1984 had been a year of football excellence. Not surprisingly, the hoopla started when retired running back Jim Brown announced he would return and play for the defending champion L.A. Raiders (even announcing this in an issue of Sports Illustrated) to keep Franco Harris from breaking his record. But, it gets interesting. In October, the legend Walter Payton would break Brown’s “unbreakable” all-time rushing record. It would last 18 years. Then, L.A. Ram running back Eric Dickerson would shatter O.J. Simpson’s “unbreakable” single-season record with 2105 yards, a record that still endures. No record, though, was more celebrated than that of the Miami Dolphins phenom Dan Marino. Throwing for an unbelievable 5,084 yards, Marino assaulted the NFL record books with 48 touchdowns( both have since been broken). Meanwhile. The best team in the NFL (the San Francisco 49ers) “quietly ” dominated. How on earth did this come about? Let’s consider.
A coach feels betrayed: The evolution of Bill Walsh After the 49ers “miracle ” run to the 1981 title, people, got antsy in San Francisco. Simply put, the title came to be seen as a “fluke,” and Walsh, in particular, came to view his team with a more cynical, distrustful gaze. Gone were the days that he would be called “Bill”; he would maintain a respectful distance from them from now on. Ever sensitive, his squad’s 1983 season would reflect the new demeanor of the coach. Moody, inconsistent, the 83 Niners nevertheless made it to the NFC Title Game, where they lost on controversial pass interference against the great Cornerback Ronnie Lott. This loss would nearly tear the relationship between the player/coach, who privately grumbled that Lott had been a recreational drug user. Nevertheless, there now was a steel-like focus for 1984, and the Niners quietly kept winning week after week. They would finish with a 15-1 mark, the first of its kind in league history.
Dan and Don: A perfect combination Don Shula was now coaching his 21st season, and he had an embarrassment of riches. Inheriting John Unitas in 1963, he had coached up Earl Morrall (The greatest pure backup ever) to an NFL MVP, then again Bob Griese in 1971. Now in 1984, he would coach Marino to his historic season. Thus, for all the credit Walsh gets for QB development, the fact remains that Shula coached 3 HOF QB s. the only perfect season in the modern era, 4 NFL MVPs, and had also coached 6 of the first 19 Super Bowls. He isn’t the all-time win leader among coaches for nothing. Miami, however, was nearly cursed by the singular brilliance of these two greats(Shula and Marino).
Nevertheless, Miami would win their first 11 and finish 14-2 and the consensus pick for the Super Bowl title. However, their first loss had been quite revealing. On November 18th, 1984, two flaws would be exposed. Against the San Diego Chargers and their “Dan,” Miami neither could stop the run or the short pass. Since the Chargers ran a version of the “West Coast ” Offense, this was very disturbing. In the Super Bowl, these twin deficiencies would become fatal. For it exposed the flaws in the Dolphins, and Marinos brilliance and Shula’s game-planning would no longer provide cover. Walsh vs. the Coaching fraternity: Insiders thought Walsh, the former boxer loved to size up his opponents, which is his take on some of the more prominent ones. Tom Landry- Though respectful of his achievements, Walsh disliked Landry ever since the Dallas Coach had “run up” the score on October 11th, 1980(59-14). Even worse, when the 49ers returned the favor in 81(45-14), the Cowboys all but laughed it off. By now, even after another shellacking (1983 42-17), Dallas still didn’t really respect the 49ers even though they were fading fast. Walsh seethed, and he, in particular, enjoyed humiliating the arrogant, fedora-wearing legend. Joe Gibbs- This was one coach Walsh actually feared and measured his own offensive worth by. A disciple of Don Coryell, Gibbs himself was an innovative offensive coach who would win 3 titles with 3 qbs in 3 different ways. Don Shula- Walsh looked up to him as a complete legend; he Considered 1984 to be Shula’s finest coaching job; He did not, however, respect the squad. He felt the Dolphins were, in reality, a slow-footed, small team propped up by their coach’s greatness. Come January, and he foresaw a rather easy win. The 1984 Playoffs: Simply put, to get the Super Bowl, the 49ers had to beat the future while the Dolphins had to eliminate the past. How? The 49ers beat the New York Giants 21-10, and then the Chicago Bears 23-0. These were the next two super bowl winners (more on that later). The Bear win went in infamy for two reasons: 1. Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan derided Walsh as ordinary(during the stormy 83 season, the Bears had allowed all three points, and Walsh was embarrassed) 2. Walsh had unleashed Guy McIntyre as a part of the “Angus ” backfield; The Bears, thoroughly humiliated, would respond in October 85 with their own appliance. His name? William Perry, on his way to folk hero status. Meanwhile, the Dolphins easily beat Seattle(31-10) and then retired the formerly great Pittsburgh Steelers 45-28, which is significant since the 49ers would establish their dominance the same season the Steelers once and for all became an “ordinary” team, stripped of their contending status for a decade(interestingly, the lone 49er defeat in 84 came at the hands of these Steelers, the last hurrah to be sure.) An Inauguration and Coronation- The Super Bowl happened the same day that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated to his second term as President. But the football world had anointed Marino, not Montana as the next great thing. Montana, perhaps annoyed, threw for over 331 yards and ran for 59 yards. Meanwhile, employing a 4-1-6 defense, the 49ers “pinned their ears back” and frustrated Marino with a zone, rendering him ineffective most of the game in a 38-16 triumph. A pattern was established. Marino was more prolific, but Montana was better. It was Manning and Brady, a generation before. Montana, after two rings, two MVPS, was finally the center of attention. Walsh, once again, was on top of the football world. Walsh and Montana were now kings of their craft. Aftermath For Miami, Shula and Marino would remain brilliant. However their twin weaknesses, poor ground game and defense, were now hampering their ability to contend for champions. After a 12-4 1985 season, they lost 31-14 in the last NFL game in the Orange Bowl to the New England Patriots, who last won their as the Boston Patriots. After this, the Dolphins would be ordinary now, have not returned to the Super Bowl. For the 49ers, another inconsistent season was on the horizon as the core of 81 began to fade. For now the 49ers lacked the muscle to beat the Chicago Bears (26-10) or the New York Giants (17-3). Now, with the NFC Supreme, it essentially became a 4 team race. The new champion Bears could not beat the Washington Redskins or 49ers; In turn, they couldn’t beat the Giants who couldn’t beat the Bears. As a result, the balance of power would change until Walsh’s retooled 49ers would win it all again in 1988. Then, the legendary coach in a fit of emotion would retire and regret it for the rest of his life. Ironically, as a transplanted Kansas City Chief, Montana’s last game as a pro would be a playoff loss to…… Shula and Marino.