The 347th and final win of Don Shula's career was a special one. On the road in St. Louis, needing a victory to keep Miami's postseason hopes alive, the offense surged early and often for a 41-point output. Dolphins wide receiver O.J. McDuffie caught a seven-yard touchdown pass that extended the Miami lead to 24-6 in the third quarter, all but putting the game out of reach.
Those touchdowns over the middle come at a cost, a price McDuffie was regularly happy to pay. Knifing in between three Rams defenders and taking a hit at the catch point, that fearless mindset was the thing that defined McDuffie's game. He continuously caught the ball in traffic, got hit, and popped right back up.
"Catch it or drop it, you're going to get lit up so you might as well make the catch," McDuffie said. "For me, I focused on the football alone, then worry about everything afterwards. If Dan (Marino) was going to trust me and give me the opportunity, then I had to make that play no matter what."
Former Dolphins P.R. man and co-host host of the Fish Tank Podcast, Seth Levit, knows O.J. well. He agrees that toughness and the physical element of the game was the defining trait of his podcast co-host.
"We heard Dan Marino say (that O.J was) the toughest player he ever got in the huddle with and I think just the physical nature by which O.J. approached the game just defined his career," Levit said.
Shula made no secret about coveting tough players. The famed 12-minute run kept players up on the eve of the grueling conditioning test in the South Florida sunshine. Linebacker John Grimsley said as much in a 1992 story in the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
"Everybody loses sleep the night before," linebacker John Grimsley said. "I know I was tossing and turning."
Once McDuffie passed the 12-minute run, he realized he reciprocated Shula's affinity for gritty players. The win in St. Louis was the last in the storied career of the Dolphins Hall of Fame head coach, and even though the players knew the end was coming, that didn't make it any easier to accept.
"The shot and the chance (Shula) took on me, that will never go unappreciated," McDuffie said. "The way he treated me as a man, that was always appreciated. When we learned he was leaving, it was a sad moment."
The sadness of a loss to Buffalo in the Wild Card Round and eventual retirement of the NFL's all-time winningest coach was preceded by jubilation in The Gateway to the West. The Rams leading rusher (Johnny Bailey) posted 25 rushing yards and the second-leading receiver on the day ended the game with only 48 total yards.
More than half of the Rams' 374 yards of offense came on the back of second-year sensation Isaac Bruce. The Fort Lauderdale native pulled the Rams to within eight points on a five-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Mark Rypien in the third quarter. Bruce spiked the football into the artificial turf at the TWA Dome, replicating the celebration McDuffie exhibited one quarter earlier.
"Isaac was a local kid growing up down here in South Florida, so he was probably trying emulate the old guy," McDuffie joked. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I guess."
St. Louis would crawl closer on a 38-yard field goal, but a seven-yard Bernie Parmelee touchdown run extended Miami's lead to two scores. The impending victory completed half of the Dolphins pre-requisites that day. Shula's team needed a Denver Broncos win over the Oakland Raiders to send Miami back to the post-season for the fourth time in five years.
Early, it was looking bleak for Miami out in Oakland. The Raiders built a 28-17 lead entering the fourth quarter, but as he did 40 times in his career, John Elway led the Broncos back with 14 unanswered points in the final period.
During the Dolphins broadcast, legendary Dolphins P.R. guy Harvey Greene was seen relaying information to Shula on the sideline. A spotter of sorts would get the pertinent information to the coaches in-game, as Levit told us on the latest edition of the Drive Time Podcast.
"We kept an eye on the stats weekly," Levit said. "If someone has 95 rushing yards and it's late in the fourth quarter, you might let someone know that he needs five yards for 100 and get the information to the people that make those decisions."
This particular instance was much bigger than getting a running back over the century mark or extending a receiver's consecutive-games-with-a-catch streak, as it was the information the Dolphins needed that got them into the playoffs. Broncos kicker Jason Elam gave Denver a 31-28 lead with 48 seconds to play and the result would hold, sending Miami to Buffalo the following week.
"We had such an arrogance about us that we knew we were going to be competitive, we also knew we were going to the playoffs," McDuffie said. "I didn't know much about the record books but, at the end of it, it was nice to see every single win stack up on Shula's win total."
The Dolphins would fall 37-22 in Buffalo and Shula's coaching career ended with 347 wins (including playoffs). The 328 regular-season wins for Shula still stands far from reach of those chasing him. George Halas won 318 games, good for second-most, and Bill Belichick is actively in pursuit, though his 275 wins are still 53 shy of Shula.
"At that point, you're just counting the wins for Coach Shula," Levit said. "He's putting more distance between himself and anybody else who's going to coach. It's one of those records you never expect to be broken."