Friday Flashback: When The Zero Made Them Heroes

17-0. From the opening snap of week one to besting the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII, the 1972 Miami Dolphins never tasted defeat. This accomplishment, this perfect season, has not yet been matched (however close certain teams have come), and was recently celebrating in Washington D.C. as President Obama, noting that the ’72 Dolphins never received the now-customary visit to the White House after their Superbowl victory, invited the team into his home and reminded a couple of generations of NFL fans what perfect looked like.

Potus-1973-dolphins

How Perfect Was Perfect?

Over the years, an incredible amount of debate has surrounded that historic season. The most common argument against it being a truly monumental achievement was the Dolphins’ schedule; 1972 was the last year the NFL chose it’s schedule on a rotating basis, not focusing on the prior year’s accomplishments in determining next season’s challenges. Miami’s regular season opponents had a combined winning percentage of just under .400, and they faced only two teams that finished the year with winning records. Certainly a bit of a blemish at first glance, but the underlying adversity is easily overlooked.

First, and foremost, is the “Every Given Sunday” mantra that you hear more often than you’d probably like. It has always held true, as upsets in the NFL are very much commonplace. No team is an “easy win”, regardless of how many times you hear the experts use a form of the phrase.

Miami was coming off of a fantastic season where they came up one game short of a Superbowl title. Don Shula’s arrival in Miami just a year before completely turned the young franchise (born in 1966) around, and including the loss to the Cowboys in Superbowl VI, the Dolphins would play in three straight title games, winning the last two.

Shula’s approach was dependent on two things: a powerful offensive line to key the running game, and a defense that could do its job and keep points off the board. In some ways, the 1972 dolphins were very similar to the Patriots teams that won their Superbowls in the early 2000’s. They were far more run-oriented, however, so much so that on their course to perfection, they became the first team in league history to feature two 1,000-yard backs (Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris), and also included Jim Kiick, who was the team’s clutch 3rd down back and utility man. The 1972 Dolphins sent the majority of their offensive line to the Pro Bowl, and later would send two of them (Center Jim Langer and guard Larry Little) to the Hall of Fame.

The defense, which was known as the “No-Name Defense” due to the large focus paid on the offense, was solid at all three levels, with special players in abundance. The defensive line was keyed by the outstanding play of Pro Bowlers Bill Stanfill at DE and Manny Fernandez at DT, the latter of which allowed fellow Pro Bowl selection Nick Buoniconti to wreak havoc from his MLB position. Behind them all were the best safety tandem in the league at that time, and perhaps of all time; Jake Scott (who would go on to win a Superbowl MVP and Hall of Fame honors) and the horribly underrated Dick Anderson, who was perhaps a better all-around player than his fellow safety. The No-Namers led the NFL in defense in 1972, and when you look at some of the scores of those games (especially in the postseason), you realize how pivotal they were to reaching perfection.

Adversity, However Marginal, Is Still Adversity

Budding star QB Bob Griese broke his ankle in a week 5 matchup against the San Diego Chargers. While the passing game wasn’t the focal point of the offense, Griese and WR Paul Warfield made for a dangerous duo, the latter of which was an underutilized talent that rivaled almost any receiver in the league in those years. Griese wouldn’t see the field again until the AFC Championship game.

Today, to have your starting QB lost for that much time would sink most teams. And as insignificant as it seems when you consider how effective Miami was in other phases of the game, the play of backup QB Earl Morrall (aka ‘Father Time’, a nickname given to him for his 21 seasons as a quarterback and occasional punter) was an understated factor in Miami continuing their winning ways.

While Miami’s schedule was definitely soft, what they did in the postseason that year was phenomenal. Against three very good teams, including a matchup against the emerging Pittsburgh Steelers on the road in the AFC Championship game, the Dolphins held opposing teams to a combined 38 points, including shutting the Washington Redskins down totally in the Superbowl (their only score coming from an infamous botched play by Miami kicker Garo Yepremian). On the other side of the ball, Miami combined for a total of 575 rushing yards. In three games. Playoff games. They also beat the Steelers on their own home turf during the same playoff series that the “Immaculate Reception” took place, which had to make that Pittsburgh team feel destined for glory. There was no stopping perfection that year, though.

Focus On The Facts

The 1972 Miami Dolphins are still the last team to lose the Superbowl and then win it the very next year. That is an incredible feat in and of itself.

When all was said and done, the team sent nine players to the Pro Bowl, and if you include Don Shula, featured seven future Hall of Famers.

While many of their regular season games were nail-biters (winning close games is sometimes considered a more formidable task than blowing a team out, depending on who you ask), the team dominated their fair share of opponents along the way. Between wins of 34-13 (Houston Oilers), 23-0 (Baltimore Colts) and 31-10 (St. Louis Cardinals), the Dolphins absolutely demolished their division rival New England Patriots 52-0.

There is a myth that has been mostly discounted by members of the 1972 Dolphins that says some of the team gets together at the end of each season to celebrate the fact that another year has passed without a team matching their perfect year. While it has happened at certain times (perhaps most notably after the 1985 Miami Dolphins were the only team to beat the Superbowl champion Chicago Bears that year), the idea that these men are still living in the past and focusing solely on that one season is a bit ludicrous. Not a lot of people realize that they turned around and won the Superbowl again in 1973, in much more convincing fashion, trampling the Minnesota Vikings en route to a 24-7 final score.

If you include the 1973 season, the Dolphins lost only two games out of a combined 34.

Finally, and this is not a fact so much as a well-informed and strong opinion…I feel the NFL should seriously consider renaming the Lombardi trophy. I think you can guess what head coach I feel deserves to have his name on that trophy. You know, the guy who won more games than any other head coach, won Superbowls with two different teams and led the only perfect team in NFL history. That guy.

Will It Ever Happen Again?

I think I’ll see it in my lifetime, and the 2007 New England Patriots convinced me of that. Despite all the NFL has done over the years to create true parity amongst its teams, dynasties and consistent winners remain. It takes a very special and very complete team, with luck on their side and the will to persevere through any and all adversity, to even sniff at the perfection the 1972 Miami Dolphins obtained. I still think I’ll see it, though, and when I do, it’ll be a bittersweet thing.

That perfect season is one of the best things I can hold over the heads of my NFL-loving family during our regular discussions/arguments, after all.

perfection

Flashback Friday: A Dolfan Is Born

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I got that jersey when I was 12 years old. Still fits (barely), and more than anything, it signifies why I’m a Dolphins fan.

Pick And Stick

My actual fandom began before receiving that jersey, somewhere around the age of seven if I had to guess. In my home, me and my brother were raised by my mother, her brother and their mother. It was the five of us until I was in my late teens. My uncle was like a father to me and my brother, and it just so happened that his biggest passion in life was NFL football. He was, is and always will be a Minnesota Vikings fan, whom he picked as a child during their Purple People Eaters heyday.

I remember packs of football cards, back when they still game with the cheap stick of bubblegum on top. I remember countless games of catch and being taught the particulars of passing, catching, running, blocking and tackling. The first actual game I can remember watching was the 49ers and…somebody else. It was certainly a playoff game, and I remember Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and how the announcers seemed to think they were the greatest team ever.

At some point (like I said, around seven if my memory serves) it came time for me to pick a team. My uncle instilled in me a sort of vital importance in the choice I made: rooting for any team is fine, but “your” team is “your” team. You live and die, laugh and cry for them, for life. It left an impression on my mind, and I do remember taking a good deal of time with the choice.

What ultimately led to my choice was, first and foremost, the way my uncle talked about Dan Marino. #13. He used to say that he had the quickest release he’d ever seen, that he was maybe the best QB to ever play the game, and despite Montana’s rings, probably the better of the two when it came to pure passing ability.

So I started paying closer attention to this Marino guy, and the team he played for. I noticed the aqua, orange and white jerseys were totally cool and seemed unique amongst other teams. I noticed, whether on television or on the backs of my ever-growing football card collection, guys like John Offerdahl, Louis Oliver, Richmond Webb. History lessons from my uncle taught me that their coach, Don Shula, had been there since way before I was born, and led the only team to ever finish a season undefeated, from opening day to the Superbowl. I learned names; Bob Griese, Larry Czonka, Mercury Morris, Paul Warfield, the No-Name Defense, Jake Scott and Larry Little and, later on, the Marks brothers. I learned that Dan Marino had taken the league by storm in his first three seasons, breaking a bunch of records and leading his team to the Superbowl, where Joe Montana and a well-coached 49ers team finally showed the league how to shut down the juggernaut passing attack Miami had at the time.

I took all this in, along with names, histories and close attention paid to uniforms and current players for all the other teams. At first, I thought it would be the coolest thing to do to proclaim myself a Vikings fan; they were my uncle’s team, after all, and I always thought the purple and gold uniform somehow outclassed every other team’s.

But I came to my senses. Looking at a photo of all the NFL teams and their divisions (this was before the divisional reassigning that took place later), I pointed my finger out at the white helmet with the dolphin jumping towards the outline of the sun.

I was a Miami Dolphins fan, and I knew I always would be.

Hometown team? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Hometown Team

We grew up in central New Jersey, closer to Philadelphia than New York, so the Eagles were considered our hometown team. We lived about an hour from Philly, but it never even occurred to me that I might want to be an Eagles fan. That Kelly Green looked like boogers to my seven year old mind, and besides, all everyone seemed to do was complain about them. Their fans most of all.

My uncle grew up in the same area, so there was no local pride in him riding with the Vikings all his life. When it came time for my younger brother to pick his team, I don’t think the Eagles ever crossed his mind either. He ended up pointing at the same picture hanging in my uncle’s bedroom…only he pointed at the helmet of the Washington Redskins. Why? Oddly enough, I don’t really remember, but it very well could have been sibling rivalry; the Dolphins and Redskins had played one another in the Superbowl twice, with the Dolphins taking the earlier of the two (and capping our perfect season in the process), and a guy named John Riggins and the infamous Hogs offensive line bruising my Fins the second time around.

Whatever his reasons, or my uncle’s, or my own, we were now officially fans of teams that were nowhere within our area. Throughout my life, I’ve gotten so many responses of “you used to live in Florida?” or some similar question reflecting disbelief in who my team is, but to the three of us, it was perfectly natural. You picked the team that was closest to your heart, not the team that was the closest to you. If one happened to be the other, so be it, but it most certainly wasn’t the case for us.

No Ring For #13

By the time I started rooting for them, I came to understand that, despite having a future Hall of Fame QB and head coach, there was a team in our division that had our number more often than not. Yeah, the team that went to four straight Superbowls and lost each and every one of them: the Buffalo Bills. I was probably no older than 8 when I came to understand what a division rivalry meant, and to this day, I cannot tolerate the Bills. I pity them now, but they had more chances than #13 did and squandered them all. Bitterness ensues to this day.

It seemed like we were in the playoffs every season, or at least competing for them. New faces came, old faces went, but Dan the Man and the Don were the constants, and something told me it was going to happen sooner or later; they’d get that ring, hold that Lombardi trophy up for the world to see who was the best. But it never happened. Don left first, but when he did, he did it as the coach with the most wins in the history of the NFL. I still maintain that a reasonable debate can be made for calling the Lombardi trophy the Shula trophy, as I honestly believe the latter was the better coach overall.

I can still remember the last game #13 played. A playoff game against the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars. I watched some of the game at home, but was forced to listen to most of it on the road with my grandmother and uncle. Cannot recall exactly why we were out at the time, but I will never forget the feeling in the pit of my stomach as I listened to Marino and my Fins get decimated to the tune of 62-7. I was in a state of disbelief for the next few months, as our apparent savior (Jimmy Johnson) resigned the very day after that debacle of a loss, and Marino finally called it a career that March.

To this day, we haven’t found replacements for either.

Laugh And Cry, Laugh And Cry

Ricky Williams. Zach Thomas. Jason Taylor.
Jay Fiedler. Ray Lucas. Daunte Culpepper. Chad Henne.
Ronnie Brown. Jake Long. Sam Madison. Patrick Surtain.

Big names, smaller names, came and went from year to year. Our defense was something to behold with Thomas and Taylor in their prime, but our offense never could keep pace. By the time Ricky Williams showed up and took the league on a two-year ride for the ages, all that was stopping us was the guy under center…the football Gods had decreed, all pieces were to be in place after the main piece had been removed.

21 years of cheers, tears, bitter hatred (the Monday Night Miracle, Burn Ricky Burn, Bill Bellichek, etc), amazing moments (Run Ricky Run, going from 1-15 to 11-5 division champs the very next season, etc) and a constant feeling of “we’re getting better…aren’t we?” later, and I’m a Miami Dolphins fan. I bleed aqua and orange.

I hate the Jets with a passion. I respect the hell out of the Patriots, but they could have went and started a dynasty in another division (or conference for that matter), and I will always harbor a bitter resentment at the Bills somehow besting #13 during what should have been the peak of his career. The Colts used to be in our division, but were so terrible while they were that I cannot recall anything that made me dislike them. They were an easy win.

I’m a Dolphins fan. Dan Marino, unique uniforms, and a handful of awesome players from the distant and not-so-distant past are some of the reasons. But the ultimate reason? The words of my uncle, who made it perfectly clear: you pick one, and you never give up on them, even if they seem to give up on you sometimes.

(By the way, I root for the Eagles. The Andy Reid era, and the change from that hideous color of green, were great for me. But if they ever played the Dolphins (don’t recall it ever happening, honestly, but I’m sure it did), you know damn well who I was rooting for.

Go Fins Go!