threatened to bench the future hall of famer, further fraying the relationship between coach and QB. Two weeks later in New England, Marino went down with a neck injury. Back-up Damon Huard took over and lead the Dolphins to an 8-2 start. While Huard's play wasn't spectacular, he got the help of a "strong running back by committee" system and a ferocious defense. The following week, Marino returned, but obviously wasn't ready as he threw a career high five interceptions on Thanksgiving Day at Dallas. With the exception of a few good outings, Marino's age caught up with him in December. It was sad to see such a great quarterback struggle so much, he wasn't able to get into position to throw and his passes lacked the velocity they once had. Miami snuck into the playoffs at 9-7. Dan Marino had his last hurrah in the wild-card at Seattle. Marino led the Dolphins on an 85-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter to capture a 20-17 win. But, disaster struck in the Divisional Playoffs as the upstate Jacksonville Jaguars hammered Miami 62-7 in one of the most brutal beatings in NFL playoff history. The loss capsized Johnson's quest to get a Super Bowl victory and sent JJ and Marino careening into retirement.
Heading into the new millineum and lacking any big names, the Dolphins hired former Chicago head coach, Dave Wannstedt to lead Miami. Dave's mediocre credentials (41-57 @ ChiTown) and lack of offense had the Dolphins destined for disaster in 2000. But, with the defense playing at its best and a boring, but effective offense led by journeymen Jay Fiedler and Lamar Smith, Miami won its first division crown in six seasons at 11-5 and were the feel good story of the year. After another 11-5 record in 2001, the Dolphins stunned the NFL by acquring Saints' standout running back Ricky Williams. Williams was everything that Miami expected as he rushed for a team record 1,853 yards and the defense was at its best all season long. At 9-5 heading into the final two games of the season, Miami seemed to be heading for the top spot in the AFC, but the team suffered another inexplicable late season defeat to the lowly Vikings. It seemed that Miami was steaming toward the AFC East Title as Ricky tore up the Patriot defense and staked Miami to a 24-13 lead with five minutes left. But, a series of events starting with a questionable pass interference call, bad play calling late in the game and a kickoff out of bounds, led to a stunning 27-24 defeat and a complete outsky from the 2002 postseason. Miami had the NFL's rushing champion, the AFC's top ranked defense and seven pro bowlers, but nothing to show for it. In 2003, Miami played well, but some bounces didn't go their way and in spite of a solid 10-6 record, the Dolphins missed out on the playoffs because of tie breakers.
After the season had ended, Dave Wannstedt was stripped of his general manager duties, which were given to Rick Speilman. During the offseason, the front office dismantled Miami's sub-par offensive line and acquired AJ Feeley from the Eagles for a second round pick, a questionable move at best. Still, with an easy schedule, many believed the Dolphins would be back in the postseason; with Ricky Williams, a solid defense and a new wideout to compliment Chris Chambers in David Boston. All was well, before 7/24/04 when Ricky Williams abruptly retired from football and went to Australia to live in a tent. Angered fans got even worse news two weeks later when David Boston went out for the season with a knee injury. With no running back, an undecided offensive line and the quarterback position still in question as the preseason came to a close, the Dolphins were in trouble. The Dolphins opened the season at 0-5.
Yet, there is a silver lining in the dark clouds that loom over this franchise. The Dolphins went years and years with good, quality football, they were the NFL's model for consistency, while other franchises fell and rebuilt. It is now Miami's turn to rebuild, because they are long overdue.