The Marino Years (1983-1999)
During the third game of the 1983 season at the Los Angeles Raiders on Monday Night Football, Shula replaced quarterback David Woodley with rookie Dan Marino, who went on to win the AFC passing title with a ratio of 20 touchdowns versus 6 interceptions. Seldom sacked by defenders, Marino was protected by an outstanding offensive line as he passed to receivers such as Mark Clayton and Mark Duper. Despite the regular season success (the Dolphins went 12–4 winning their last five regular season games, the only team in the AFC East with a winning record), they were upset in the divisional playoff by the Seattle Seahawks at the Orange Bowl. Defensive end Doug Betters was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
In 1984, the Dolphins won their first 11 games en route to a 14–2 season (the franchise's best 16-game season to date). Marino, in his first full season, produced one of the most impressive set of passing statistics in NFL history, setting single-season records for most yards (5,084), touchdown passes (48), and completions (362). He was voted NFL MVP. Miami avenged the Seahawks loss from the previous year 31–10 and crushed the Steelers 45–28 in the AFC Championship to advance to Super Bowl XIX. In the title game, however, Miami lost to the San Francisco 49ers 38–16. It would be Marino's only Super Bowl appearance.
Miami finished 12–4–0 in 1985 and, in an epic Monday Night Football showdown, handed the previously-undefeated Chicago Bears their only defeat of the season. After rallying from a 21–3 third quarter deficit in the divisional playoffs to beat the Cleveland Browns 24–21, many people were looking forward to a rematch with Chicago in Super Bowl XX. The Cinderella New England Patriots, the Dolphins' opponents in the AFC Championship, had different plans. New England forced six turnovers on the way to a 31–14 win – the Patriots' first in Miami since 1966. The Patriots had lost 18 games in a row at the Orange Bowl. In 1969, the Boston Patriots had beaten the Dolphins at Tampa Stadium.
In 1986, the Dolphins, hampered by defensive struggles, stumbled to a 2–5 start and finished 8–8, missing the playoffs for the first time since 1980. They also lost their final game at the Orange Bowl, falling to the New England Patriots 34–27 on Monday Night Football. The problems continued in 1987, with an 8–7 (7–5 in non-strike games) record in astrike-shortened year, their first at new Joe Robbie Stadium. In 1988, Miami had its first losing season (6–10) since 1976, and finished 8–8 in 1989.
In 1990, the Dolphins shaped up on defense and finished with a 12–4 record, second in the AFC East. They came from behind to beat the Kansas City Chiefs 17–16 in the Wild Card round, but lost to the Buffalo Bills 44–34 in the divisional playoffs. The team struggled with defensive injuries in 1991, and narrowly missed the playoffs, losing the AFC's final berth in an overtime loss to the rival New York Jets in the final week of the season.
The Dolphins rebounded in 1992, starting the season 6–0 and finishing 11–5 to capture the AFC East title behind a career year from running back Mark Higgs and tight end Keith Jackson, newly acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles as an unrestricted free agent. They crushed the Chargers in the divisional playoffs 31–0, but were defeated by the Buffalo Bills 29–10 in the AFC Championship.
Dan Marino's season-ending Achilles injury in Cleveland led to the team missing the playoffs in 1993 despite a league-leading 9–2 start. Marino returned in 1994 to lead the Dolphins to a 10–6 record and the AFC East title. After defeating Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card round, the Dolphins gave up a 15-point halftime lead and suffered a 22–21 loss to the San Diego Chargers. Pete Stoyanovich missed a 46-yard field goal on the last play of the game and denied Marino a chance to play the Steelers for the AFC Championship in his hometown of Pittsburgh.
In 1995, Marino broke the career passing records held by Fran Tarkenton for yards (48,841), touchdowns (352), and completions (3,913), though two of the games where he broke those records were losses to the Indianapolis Colts. The Dolphins finished 9–7, second in the AFC East, but still made the playoffs as a wild card, losing to Buffalo in the first round. Following the 1995 season, Shula retired and became an executive in the Dolphins’ front office. Jimmy Johnson, who had won a collegiate national championship at the University of Miami and two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys, was named as Shula’s replacement. At the press conference announcing his retirement, Shula said that he "agreed to step aside", leading some to speculate that Huizenga had all but fired him.
In 1996, Miami finished 8–8 and out of the playoffs, with rookie Karim Abdul-Jabbar's 1,116-yard rushing season and the standout play of rookie linebacker Zach Thomas serving as two of the few bright spots. In 1997, Miami stumbled late and backed into the playoffs with a 9–7 season, losing to the New England Patriots in the Wild Card round.
Miami had a solid 10–6 season in 1998 with a career season for receiver O.J. McDuffie, but it was not enough to get past the New York Jets into first place in the division. The Dolphins beat the Bills in the Wild Card round, but lost in the next round to the eventual champion Denver Broncos. (The Broncos lost only two regular season games in 1998, one of which was to the Dolphins.)
In 1999, the team advanced to the playoffs at 9–7. After a close win at Seattle in the Wild Card round 20–17, they suffered the second-worst playoff loss in NFL history losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 62–7 (the Chicago Bears beat the host Washington Redskins 73–0 in the 1940 NFL Championship game, the worst playoff game loss in league history). After the season, Jimmy Johnson left the team and Marino retired.