Underrated Streak by Underrated Group

Underrated Streak by Underrated Group

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By Andy Phillips
Special to the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Fans often romanticize record streaks in sports.  They will remember where they watched them happen, whom they were with and the emotions they felt toward them.

Whether it’s Joe DiMaggio’s MLB-record 56-game hitting streak, Brett Favre’s NFL-record 297 consecutive starts or Cal Ripken Jr’s 2,632 consecutive games played in Major League Baseball, those records kept fans on the edge of their seat, because one more intentional walk, one more blindside hit or one bad case of food poisoning could have ruined any of them.  Streaks, even more than career statistical records, are often more impressive because the margin for error is razor-thin. 

Streaks don’t allow you to go into slumps or have an “off week.”  Streaks require the utmost focus at the highest level.  And streaks are typically so otherworldly they’re impossible to miss like a ship in the night. 

But this streak? I’m not even sure the men involved even know about it.  It’s time to talk about one of the most unbreakable streaks in sports that almost everyone is just now learning about.

When you hear people talk about the greatest offensive lines in the history of the National Football League, you’ll hear about Lombardi’s Packers in the 1960s, the Raiders of the 1970s, the “Electric Company” Bills of the 1970s, “The Hogs” in Washington in the 1980s, “The Great Wall of Dallas” during the Cowboys’ dynasty in the 1990s and even Mike Shanahan’s Super Bowl-winning Broncos in the late 1990s. Those offensive lines are talked about as the greatest, and rightfully so.

But it’s another group of underrated linemen that set a streak that likely never will be broken. 

The NFL officially started tracking “sacks” as a statistic in 1982.  You can watch films from earlier games to count sacks and come up with unofficial numbers, but the legit sacks started being counted in 1982.  As a former offensive lineman, I can tell you we care about two numbers: rushing yards and sacks allowed. 

When our running back goes over 100 yards, it’s like we ran the ball ourselves.  When our quarterback ends the game with a clean jersey, we feel as though we also are wearing a clean jersey.  We take pride in other people’s success because we know we had a hand in it, even if SportsCenter or the newspapers don’t say it. 

The Miami Dolphins are known primarily for three things:

While those three points deserve every second of credit they get for their accomplishments, I proposed adding a fourth:

  • The 1982-1990 streak/record for fewest sacks allowed

From 1982 through 1990, nine seasons, the Miami Dolphins ranked first in the NFL for fewest sacks allowed each year.  That is not a typo.

Even more impressive: The only other team to lead the league in this category as many as three seasons in a row were the Indianapolis Colts from 2004-2006.

“We kind of kept up with it,” said Hall of Fame center Dwight Stephenson, who anchored the line for six of those seasons (1982-87). “If we went into a game, we never knew what it was like, really, to have six or seven sacks or anything like that. That would have been nightmarish.”

This wasn’t a team that was heavily run-focused during this time, either, so the “of course they didn’t allow many sacks” excuse is out the window.  Over this nine-year period only the Chargers (4,842) attempted more passes than the Dolphins’ 4,818.

Another mind boggling statistic comes from the NFL’s all-time sack leader, Bruce Smith.

He came into the league in 1985 and faced the Dolphins 11 times in the regular season during this nine-year record stretch.  In those games, Smith tallied 2.5 sacks, or 0.23 sacks per game. During this same period against every other team in the NFL, Smith played 77 games and tallied 74 sacks, which was good for 0.96 per game. 

This takes nothing away from Smith, whom Stephenson said was a guy the Dolphins never took lightly.

“Bruce was one of those guys that you wanted to know where he is,” Stephenson said. “As an offensive lineman, if you were free where you had the ability (and) you weren’t tied up, you would probably look to Bruce Smith to make sure he was under control.”

Stephenson mentioned Joe Klecko, Mark Gastineau and Andre Tippett along with Smith as some of the toughest opponents the Dolphins faced in that era.

“You had to be aware of your personnel and the people you’re playing against,” he said.  “I don’t ever recall going into games where we weren’t somewhat prepared for what the other team was doing, and if there was, we made an adjustment.”

Not surprisingly, the Dolphins hold the NFL record for fewest sacks allowed in a season with seven, set in 1988. The Patriots were second in the league that year, allowing 23 sacks.

Here is a game-by-game breakdown of that season:

Game 1 at. Chicago: 1 sack allowed

Game 2 at Buffalo: 1 sack allowed

Game 3 vs. Green Bay: 1 sack allowed

Game 4 at Indianapolis: 4 sacks allowed

Games 5-16: 0 sacks allowed

That’s zero sacks over the final 12 games of an NFL season and a combined three in 15 games. Remarkably, the 1988 Dolphins didn’t put an offensive lineman on the Pro Bowl or AP All-Pro teams, although several players did receive postseason accolades over that stretch:

Dwight Stephenson, C: 5x AP All-Pro (4x first team), 5x Pro Bowler.

Ed Newman, OG: 3x AP All-Pro (1x first team), 3x Pro Bowler, and “the most unselfish offensive lineman there was” according to Stephenson.

Bob Kuechenberg, OG: 2x Pro Bowler.

Roy Foster, OG: 2x Pro Bowler.

Richmond Webb, OT: 1x Pro Bowler.

Don Shula, head coach: 89-55 record during this period with five trips to the playoffs and two Super Bowl appearances.

John Sandusky, OL coach: Line coach during all nine seasons.

Dan Marino, QB: MVP (1984), AP Offensive Player of the Year (1984), 4x AP All-Pro (3x first team), 5x Pro Bowler

Coaches and the quarterback are included because it is truly a collective effort to achieve this streak.  Coaches must conceive proper schemes and game plans, and quarterbacks need to understand the protections as well as the linemen.

Stephenson had high praise for Marino and his knowledge of what was going on in protections, especially when the defense was bringing more rushers than they had protectors.

“He knew he had to get rid of the ball.  Marino was very good at that,” Stephenson said. “He knew where the free man was coming from.” 

Over the nine years, only one lineman, Stephenson, eventually was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and none played more than his six seasons during the streak. The Dolphins continually were adjusting to new players, with Richmond Webb, a member of the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1990s and a highly decorated player, arriving on the scene in the streak’s last season.

Stephenson used the phrase “If one of us is having a problem, the whole line is having a problem,” which not only describes the position of offensive line perfectly, but it also puts the magnitude of this streak in even more perspective when you consider how many moving parts the team uses over such a long period. 

So why aren’t any of these Miami Dolphins offensive lines considered among the NFL’s all-time greatest?

Because they never won a Super Bowl? Because they had only one Hall of Fame lineman?  Because Marino and Shula overshadowed an already overshadowed position?  Or because during that era pass protection wasn’t viewed as intricate or as vital as it is today?

Whatever the reason, Stephenson would like to see his teammates recognized.

“Having that kind of recognition is important. I didn’t know it was nine years that the Miami Dolphins did it,” he said of the sacks allowed streak, “but I knew we did it during my tenure while I was there and it carried on after. … That’s quite an accomplishment.  I think it goes to show we had a good coach.  John Sandusky was a great offensive line coach, and we had some great guys we played with.”

Going forward, the following should never be overlooked again:

  • When you talk about the greatest streaks in NFL and sports history, the 1982-1990 Miami Dolphins sacks allowed streak belongs
  • When you talk about the greatest offensive lines in NFL history, the 1982-1990 Miami Dolphins belong
  • Finally, when you mention what comes to mind when you think of the history of the Miami Dolphins, you now have a fourth bullet point:
    • The only perfect, undefeated season in NFL history (1972)
    • Don Shula
    • Dan Marino
    • The 1982-1990 sacks allowed streak and single-season record

Andy Phillips was a do-it-all Pop Warner star who played offensive line at Central Michigan University before a stint with the Green Bay Packers in 2015. Andy has a passion for the NFL, the history of the game and the people who have made it the greatest league in the world. He will share that passion with periodic articles on ProFootballHOF.com.

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