September 21, 2011
The September 21, 1986 game between the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands featured two first-round quarterbacks from the highly-touted 1983 draft field. After three seasons, Miami’s Dan Marino had already established himself as one of the top passers in the game. He had put together an astounding season in 1984 as the Dolphins advanced to the AFC Championship, and even after getting a late start due to a training camp holdout in ’85, still threw for 4746 yards and 44 touchdown passes. The Dolphins went 12-4 but lacked a meaningful running attack and didn’t stop the run very well, either. After nearly being upset by the 8-8 Cleveland Browns in the Divisional playoff, they were beaten by the Patriots in the AFC title game. Coming into the contest against the Jets, they were 1-1, having given up 50 points in a loss to the Chargers in the season-opening game but then having comfortably beaten the Colts in Week 2.
Ken O’Brien of the Jets had taken longer to develop, having not played at all during his rookie season in ’83. He took over as the starting quarterback in the last five games of the 1984 season (after getting caught up in a trial pertaining to a brawl at the Studio 54 night club in New York City). Still, he had broken out with a Pro Bowl year in ’85, throwing for 3888 yards and 25 TDs against just 8 interceptions. The Jets, having put together back-to-back 7-9 seasons under Head Coach Joe Walton, improved to 11-5 and were viewed as a team on the rise. An ’86 opening-day win at Buffalo had been followed by a dismal 20-6 loss to the Patriots the next week. Such was the stage set for the matchup with division-rival Miami.
The game started off quietly enough, with the teams trading punts until Jets WR Kurt Sohn returned one 27 yards to give New York excellent starting field position at the Miami 23 yard line. While the offense failed to move the ball, Pat Leahy kicked a 32-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
The Dolphins promptly came alive on their next possession as Marino threw back-to-back completions to WR Mark Duper of 22 and 21 yards. The six-play, 67-yard drive ended with a six-yard scoring pass to WR James Pruitt and Miami held a 7-3 lead after a quarter of play.
As the game moved into the second quarter, O’Brien moved the Jets along with four pass completions and RB Johnny Hector scored on a one-yard touchdown run to put New York back in the lead at 10-7. Two plays into Miami’s ensuing possession, safety Lester Lyles intercepted a Marino pass and returned it to the Dolphins’ 19 yard line. Three snaps later, Hector ran eight yards up the middle and it was a 17-7 game.
Miami came right back with big plays through the air. Marino threw to WR Mark Clayton for a 42-yard gain, went to Clayton again for 13 more, and then to Duper for 21 yards down to the New York one. On a play-action pass, Marino threw to TE Dan Johnson for a TD and, with the successful PAT, a three-point game.
Shortly thereafter, it was Miami’s turn to benefit from a turnover as CB Don McNeal intercepted a pass that was bobbled by Jets WR JoJo Townsell. With a 17-yard return, the Dolphins took over at the New York 13 and, two plays later, Marino found Duper in the corner of the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown and 21-17 lead.
It didn’t take long for the Jets to strike back as O’Brien threw long to a wide-open WR Wesley Walker who went all the way for a 65-yard touchdown. Following a Miami punt, New York got the ball back but had to kick it away with under a minute to go in the first half. However, Pruitt and safety Reyna Thompson collided, the ball hit Thompson, and LB Matt Monger recovered for the Jets at midfield. O’Brien immediately went long for Walker, who gathered it in for a 50-yard touchdown, and the Jets took a 31-21 lead into halftime.
Already, both quarterbacks had thrown for over 200 yards (Marino with 245, O’Brien 203), and things did not slow down in the third quarter. After a three-and-out series by the Jets, Marino connected with Duper for a 46-yard touchdown that cut New York’s margin to 31-28. The Jets turned the ball over on the next possession when O’Brien was sacked by LB Mark Brown, fumbled, and NT George Little recovered for the Dolphins at the New York 47. Six plays later, and after Clayton dropped a long pass at the five yard line, Fuad Reveiz kicked a 44-yard field goal and the score was tied at 31-31.
The Jets again turned the ball over on a fumble two plays into the next possession, and again Miami capitalized six plays after that on a one-yard Marino pass to TE Bruce Hardy that put the Dolphins back in front at 38-31.
Nearing the midpoint of the fourth quarter, the Jets tied the score following an 80-yard drive in 11 plays that featured a pass from O’Brien to WR Al Toon for 36 yards and a one-yard carry by RB Tony Paige on a fourth-and-one play at the Miami eight. RB Dennis Bligen ran for a seven-yard TD and Leahy’s extra point made it 38-38 with 8:32 to go in regulation.
Following a Miami punt, Walker fumbled after catching a short pass from O’Brien and LB Jackie Shipp gave the Dolphins possession at the New York 27. Helped along by an unnecessary roughness penalty, Miami again made the Jets pay when Marino threw to Clayton for a four-yard touchdown. The Dolphins were again in front at 45-38.
With the clock down to under two minutes, Miami got the ball back but was unable to get a clinching first down on a third-and-seven play and had to punt. Starting from their 20 and with only one timeout left, the Jets moved down the field. A pass from O’Brien to TE Mickey Shuler turned into a big gain when the tight end, after gaining seven yards, lateraled to Hector, who went another 21 yards to the Dolphins’ 39. Following the final timeout and two completions to Shuler, O’Brien threw to Walker and, with no time remaining, the wide receiver gathered in the pass at the two yard line and dove into the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown. Leahy’s all-important extra point was good, and with the score tied at 45-45, the contest went into overtime.
The Jets won the toss to start the extra period and, following a 19-yard kickoff return, they took possession at their 22 yard line. O’Brien threw to Toon for back-to-back completions that totaled 25 yards and, following two running plays, he went deep once more to Walker. Walker grabbed the ball at the goal line for a 43-yard touchdown and the Jets came away with a stunning 51-45 win at 2:35 into overtime.
The teams combined for 1066 total yards of offense, with the Jets holding the edge at 581 to 485. The total of 884 yards through the air set a league record. New York also accumulated 32 first downs, to 27 for the Dolphins, but also turned the ball over four times, to three turnovers suffered by Miami.
Ken O’Brien completed 29 of 43 passes for 479 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. While Al Toon had the most catches for the Jets, with 7 for 111 yards, Wesley Walker (pictured below) had the more noteworthy performance with 6 receptions for 194 yards and four TDs – made even more impressive because he had been dealing with a groin injury coming into the game. Johnny Hector led the running game with 82 yards on 22 carries and two scores.
For Miami, Dan Marino went to the air 50 times and had 30 completions for 448 yards and six touchdowns; he was picked off twice. Mark Clayton caught 8 passes for 174 yards and a TD and Mark Duper was right behind with 7 receptions for 154 yards and two scores. RB Tony Nathan was the leading ground-gainer with 36 yards on four carries (the Dolphins had just 50 yards of rushing offense).
“I was down on myself because I fumbled the ball. I thought I lost the game for the team,” said Wesley Walker afterward. “I was just grateful I was given the opportunity to make it up.”
“It's a shame to waste a performance like this by Marino,” said a disappointed Coach Don Shula of the Dolphins. “We let it go down the drain.”
The Jets went on to win their next eight straight games, but then lost the final five (starting with a 45-3 whipping by the Dolphins in Miami) to end up at 10-6, good enough for second place in the AFC East and a wild card playoff spot. They defeated the Chiefs in the first round but lost to Cleveland in overtime in the Divisional playoff game. Miami continued to be plagued by inconsistency and finished in third place in the division with an 8-8 record.
Ken O’Brien went on to throw for 3690 yards and ranked second in the league with 25 touchdowns. As was the case against the Dolphins, Al Toon was the team’s top receiver with 85 catches for 1176 yards and eight TDs and earned consensus first-team All-Pro honors. Wesley Walker had 49 receptions for 1016 yards to average 20.7 yards-per-catch (tied for second best in the NFL with Green Bay’s Walter Stanley) and scored 12 touchdowns.
Dan Marino led the league in pass attempts (623), completions (378), yards (4746), TD passes (44), and percentage of TD passes (7.1). He ranked second in passing (92.5 rating) but also in interceptions (23, tied with Randy Wright of the Packers). Mark Duper caught 67 passes for a career-high 1313 yards and 11 touchdowns and Mark Clayton had 60 receptions for 1150 yards and 10 scores; both joined Marino in being selected to the Pro Bowl.