Miami Dolphins Make NFL Playoffs For First Time Since 2008, Will Face Steelers In Pittsburgh
By Alan Zlotorzynski, Assistant Editor // January 4, 2017
Dolphins looking to return to glory days
ABOVE VIDEO: Highlights of the Miami Dolphins 2016 10-6 season. The Dolphins will play their first postseason game since 2008 Sunday at Pittsburgh
MIAMI, FLORIDA – The Dolphins will play their first postseason game since 2008 Sunday at Pittsburgh, but Tom Brady didn’t care as he threw for 276 yards and three scores, and the Patriots clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs by beating the Miami Dolphins badly on Sunday.
The Dolphins (10-6), beaten for only the second time in the past 11 games, had already earned an AFC wild-card berth, and with nothing at stake but pride, the Dolphins were manhandled.
Watching the Patriots, the NFL’s model franchise, take down Miami reminded me of a time not so long ago when the Dolphins were the envy of the league.
For a quarter of a century, Miami was the team that manhandled them in the final game of the year at home. From kicker to quarterback and owner to ball boy, the Dolphins were the New England Patriots.
Just like the Pats, Miami was as revered as they were hated.
From 1970 until 1995 and even a little beyond, the Dolphins had a head coach that was arguably the greatest of his time, possibly all-time, quarterbacks that were Hall of Fame bound – in other words the ‘Fins were one of the best run organizations in all of sports.
With Don Shula on the sidelines (1970-1995), the Dolphins had just two losing seasons in 25 years. They made 16 playoff trips and appeared in five Super Bowls, winning two of them in back-to-back fashion.
ABOVE VIDEO: The 1972 AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh in which the Dolphins won 21-17 to advance to Super Bowl.
Shula, the NFL’s all-time winningest coach retired after the 1995 season and left the franchise in very good shape and in very good hands.
Replacing the legendary Shula was a guy considered to be a then modern day coaching legend in two-time Super Bowl winning and former Dallas Cowboy head coach Jimmy Johnson.
His staff included the next head coach of the ‘Fins in defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, who piloted the great Cowboys Super Bowl defenses under Johnson.
During the next eight years, the Dolphins didn’t have a losing season and made the playoffs five times following Shula’s exit.
However, following Shula’s exit, which coincided with the time things began to change in how franchises and front offices were run in the NFL, the Dolphins became a victim of their own success.
Finishing in the top of the standings means selecting lower in the NFL Draft.
At the very least, the Dolphins failed to draft a decent replacement for Marino and unfortunately missed on the players they drafted with the lower selections. To make matters worse, the front office failed to navigate the salary cap correctly which had begun in 1994, the year before Shula retired.
Things turned ugly quickly. Marino and Johnson’s career ended with a 62-7 playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and although Wannstedt managed to keep the ship on top of the water during the next few seasons, the feeling around the league and in Miami was the Dolphins were operating like a franchise that failed to move into the new millennium, and the ship was sinking.
ABOVE VIDEO: Miami Dolphins get blown out by the Jacksonville Jaguars in Dan Marino’s last game.
By 2004, the team’s fortunes had sunk. The Dolphins began that season 1-8, and Wannstedt was promptly fired.
Since then, the Dolphins have been anything but a model franchise. They finished just their third winning season and have hired, fired or watched resign eight different head coaches, including current Alabama Crimson Tide head coach, Nick Saban.
Under Shula, three and a half quarterbacks led the franchise for 25 years. Bob Griese, the Don Strock and David Woodley tandem, and then Dan Marino.
There was help along the way from great backups like Earl Morrell and Steve DeBerg but Griese, Strock – Woodley and Marino accounted for 252 (including playoffs) of Shula’s 409 wins in Miami.
Since Marino retired following the 1999 playoffs, 15 quarterbacks have started under center in Miami. That’s nearly one for every season since No.13’s departure. The common denominator in winning and losing in the NFL is stability at head coach and under center. The Dolphins haven’t had either in quite some time and the results punctuate the point.
And if you need further proof, do you really need to look any further than the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders, as prime examples. The Raiders finally have both and will return to the playoffs this year. The Browns, still without either, won one game in 2016 and are 2-25 since Week 5 of last season.
With hopes of returning to the glory days and as they did in 1970, when Miami hired 39-year old Don Shula from the Johnny Unitas-led Baltimore Colts, Miami turned to a young successful offensive mind—one who had just spent some time during the past few seasons working with another legendary quarterback also at the end of his career.
ABOVE VIDEO: The rivalry between the Steelers and Dolphins goes back to he early 1970s. In this classic Monday Night Football game, the Dolphins survive a furious fourth quarter comeback to win 30-26.
Hired away after one season as the Chicago Bears offensive coordinator, Adam Gase spent a few seasons prior working with Peyton Manning as the offensive coordinator in Denver. At the time of his hire, Gase was the NFL’s hottest coaching candidate among assistants, and, at 37, became the league’s youngest coach.
Under Gase, the Dolphins fourth head coaching hire since 2011, the 2016 season began roughly. Miami dropped four of their first five contests and looked bad in doing so. In Weeks 4 and 5, the Dolphins lost to Cincinnati and Tennessee by a combined score of 52-16.
With whispers turning into roars that he was the wrong hire for the team, Gase went to work, and in a pass happy league, turned to his second year running back Jay Ajayi.
Gase asked more from his running game and less from his quarterback, and the results were immediate.
Ajayi turned in record-setting back-to-back 200-yard rushing performances in wins at home vs. Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Although the former Boise State running back slowed down before once again posting 200 more yards in a win over Buffalo in Week 16, he helped open things for his offense during a stretch that saw Miami win six in a row.
ABOVE VIDEO: Condensed game video between the Steelers and Dolphins earlier this season.
Despite losing to New England in Week 17, the ‘Fins finished the year winning nine of their final 11 games. Until he was injured against Arizona in Week 14 and with the pressure to carry the team off his back, quarterback Ryan Tannehill settled in and played well.
Tannehill, who tossed six TD’s and seven interceptions during the rough start has thrown 13 TD’s and just five picks during the Fins 7-1 stretch in which he played.
The Dolphins will face an old AFC rival in the playoffs on Sunday when they travel to Pittsburgh to play the Steelers. NFL historians remember the 1970s and the battles between the Chuck Knoll-led Steelers and Shula’s Dolphins.
Including the playoffs, Miami and Pittsburgh have split 26 lifetime meetings (13-13). Shula’s Dolphins went 2-0 vs. Knoll’s Steelers in AFC Championship games. The Dolphins defeated Pittsburgh 21-17 in Miami’s undefeated 17-0 season in 1972, and Dan Marino passed for 421 yards and four touchdowns in the 1985 AFC Championship game.
The Dolphins are a statistical anomaly entering the playoffs. Their offense finished the 2016 season ranked 24th overall and defensively, the Dolphins were even worse, ranking 29th out of 32 teams. During the season the Dolphins were outgained by 798 yards and outscored by 17 points this season. They allowed a franchise-record 6,122 yards to opposing offenses.
As they did back in October at home vs. Pittsburgh, Miami will look to run the ball keeping the Steelers quick strike offense off the field. In that contest Ajayi rushed for 204 yards and two touchdowns, including a 62-yarder to finish off the Steelers during the Week 6, 30-15 win.
That game was in Miami and Pittsburgh’s defense improved immensely as the season progressed. The Steelers finished as the league’s 12th best unit and 13th stopping the run. It’s equally important to mention Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger left that game in the second quarter with a knee injury and would miss the next few weeks.
Beating the Steelers at home in the playoffs is a difficult task but not impossible. The Baltimore Ravens beat them at Heinz Field 30-17, the last time the Steelers hosted a playoff game in 2013.
In that game the Ravens ran the ball well and got to QB Ben Roethlisberger often. The Dolphins will need to execute a similar game plan. Miami was sixth in the AFC rushing this year and tied for seventh in the AFC with 33 sacks.
It’s worth noting that as the franchise looks to regain prominence in a division it once dominated returning to the playoffs was a must before anything else could be accomplished.
No matter how Sunday turns out for Miami, the franchise appears to have taken the first step back to respectability.
What the Dolphins are still learning is that winning in the NFL is paramount to everything and anything else, even with nothing on the line. The Dolphins were embarrassed by the Patriots on Sunday and what they may learn is that momentum matters this time of the year.
It’s always better to enter the playoffs on a winning note than getting soundly beaten at home. The ‘Fins beat New England in their three previous trips to south Florida. Two of those wins came in December with nothing on the line for the Dolphins.
The redemption will be beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh Sunday.
A victory could go a long way to sending a message that next season the Dolphins could be ready, or at least a lot closer to reclaiming what once belonged to them for a quarter century, the AFC East and perhaps a stake in how the AFC is represented in the Super Bowl.
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