September 2, 2011

1966: Dolphins Score Quick TD, But Lose Debut to Raiders

September 2, 1966 marked the regular season debut of the American Football League’s first expansion team, the Miami Dolphins. Coached by George Wilson, who once led the NFL Lions to a championship, the Dolphins, like all first-year teams, were made up of a combination of veteran castoffs and inexperienced young talent.

The quarterback position included examples of both, with strong-armed but immobile Dick Wood, a fifth-year veteran most recently with the Raiders and, for two years before that, the Jets, slated to start and rookie Rick Norton, the club’s first draft choice out of Kentucky, who was the primary backup. Miami had been successful in signing 11 of its draft choices, which in addition to Norton notably included another Kentucky star, LB Frank Emanuel, and split end Howard Twilley out of Tulsa.

There were 26,776 in attendance at the Orange Bowl on a Friday night to welcome the new club as it hosted the Oakland Raiders. Oakland, with a new head coach in John Rauch, was coming off of an 8-5-1 season in 1965 and was a 17-point favorite against the newcomers.

It didn’t take long for the Dolphins to excite the home crowd. HB Joe Auer, a 25-year-old Miami-area resident who had been a reserve with the Buffalo Bills, started things off with a bang by returning the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown (pictured above). Only Oakland’s DB Rodger Bird came close to stopping him, missing a tackle at the 10 before Auer dove into the end zone and was greeted by entertainer Danny Thomas, one of the team’s co-owners.

Things went quickly downhill from there. While the Raiders offense sputtered, especially when a first quarter bomb from QB Cotton Davidson was dropped by a wide-open (and normally reliable) split end Art Powell at the Miami 35 yard line, the Dolphins proved adept at beating themselves. Wood was intercepted four times in the first half, twice each by safety Howie Williams and CB Dave Grayson.

The interceptions proved critical, cutting off two promising drives and leading to 10 points for the Raiders in the second quarter. Twice Oakland took possession on the Miami 16, leading to a 16-yard field goal by Mike Mercer and a two-yard TD run by FB Hewritt Dixon. The Raiders led narrowly by 10-7 at halftime.

The rookie Norton took over at quarterback for the Dolphins in the second half. Early in the third quarter, Miami got a break when CB Jim Warren intercepted a Davidson pass. The Dolphins established their ground game in the ensuing drive as Auer and FB Billy Joe ran the ball effectively. However, seventh-year veteran Gene Mingo missed a 19-yard field goal attempt that would have tied the game.

Tom Flores replaced Davidson at quarterback and led the Raiders on an 11-play, 81-yard drive that included passes of 17 yards to Powell, 19 yards to FB Roger Hagberg, and 12 yards to TE Tom Mitchell. The possession resulted in a 15-yard TD pass to Powell with 3:27 remaining in the period, extending Oakland’s lead to 17-7.

The Dolphins resorted to trickery as the head coach’s son, George Wilson Jr., who was also the punter and a backup quarterback, took off on a fake punt and ran 37 yards to the Raiders’ 11. But Mingo missed another short field goal attempt, this time from 15 yards. Still, Miami got on the board again and made the game close when Norton tossed a two-yard scoring pass to aging ex-Bears FB Rick Casares for a TD that cut Oakland’s lead to 17-14.

Near the end, the Raiders finally clinched the win when Flores threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Mitchell to cap a 72-yard drive with just over two minutes left to play. The extra point attempt failed and the final score was 23-14.

“Except for the alertness of Williams and Grayson, we would have been in real trouble,” said a relieved John Rauch afterward.

The Raiders outgained Miami (257 yards to 182), especially dominating in net passing yards (241 to 88). However, they ran the ball poorly, gaining just 16 yards on 22 attempts to 94 yards by the Dolphins, and for as much as Miami was damaged by five turnovers, Oakland hurt itself with six.

Cotton Davidson completed only 7 of 19 passes for 80 yards with no TDs and three interceptions. Tom Flores was more effective, going to the air 20 times and completing 11 for 161 yards with two touchdowns against one that was picked off. Art Powell made up for his early drop with 8 catches for 104 yards and a TD. Roger Hagberg led the anemic rushing attack with 23 yards on six carries.

For the newcomers, Dick Wood completed just 4 of 13 passes for 49 yards and, of course, had the four interceptions. Rick Norton was successful on 7 of 19 throws for 52 yards with a TD as well as an interception. George Wilson Jr., with his one carry on the fake punt, led the Dolphins in rushing with 37 yards. Billy Joe gained 31 yards on 9 attempts and Joe Auer, who started things off in spectacular fashion with the kickoff return touchdown, ran for 25 yards on 10 carries and caught two passes for 30 more to lead the team in pass receiving yardage. The old pro, 35-year-old Rick Casares, caught the most passes, with three for 21 yards and a score.

It took until the sixth week of the season for the Dolphins to finally win their first game, and they ended up at 3-11 and tied for last in the AFL’s Eastern Division with the Houston Oilers. The Raiders once again went 8-5-1 to place second in the Western Division.

The quarterback position remained unsettled for Miami all through the inaugural season, with four different players starting. Joe Auer ended up being the club’s leading rusher (416 yards) and scorer (nine touchdowns for 54 points), but the fullback position was held down by several players along the way. Only the defensive backfield truly came together, as Jim Warren and safety Willie West were AFL All-Stars.