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.
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.