Ask the Miami Dolphins what they consider the turning point to their 1982-83 season and many will mention a day more than six months, before they even reported to training camp.
They will tell you about that empty feeling on Jan. 2, 1982, when they lost to the San Diego Chargers, 41-38, in an overtime game that left the Dolphins with what nose guard Bob Baumhower describes as a "sickening feeling in your stomach that stayed with us for a long time.
"I really believe that game had a lot to do with what's happened to us this year. It made us work hard in the offseason and during the strike. Nobody wanted to have that kind of feeling again."
When the Dolphins arrived at camp in July, there was one major issue: the quarterback position. In 1982, Don Strock relieved starter David Woodley five times, including a performance against San Diego that included a club record 29 completions for 403 yards and four touchdowns.
Still, Shula insisted Woodley, a third-year man from Louisiana State, was No. 1 until Strock beat him out. It never happened. Both quarterbacks were mediocre in the Dolphins' 2-1-1 preseason. When the season opened, Woodley had his job.
So too, did Uwe von Schamann, who had missed field goals at the end of regulation and in overtime in the San Diego game. He had been hospitalized with colitis in the offseason and lost 25 pounds over the summer, and Shula had 11 kickers come through camp in case von Schamann could not make it back.
But there he was, kicking off in the season opener against a New York Jet team that had seven victories and a tie in its previous eight games against the Dolphins. "A lot of us were pretty upset about that streak," said safety Glenn Blackwood. "We were so primed for that game, I don't think anybody could have beaten us."
Miami's 45-28 victory was not nearly that close, not after the Dolphins scored three touchdowns in the third quarter. The Dolphins used a combination of ball-control offense and quick strikes, holding the football for 39 1/2 minutes, gaining 229 yards rushing and holding the Jets' fearsome defensive line to no sacks. "A great way to start the season," Shula said.
The Colts were next, and Miami barely escaped with a 24-20 victory in Baltimore after trailing, 17-14, at the half. "I guess the strike was in the back of everybody's mind," said wide receiver Duriel Harris.
The next week, the players strike was a reality. The Dolphins were a rather unified team, particularly in their strike practices. They worked out regularly all during the walkout, with high turnouts. But when the season resumed, Miami struggled.
The Dolphins needed three field goals to beat Buffalo, 9-7, and could not score a touchdown in the first three quarters of a bitter 23-17 loss to Tampa Bay. Miami had a chance to win, but Tampa Bay's Mike Washington intercepted a pass Strock intended for Harris at the goal line on the final play.
The Dolphins continued to struggle offensively in a 22-14 victory against the Vikings before only 45,724 in the Orange Bowl. The following week they lost the "Snowplow Game" to the Patriots, 3-0, in swirling snow and controversy. Mark Henderson, a prisoner on a work-release program, was directed by Patriot Coach Ron Meyer to drive his snowplow on the field to clear a path for kicker John Smith. Smith's 33-yard field goal was the difference, and the Dolphins were furious. They also were 4-2.
The following week, Strock came in with 1:48 remaining, completed six of seven passes and moved Miami into position for von Schamann's 47-yard field goal with three seconds remaining to beat the Jets, 20-19, as Miami clinched a spot in the playoffs. The celebration was somewhat muted, however, because veteran guard Ed Newman suffered a knee injury and was lost for the season.
The Dolphins beat the Bills, 27-10, on a Monday night after falling behind, 10-0, early on, then closed the regular season with a 34-7 victory over the winless Colts. They were 7-2 and beginning to jell.
Woodley finally had a solid game, completing 14 of 22 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns. "That game also gave us confidence in our offense, and it's carried over into the playoffs," Shula said. "We opened things up a little more because we had become a one-dimensional team, just handing the ball off to Andra Franklin. We haven't been that way in the playoffs."
The Dolphins got back at the Patriots in a relatively easy 28-13 victory, Miami's first postseason victory since 1974. Woodley was 16 for 19 for 246 yards and two touchdowns, and the defense held New England to 237 yards offense and had four sacks.
There was more of the same Jan. 16 at home against San Diego. The Dolphins shut down the most proficient offense in the league, forcing five interceptions and two fumbles and holding Dan Fouts to 191 passing yards. Woodley was still hot, with 17 of 22 completions for 195 yards and two touchdowns, and he scored the game-clinching touchdown on a draw.
Last week, Woodley was his team's leading ground gainer on a horrible playing field made muddy by an overnight rain that turned the Orange Bowl into a branch of the Everglades. But the Dolphins needed little offense this day against the Jets because of one man.
The name is A.J. Duhe, and the defensive end-turned-linebacker intercepted three passes. One set up a touchdown; another he returned 35 yards for a touchdown that broke the game open and gave the Dolphins a 14-0 victory and a trip to the Super Bowl.