25 years of mediocrity: Dull Dolphins wait for return to AFC title game

Dan Marino throws a pass in the 1993 AFC championship game, which the Dolphins hosted. (Getty Images)

The last four teams standing in the NFL will be on the field Sunday to fight for a trip to the Super Bowl. Aside from the Patriots, who always know better than to plan vacations for this time of year, the other three teams reached this stage despite at least one season of five wins or fewer within the last six years.

If Dolphins fans tune in to Patriots-Jaguars or Vikings-Eagles, they’ll probably think, “Hey, that looks fun.” Many of them, especially those under 35, likely have no recollection of the last time Miami was good enough to crack the final four.

The year was 1992, and it was a different time in America. Everybody rushed to the local Blockbuster Video hoping to get their hands on a VHS copy of Wayne’s World, and gas was about $1 a gallon. George Bush was president. And Tupac was still with us. Modern-day marvels like Amazon, smartphones and the Jacksonville Jaguars were years away from coming into existence.

This was maybe eight or nine names ago for the Dolphins’ stadium. Don Shula was still coaching them, and Dan Marino was in his prime. They had a top-five offense and a top-10 defense. Perhaps that’s the least believable part of this tale. Ask your parents about it. They’ll tell you.

The ’92 team started 6-0 and won the AFC East at 11-5, then trounced the Chargers 31-0 in the divisional round of the playoffs. Miami went into the conference title game on equal footing with Jim Kelly’s Buffalo Bills and was poised to take its best shot at Troy Aikman or Steve Young in the Super Bowl.

The Dolphins fell to Buffalo, though, and that’s where this story takes a nightmarish turn. Despite several more good seasons from Marino, they failed to make it that far the rest of his career. This weekend marks 25 years since the last time Miami was a real threat to win the AFC or make a run at the Super Bowl.

The Dolphins haven’t even had a season in which people thought they might be good enough to get that far, like last year’s 13-3 Cowboys or Peyton Manning’s Denver team in 2014. All but five of Miami’s seasons since 1992 have fallen between 6-10 and 10-6, and the team is 201-199 during that span.

That .503 winning percentage actually ranks a respectable 15th in the league, but it’s come in the most mundane way possible. While South Florida has been enduring perpetual mediocrity, the NFL has seen 26 of its other 31 teams reach the conference title game at least once and 22 of them play in the Super Bowl.
The only teams with a longer drought than the Dolphins are the Bengals (29 years), Browns (28), Redskins (26) and Lions (26); The Texans, who started in 2002, also haven’t reached a conference title game. Being in any club with the Browns and Lions is never a good thing.

Hard as it might be to believe, this is the Jaguars’ third time in the AFC championship game, and they were an expansion team in 1995. Starting from scratch, they reached this round the next season.

This is Philadelphia’s fifth conference title game post-1992 and Minnesota’s fourth. The Patriots, of course, have played in this round 13 times.

Miami’s had nine playoff teams since its last conference title run, but none of them were contenders. Five of those teams were 9-7 or 10-6.

Last year’s Dolphins were the first to make the playoffs since 2008, and those teams were eerily similar. Both clawed their way in by winning a bunch of close games against bad teams, and neither was particularly good at any one thing.

Being nondescript has been a hallmark of the last 25 years of Dolphins’ football. They haven’t had a top-10 scoring offense since 2001, when Jay Fiedler to Chris Chambers was their best weapon under Dave Wannstedt. That’s the only time it’s happened, by the way, since Marino retired. The defense has fared slightly better, finishing 10th or better 10 times, but nobody tunes in to watch defense.

Speaking of Wannstedt, he’s one of seven head coaches who’s tried to shake Miami out of its slumber. That group managed a total of three playoff victories.

After Shula lasted 26 years, his six successors prior to current coach Adam Gase survived an average of 3.1 seasons. If Gase turns in another 6-10, he might hit that mark as well.

Quarterback’s been another exasperating department, and to this point Ryan Tannehill has yet to prove he’s anything more than the latest model in a series of guys who were average at best. He’s one of 21 quarterbacks to throw for the post-Marino Dolphins. Only five teams have had less stability during that time.

Whether it’s luck or skill that put these four teams one win away from the Super Bowl this weekend, Miami hasn’t had either. Jacksonville went through some truly awful years, even recently, but at least that roller coaster’s had peaks, too. With the Dolphins, the faces keep changing, but they’re all generic. And so are the seasons.

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