January 14, 2010

1973: Dolphins Cap Perfect Season with Win Over Redskins in Super Bowl VII

From the advent of divisional play in 1933 until 1972, there had been NFL teams that had gone undefeated in the regular season only to come up short in the postseason – the 1934 and ’42 Bears had both been upset in the Championship game. There had been four undefeated teams in the NFL between 1920 and ’29, but they had all been tied at least once along the way, and of course didn’t have to run the playoff gauntlet. In other leagues, the 1937 Los Angeles Bulldogs of the second AFL had an 8-0 record for the season, and more significantly, the AAFC’s Cleveland Browns won every game, including the title contest, in 1948. But the NFL was still waiting for a team to achieve perfection.

The Miami Dolphins had come into the AFL as an expansion team in 1966 and accomplished little until Don Shula took over as head coach in 1970. They went to the playoffs for the first time that year, and improved to reach the Super Bowl in ’71, losing to the Dallas Cowboys. In 1972, they won the AFC East with a 14-0 mark. The Dolphins ran the ball superbly, with FB Larry Csonka and HB Mercury Morris becoming the first teammates to both run for a thousand yards in a season. When QB Bob Griese went down with a broken ankle at midseason, veteran backup Earl Morrall stepped in and led the AFC in passing. They didn’t throw much, but when they did they had a great deep threat in WR Paul Warfield and a dependable possession receiver in WR Howard Twilley. The so-called “No-Name Defense” was led by MLB Nick Buoniconti, DE Bill Stanfill, and the excellent safety tandem of Dick Anderson and Jake Scott.

Their opponents from the NFC were the Washington Redskins, who had won the NFC East with an 11-3 record. Head Coach George Allen preferred veteran players, and the Redskins “Over-the-Hill Gang” boasted plenty of pro football experience. With a predominantly run-based attack, HB Larry Brown led the NFC with 1216 yards. QB Sonny Jurgensen was injured for most of the season and 33-year-old Billy Kilmer filled in admirably and had able targets in wide receivers Charley Taylor and Roy Jefferson. The defense allowed the fewest points in the conference.

Miami won close contests against Cleveland in the Divisional round and Pittsburgh in the conference title game to advance to the Super Bowl, while the Redskins easily defeated Green Bay and Dallas, respectively. Despite Miami’s undefeated record, Washington was favored by three points.

Super Bowl VII was played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on January 14, 1973 under sunny skies with a temperature in the eighties and 90,182 fans in attendance. QB Bob Griese, who had returned to action in the second half of the AFC Championship game, was ready to start and led the Dolphins to a touchdown in their third possession of the game. Miami covered 63 yards in six plays capped by Griese’s 28-yard scoring pass to Twilley (pictured below left). The first quarter ended shortly thereafter with the Dolphins ahead, 7-0.

The Dolphins lost out on an apparent 47-yard Griese-to-Warfield TD pass in the second quarter when the other wide receiver on the play, Marlin Briscoe, was flagged for being offside. Instead, Miami had to punt and Washington took over on its 17 yard line. On a third down play, Kilmer, looking for Larry Brown on a play-action pass, was intercepted by Buoniconti, who returned the ball 32 yards to the Washington 27. After two running plays, Griese hit TE Jim Mandich with a 19-yard pass to the two yard line, and HB Jim Kiick followed by plowing in for the score and a 14-0 lead at halftime.

Miami put together a 79-yard drive in the third quarter to the Redskins five yard line, but a Griese pass intended for TE Marv Fleming was intercepted in the end zone by safety Brig Owens. Washington’s offense had done little, but finally put together a long drive in the fourth quarter that covered 79 yards and burned seven minutes off the clock. However, Jake Scott intercepted Kilmer’s pass in the end zone and returned it 55 yards to the Redskins 48 yard line (pictured at top).

Five plays later Miami lined up for a 42-yard field goal attempt by Garo Yepremian that turned into a bizarre misadventure and nearly gave the Redskins new momentum. The snap was low and so was Yepremian’s kick, which was blocked by Washington DT Bill Brundige. The ball bounced back to the startled placekicker, who, at 5’8” and 175 pounds, was no threat to run; he decided to pass but instead the ball slipped out of his hand and was grabbed in the air by Redskins CB Mike Bass, who ran 49 yards for a touchdown (pictured at bottom).

There were just over two minutes left and a perfect season on the line, but Griese calmly put together a six play drive that ran nearly a minute off the clock before the Dolphins punted the ball to the Washington 30. The Redskins could do nothing as Kilmer threw two incompletions, hit Brown with a pass that lost four yards, and then was sacked by Stanfill and DE Vern Den Herder on the game’s last play. There were still seconds on the clock, but the celebration of Miami’s 14-7 win and the completion of the perfect season had already begun.

The Dolphins defense had done a tremendous job of shutting down the Redskins, as signified by the selection of Jake Scott, who had two key interceptions, as the game’s MVP. The offense had relied on the outstanding running game to control the ball, accumulating a total of 184 yards on 37 rushes; Larry Csonka (pictured at right) led with 112 yards on 15 carries. Bob Griese threw the ball just 11 times, completed 8 for 88 yards, and had both a TD and an interception. Paul Warfield was the leading receiver with 3 catches for 36 yards.

Larry Brown was held to just 72 yards on 22 carries for the Redskins. Billy Kilmer completed 14 of 28 passes for 104 yards with three interceptions. Brown and Roy Jefferson both caught five passes, with the wide receiver compiling the most yards (50).

The win came as a great relief to Don Shula, who had rankled at criticism that, especially after losing twice in the Super Bowl (with the Colts in Super Bowl III as well as the previous year with the Dolphins), his teams came up short in big games. “The pressure’s off,” he said afterward. “I was aware of the reputation I had gotten…the losses were there; you couldn’t hide them. But that’s all in the past.”

Guiding his team to an undefeated season that culminated in a title certainly put an end to any speculation about Shula’s coaching ability, and moreover provided the ’72 Dolphins with a special place in pro football history.

Miami proved it was no fluke the next season by again winning the Super Bowl. The Redskins made it to the postseason the next two years but failed to advance as far as the conference championship game - the ’72 season would be the high water mark under George Allen.