August 16, 2010

1965: Miami Awarded AFL Franchise for ’66 Season

By 1965, the American Football League was looking to expand beyond its original base of eight franchises. While there was some interest in putting a team in Philadelphia, the primary focus was on Atlanta (also rumored as a possible relocation spot for the struggling Denver Broncos). Commissioner Joe Foss went so far as to announce that the president of Cox Broadcasting Company, Leonard Reinsch, would be awarded an AFL franchise.

However, the NFL and its commissioner, Pete Rozelle, also had an interest in Atlanta and at the end of June a franchise was awarded to Rankin Smith. The loss of Atlanta to the NFL served as a major embarrassment to Commissioner Foss, and added to the groundswell that eventually led to his resignation. It also necessitated finding another suitable city (the potential ownership group in Philadelphia also withdrew its bid).

Attention soon turned to Miami. On August 16, 1965 the league awarded its ninth franchise to Joe Robbie and entertainer Danny Thomas for $7.5 million. The personable Thomas contrasted with the temperamental Robbie, an attorney from Minneapolis long acquainted with Joe Foss. The team would begin play in 1966 and would have use of the Orange Bowl as its home field. A contest that attracted nearly 20,000 entrants came up with the nickname of Dolphins for the new club.

Joe Thomas was hired away from the NFL’s Vikings to become director of player personnel, and took up the task of preparing for the team’s first draft of college talent as well as the expansion draft of unprotected players from the other AFL teams. George Wilson, the highly respected former head coach of the Detroit Lions, was hired as the first coach of the Dolphins.

The expansion draft pulled in established veterans like G Billy Neighbors from the Patriots, FB Billy Joe and flanker Bo Roberson from Buffalo, WR Frank Jackson and DE Mel Branch of the Chiefs, LB Wahoo McDaniel from the Jets, QB Dick Wood from Oakland, and TE Dave Kocurek of the Chargers. It also yielded some younger veterans who would prove valuable, such as OT Norm Evans, S Willie West, and cornerbacks Jimmy Warren and Dick Westmoreland.

In the college draft, they lost their first draft pick, FB Jim Grabowski of Illinois, to the Packers, but did sign Kentucky QB Rick Norton, Tennessee LB Frank Emanuel, and offensive end Howard Twilley, who had broken collegiate receiving records at Tulsa.

As with all expansion teams, the first season in 1966 was a hard one, and the Dolphins went 3-11 to tie Houston for last place in the Eastern Division. The team went through four starting quarterbacks - the veteran Wood threw the most passes, but only three were for touchdowns as against 13 interceptions. Rookie Norton saw action until suffering a broken jaw at midseason. It was then the turn of the coach’s son, George Wilson Jr., who led the club to two of its wins before also going down with an injury, at which point John Stofa got his shot. Stofa had played two years of minor league football before being cut by the Dolphins in the preseason and was brought back when injuries depleted the corps of available passers; his sensational performance in throwing four touchdown passes in the season-concluding win made him the front runner for the job in ’67. But overall, Miami passers combined for a dismal 39.4 % completion percentage, lowest in the AFL, while they led the league in passes intercepted with 32.

HB Joe Auer had run the opening kickoff of Miami’s very first regular season game back for a touchdown and, over the course of the year, led the club in rushing with 416 yards on 121 carries. Veteran FB Cookie Gilchrist was obtained from Denver at midseason and provided occasional power between the tackles; they had started out with the very over-the-hill former Chicago Bears star, Rick Casares, as the starting fullback. The seventh-year tight end, Kocurek, was the top receiver with 27 catches for 320 yards.

While the offense struggled, the defense was capable, especially the backfield. Willie West had an outstanding year as the free safety, intercepting eight passes, and Westmoreland and Warren were good cornerbacks. The Dolphins intercepted a total of 31 passes (led by West’s eight) and four were returned for touchdowns.

There had been concern regarding the drawing power of a pro football team in Miami, which at the time was considered more of a college football locale due to the presence of the University of Miami. The Dolphins averaged 25,551 per game at the Orange Bowl and while they weren’t yet a winning team, they could at least generate some excitement.