The telephone calls are starting again to many of these proud men. Another team hasn’t lost late into the NFL season, and it’s time to seek out the middle-aged heroes of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the first and last pro team to win all its games.
In the 19 years since that 17-0 season for the ages, many teams have threatened. In 1985, for example, it was the Bears at 12-0. But they lost in Week 13, their only setback all year. In 1990, it was the Giants and 49ers at 10-0, and they fell on the same weekend.
Now, the Washington Redskins are 11-0 and taking dead aim at a record some say may never be matched-14-0 in the regular season and three straight in the playoffs, including a 14-7 Super Bowl VII victory over George Allen’s team in the L.A. Coliseum.
“Yeah, I’m starting to get some of those same old questions,” Larry Csonka said from Ohio, where the Hall of Fame fullback runs a sports marketing firm. “Hey, wish the Redskins well for me, but tell ‘em I hope they tie one. Heh, heh, heh.”
Down in Daytona Beach, Fla., Larry Little, head coach at Bethune-Cookman, who had been an all-pro guard with the Dolphins, keeps sneaking a peak at the sports pages every Monday morning, following the Redskins’ progress.
“I’m not nervous about it or anything like that,” he said. “But every time they win another game, I look at this ring I’ve got on. If the Redskins can win ‘em all, more power to them. But it’s hard. You really have no idea how hard until you’ve done it. Tell you the truth, I don’t want them to do it. I’m selfish in that respect.”
On the 1972 Dolphins, “selfish” was a banned word and egos were checked at the locker room door. When you talk to many of these old Dolphins, the conversations are eerily similar to sound bites from the 1991 Redskins.
They all speak about focusing on one game at a time, one goal at a time--first a playoff berth, then a division title, home field advantage in the playoffs and, finally, a Super Bowl championship. There is one other constant. The Redskins all point to Joe Gibbs’s approach to keeping his team’s eyes on the prize.
“With us,” Csonka said, “I could sum it up in one word: Shula.”
Miami Coach Don Shula was devastated by Super Bowl VI, in which his Dolphins team was embarrassed, 24-3, by the Dallas Cowboys. Coupled with his loss as coach of the Baltimore Colts to Joe Namath and the Jets in Super Bowl III, some were saying Shula couldn’t win the big game.
“People were starting to wonder,” said Nick Buoniconti, a Miami attorney and HBO sportscaster who was the middle linebacker in the so-called No-Name Miami defense that year. “That’s what drove him-not being undefeated, but getting back to that game and proving people wrong.”
Csonka also recalls that as the streak began to build, Shula found innovative ways to motivate his players.
“He was relentless,” Csonka said. “He really knew how to press the right buttons with us. He knew who to browbeat and who to poke, and he knew who to lay off too. He would provoke me. And then every week, he’d come in and say the next team we were playing was always bigger, stronger, faster. It really used to tick me off.”
“He’d always have something to get us going early in the week,” recalled Bob Griese, the Hall of Fame quarterback who missed 10 games with a broken leg that season, but recovered in time to start the Super Bowl. “But by the end of the week, he had us believing there was nothing we couldn’t overcome.”
And there was plenty to overcome. Griese was hurt in Game 5 and replaced by 38-year-old Earl Morrall, picked up on waivers the previous spring as an insurance policy. Morrall’s better days had long since come and gone, yet he did everything Shula asked.
The Dolphins emphasized a running game behind the bruising Csonka and the quicksilver Mercury Morris, who became the first two backs to each go over 1,000 yards rushing in one season. Morrall only averaged nine passes a game, but he was deadly accurate, leading the AFC in passing that year. And it helped to have the game-breaking services of another Hall of Famer, receiver Paul Warfield, and a trusty possession receiver in Howard Twilley.
The Dolphins also began using the precursor of the three-four defense, calling it the 53 after No. 53, linebacker Bob Matheson. He replaced a down lineman on obvious passing situations and either dropped back in coverage or rushed the quarterback, creating havoc wherever he roamed. The No Names thrived on that anonymous moniker, and also led the league in fewest points and fewest total yards allowed.
“Defensively, they were very underrated. And offensively, they never made mistakes,” said CBS announcer John Madden, then coach of the Oakland Raiders. “If you ganged up to stop the run, they’d beat you in the air. If you tried to stop that, Csonka would get you inside and Merc would kill you wide. There was nothing to take away. They weren’t knockout punchers, they were counter-punchers. They’re very much like the Redskins are now.”
And just like the Redskins, the ’72 Dolphins had a little luck too. Garo Yepremian, the Cypriot kicker, made a career-long 54-yard field goal out of high grass in Minnesota to pull out a 16-14 victory in Game 3. There was a 24-23 decision over O.J. Simpson and Buffalo in Game 6, and a come-from-behind 23-13 triumph over the Giants at Yankee Stadium in Game 13 on a day Griese remembers his teammates coming out flat.
“Once we got to the playoffs, that’s when we really started to feel some pressure,” said Little. “To go 14-0 was great, but we all knew we could be knocked out any time, and we didn’t want all that hard work to go for nothing.”
The Dolphins got past the Cleveland Browns in the first round, 20-14. In the AFC title game in Pittsburgh (on a 63-degree day), Griese came off the bench in the second half to lead a 21-17 victory, aided by a daring 37-yard run off a fake by punter Larry Seiple.
The Redskins, meanwhile, had breezed through the playoffs, including an emotional 26-3 victory over the hated Cowboys at RFK in the NFC title game. Miami was 16-0, but went into that Super Bowl as a three-point underdog.
“That was just a lack of respect we got being from the American league,” said Griese, who started that final game. “But we thought we were the better team going in, and that (underdog status) definitely motivated us.”
Like the oddsmakers, the Redskins weren’t that impressed with Miami.
“We’d beaten them in the last preseason game that year,” recalled Brig Owens, a safety on the ’72 Redskins who now is an attorney and player agent. “I remember walking off the field and talking to Jim Kiick after the game. I said to him: ‘We’ll see you guys in L.A.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I think we will.’
“Once we both got out there, Shula knew how to deal with it. They were much more relaxed and loose. With George, we had no time to relax. And then when we got to the game, we went out there flat. We were mentally exhausted. And they still only beat us 14-7.”
In his heart, Buoniconti still gets defensive when anyone dares question the greatness of that ’72 team.
“Let me tell you something,” he said. “In 1972, there were outstanding players on both sides. People just didn’t realize how great a team we had. Some people still don’t give us credit, and I find that hard to believe. What we did was something I don’t think will ever be done again.”
Added Manny Fernandez, a defensive tackle on the ’72 Dolphins who now is executive director of the NFL Alumni Association: “It was a very special team, and the further away you get from it, the more special it becomes. At that age, you sort of look at it like a coup. We pulled it off. We thumbed our noses at everyone who doubted and said okay, who’s next?
“Now, looking back, and knowing this was the only time it’s ever been done, it becomes very special. To be honest, I don’t think the Redskins can do it. If I was a betting man, I’d say no way. If they do, good for them. But I’m sure as hell not pulling for ‘em.”