I have mild anxiety about the Dolphins at all times, as I’m sure most or all of you do. To combat this, I’ve learned over the years to set my expectations to an appropriate level. In keeping with this form of self-therapy and in the wake of last Sunday’s win over the Patriots to push the Fins’ record to 6-2, I decided to take a look at all the Miami teams who have had this kind of strong start. I’m only going back to the Marino Era (the 1983 season), since I was born in 1975 and really don’t have any kind of great memory or emotions attached to anything that precedes Saint Dan.
So here they are, from the oldest to the newest:
1984: Record after 8 games: 8-0. Final season record: 14-2. Lost the Super Bowl to the San Francisco 49ers. This was Dan Marino’s sophomore year, and it was not only one of the greatest Fins teams, but one could actually argue that it was one of the 10 or 15 best teams in NFL history. Yes, they lost the Super Bowl, but it was to a 49ers team that was one of the three or four best teams in NFL history. This Dolphins team would have won a Super Bowl against nearly any other NFC Champion in history. Alas, they ran into peak Montana/Rice/Everyone to Ever Put on a 49ers Uniform.
1990: Record after 8 games: 7-1. Final season record: 12-4. Won the Wildcard game against the Chiefs, then lost the Division game to the Bills. This was the resurrection season that was the beginning of Don Shula’s final chapters in NFL head coaching. After fielding mediocre squads and missing the playoffs from 1986 through 1989, things came together again, as players like John Offerdahl and Jeff Cross got the defense righted and stud rookie offensive lineman Richmond Webb helped Dan Marino maximize the offensive potential. Alas, this return to excellence happened at exactly the same time the Bills locked in and started their (in)famous streak of four straight trips to the Super Bowl. (Sidenote: that 1990 trip was the iconic Scott Norwood field goal miss).
1992: Record after 8 games: 6-2. Final season record: 11-5. Won the Division playoff game against the Chargers (31-0!), then lost the Conference Championship to the Bills. Another really good Fins team from the second phase of the Marino Era, just not quite good enough to overcome the Bills, whose trips to the Super Bowl were now becoming inevitable. (Sidenote: this third trip of their to the Super Bowl was hardly worth their plane fare, as they got absolutely annihilated by the Cowboys, 52-17).
1993: Record after 8 games: 6-2. Final season record: 9-7. Missed the playoffs. The “Scott Mitchell Year.” This was obviously one of those doomed “What If...?” seasons that we Dolphins fans have seen a few of over the decades. The team gets off to a 4-1 start before Dan Marino gets his Achilles blown up. Scott Mitchell fills in admirably for a while, helping the team hold steady enough to get to 7-2, before he also gets injured, leaving Steve Deberg to fill in. The Fins actually got to 9-2 on the still-iconic snow game in Dallas, featuring the “Leee-on Lett!!??” flub. It looked like it might actually be a magical season for the Dolphins at that point. It wasn’t. They lost the next two games, and then Scott Mitchell returned from injury only to lose the final three games of the season. (Sidenote: Scott Mitchell did manage to parlay his limited success in 1993 in Miami into a nice contract with the Detroit Lions, where he, their fun receiving corps, and Barry Sanders put on a really fun offensive show for a few seasons).
1994: Record after 8 games: 6-2. Final season record: 10-6. Won the Wildcard game against the Chiefs, then lost the Divisional game to the Chargers. This was a really solid team that saw Dan Marino’s magnificent return to form after the Achilles injury. This team featured guys like Richmond Webb, Irving Fryar, and (one of my personal favories) O.J. McDuffie on offense, and excellent defenders like Bryan Cox, Tim Bowman, and Troy Vincent. They beat the Joe Montana Chiefs in the Wildcard, and then lost a heart-breaker to San Diego on a missed Pete Stoyanovich 48-yard field goal that would have won the game and sent them to the AFC Championship. (Sidenote: that Chargers team got all the way to the Super Bowl, only to get obliterated by the Steve Young 49ers).
1999: Record after 8 games: 7-1. Final season record: 9-7. Won the Wildcard game against the Seahawks, and then lost in The Game That Shall Not Be Discussed. I hate to say it, but 1999 was a case study in a legendary player hanging around just one season too long. Dan Marino missed essentially six games in the middle of this season due to injury, but even in the 10 full games he did play, he only looked like “Dan Marino” in three of them. While that 1999 defense was great, the offense just didn’t have enough to help carry their Hall of Fame QB to the Super Bowl victory that always eluded him. Though they did get into the Wildcard and even upset the Seahawks in Seattle, the team’s weaknesses were painfully exposed the following week. The season ended poorly enough to send Jimmy Johnson into retirement, handing the keys to the boat to Dave Wannstedt.
2000: Record after 8 games: 6-2. Final season record: 11-5. Won the Wildcard game against the Colts, and then lost the Divisional game against the Raiders. Thus began the mini-era under Wannstedt. This offense was nothing to write home about, for sure, but the defense was as good as they come, boasting Pro Bowlers and All Pros all over the place. But even that amazing defense wasn’t enough to make up for the fact that the offense had Jay Fiedler at QB, Lamar Smith as the premier running back, Orande Gadsden as your best receiver, and an offensive game plan that was built for the 1970s. (Sidenote: the Wildcard win over the Colts was the last playoff win for Miami to date - a playoff win drought second only to the miserable Detroit Lions. Sigh).
2001: Record after 8 games: 6-2. Final season record: 11-5. Lost the Wildcard game to the Ravens. This season was more or less Dave Wannstedt just running it back from 2000, with very similar results. The offense got a smidge better, while the defense wasn’t quite as world-beating as it was. Net result: a first-round playoff exit against a defending champions Ravens team.
And...that was it. Since that 2001 season, no Dolphins team has started 6-2 or better, at least until this season. To recap, here is the tally of 6-2 or better starts in the last 40 years:
- Started 8-0 once with an amazing team and got to the Super Bowl only to get beat by one of the most amazing teams ever.
- Started 7-1 twice, both times winning their Wildcard games and then losing their Division games.
- Started 6-2 five times. In those five seasons, they ended up missing the playoffs once and going a combined 3-4 in the other four seasons. They got to the Divisional round in three of those, but no further.
From all of this, my mind settles on this one thing: there is zero guarantee that this current team even makes the playoffs. Yes, the chances are high right now, especially with expanded playoffs. This is what I tell myself as a safeguard against overly high expectations that might get smashed like Loki meeting the Hulk.
That said, the cautiously optimistic part of myself sees what’s reasonable here. Given how good this offense is and how the defense is steadily improving, along with the likelihood that the team will be getting high-quality players back from injury in the coming weeks, we can aim higher. Barring more injuries to key players, this team has a very real chance to not only get to the playoffs but win at least one game. This is what three of the five 6-2 teams listed above managed to do, despite their noticeable flaws.
In short, I’m not throwing any parades. Not even close. I’m not even thinking about such things until we get into late December, when I hope to see our 2023 Miami Dolphins sitting on at least 12 wins, with a reasonably healthy roster, and a real shot to make some noise in the playoffs. Until then, it’s all the stuff of fantasy. I’ll tell you what, though - this has been a fun ride so far. It’s far from over, but it’s been a ton of fun.