Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for TBO.com on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.
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1972 Dolphins finally get some respect
Posted Aug 19, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo
Updated Aug 19, 2012 at 06:01 PM
Forty years after the Miami Dolphins achieved the only unbeaten, untied season in NFL history, perfection in South Florida’s imperfect climate remains a staggering accomplishment.
And I’m not talking about the weather, either.
South Florida in the early 1970s was a turbulent place. My high school years were spent in Palm Beach County, which was one of the first counties in Florida to enforce integration in its schools. Years of segregation came to a jolting halt, and there was an uneasy, volatile atmosphere as teenagers learned how to co-exist with students of other races.
It wasn’t a perfect experiment. But eventually, it worked and was implemented in neighboring Dade and Broward counties, which housed the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metropolitan areas.
Racial tensions, coupled with a burgeoning drug trade, made South Florida a tinderbox. But the area’s fiery passion — and rallying point — was football. And the Miami Dolphins gave the area something to be proud about.
Don Shula took over as Miami’s coach in 1970, and by 1972, he already had led the Dolphins to two playoff berths and a Super Bowl appearance. But Super Bowl VI, which ended Miami’s 1971 season, was a disastrous finish as Dallas held the Dolphins without a touchdown in a 24-3 rout that was a lot more one-sided than the score indicated.
Never again, Shula preached to his team after that loss. But even the perfection-demanding Shula could not predict what would take place in 1972.
A perfect record. 17-0.
Forty years later, Mike Freeman takes an introspective look in “Undefeated: Inside the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ Perfect Season” (It Books, Hardcover, $25.99, 302 pages). Freeman, who writes for CBSSports.com, has more than two decades of experience covering the NFL. Plenty of research and interviewing took place to prepare this book, and Freeman, to his credit, leans heavily on Bill Braucher’s 1972 work, “Promises to Keep: The Miami Dolphins Story.” Braucher, who covered the Dolphins during its early, pre-Shula days, gives the foundation for Freeman to build his story about the ‘72 squad.
And Freeman has a mission: Admittedly, he is trying to give the Dolphins more than the backhanded compliments they have received through the years.
“Many other writers, at least in my experience, have shown the Dolphins very little respect,” Freeman writes.
And it’s true. Despite their unblemished mark, the Dolphins played very few teams with a winning record in 1972. They could not have foreseen that NFL powers Kansas City and Baltimore would have down years, and that the New York Jets would struggle. The Dolphins merely took the field and beat their opponent, regardless of record. And it wasn’t always pretty.
My father was (and remains to this day) a diehard Dolphins fan. But during the 1972 season, he could not be satisfied.
“Did you see how they played? They were terrible,” he’d say.
And I would chuckle, thinking that I should mention that Miami had to be the worst 10-0, 11-0, 12-0, etc., team that ever existed. Like there were others to compare it to.
Freeman could provide an answer, calling the Dolphins “plodders.”
“They relied on superior technique and the fact that they were better conditioned than their opponents to win rather than overwhelming physical ability,” Freeman writes. “This accounted on occasion for some of their unspectacular wins.”
Focused, efficient and disciplined, the Dolphins mirrored their coach, who demanded it.
Freeman does more than provide a blow-by-blow account of the perfect season. He gives the reader the necessary background to understand the 1972 season, and notes how Shula was able to integrate his locker room and had blacks and whites rooming together on the road. He also put black hair products (like Afro Sheen) and hair picks inside the individual lockers of black players.
“Shula’s racial gestures were appreciated by black players on the Dolphins, even though his moves certainly had other motives,” Freeman writes. “... Shula, above all, wanted to win. He wasn’t going to let even the draining cataclysm that is racism get in the way of that mission.”
“There was no black voice or white voice. Just one voice,” Freeman quotes Shula as saying years later.
Or, as offensive lineman Wayne Moore would say, “the color on our mind was the same. It was green. It was green — to get that money and get that trophy.”
Freeman also provides a fascinating look at the Dolphins’ original owner, Joe Robbie, of whom a former business partner once commented, “is difficult in adversity and impossible in success.”
Robbie’s skinflint reputation was deserved (he fired Flipper, the actor-dolphin that did flips in a pool outside the end zone when Miami scored a touchdown, faster than lightning), and his drinking was legendary. Even Shula, who had a tense relationship with his boss, noted that “Joe was obviously a troubled guy in some ways, but he was also brilliant.”
I recall when the Dolphins’ new stadium (later called Joe Robbie Stadium and currently called Sun Life Stadium) was ready to open in 1987, Robbie gave a tour to reporters and broadcasters. When a question-and-answer session began, I was struck at how unfocused Robbie seemed to be — until someone asked him a question about finances. The metallic clang of net and gross seemed to energize him, and he rattled off numbers and statistics from memory (and I checked later, they were all legitimate and accurate).
The winning edge Shula preached bloomed in 1972. He was “attempting to create a culture where his players would demand perfection as much as he did.”
He also changed his offense, utilizing the speed of Eugene “Mercury” Morris to complement the bruising, inside power running of fullback Larry Csonka. Bob Griese was the cerebral quarterback, but when he was injured in the fifth game of the season, veteran Earl Morrall, who quarterbacked by instinct and by feel, seamlessly kept the perfect season intact until Griese returned.
The Dolphins finished the regular season averaging 210 yards rushing per game and had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers (Csonka and Morris). They had three shutout wins, the most since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. The defense intercepted 26 passes, with Jake Scott swiping five of them, and held opponents to 110 yards rushing per game.
Freeman takes the reader through the playoffs, where the Dolphins struggled past Cleveland and then faced an up-and-coming Pittsburgh Steelers club on the road for the AFC title.
The game featured an unplanned fake punt by Miami’s Larry Seiple, which shifted the momentum in the Dolphins’ favor. Freeman correctly notes that Seiple was no stranger to fake punts, running one back for Kentucky to help beat Ole Miss. But a fake punt was something my father and I always discussed when Seiple came in, because in August 1969 at the Orange Bowl, he did the same thing in a losing effort against the Philadelphia Eagles. He got a first down, and the play didn’t matter much in a 14-10 preseason loss, but we always would say, “do you remember when?”
And shockingly, Seiple did it in one of Miami’s biggest games of the season, running for 37 yards to the Pittsburgh 12.
Miami beat the Steelers 21-17 and only the Redskins stood between them and perfection. Shula and the Dolphins would get that perfect season, winning 14-7, but not without some moments of stress, which the players now call “the Garo thing.”
Garo Yepremian had a field goal blocked late in the game (had he made it, the score would have been 17-0), and the ball came back to him. Instead of falling on it, Yepremian tried to throw the ball, which slipped out of his hands. Then he batted it up, where Mike Bass snatched the ball in mid-air and scored Washington’s only touchdown.
Years later, when Yepremian was with the New Orleans Saints, I interviewed him. Near the end of our talk, I said, “I have to ask you about that pass you tried in the Super Bowl,” and he grinned and said, “Well, I’d be insulted if you hadn’t.”
But for the final 2:02 of Super Bowl VII, Yepremian fretted as the possibility of a tie leading to overtime — and perhaps even a loss — loomed.
“We lose this game, I’m gonna kill you,” defensive tackle Manny Fernandez snarled at the kicker.
Miami kept Washington out of the end zone and the perfect season was complete.
That legacy remains intact, even though the 2007 New England Patriots came tantalizingly close to duplicating that feat, taking an 18-0 record into the Super Bowl before losing late to the New York Giants.
Freeman does more than provide play-by-play. He delves into the X’s and O’s of Shula’s game plans, and brings out a human side of players that today seem so distant in the grainy highlight reels of NFL Films. Freeman’s interviews with Morris, Csonka and Shula are particularly insightful.
Csonka’s thoughts after Miami beat Minnesota the following year in Super Bowl VIII also can be applied to the perfect season.
“I don’t know if we are the greatest of all time,” he said, “but let’s just say we’re the class of the neighborhood.”
And still perfect.