February 18, 2010

1970: Don Shula Leaves Colts for Dolphins

After four seasons of existence, the Miami Dolphins had gone a combined 15-39-2 under Head Coach George Wilson. Moreover, they were not drawing well, averaging less than half the capacity of the 75,000-seat Orange Bowl. Managing partner Joe Robbie concluded that radical steps were necessary and on February 18, 1970 he signed Don Shula away from the Baltimore Colts to become the new head coach.

Shula demanded a great deal to leave the Colts – not only a large and long-term contract, but a percentage of the team; he was also made a vice-president. It was determined by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle that Robbie had been guilty of tampering in his pursuit of Shula, and so the Dolphins also had to surrender their first draft pick for 1971 to the Colts as well (Baltimore used the pick to select RB Don McCauley from North Carolina).

Shula came to Miami with a solid reputation. He was hired by the Colts in 1963 at the age of 33 to succeed Weeb Ewbank, who had built the team into a championship club in 1958 and ’59. By his second season, the Colts were champions of the Western Conference, and they won a league title in ’68, although they lost the subsequent Super Bowl to the AFL’s New York Jets. His record after seven seasons in Baltimore was 71-23-4 for a very healthy .755 winning percentage, although the Colts had underachieved in the postseason, going 2-3.

Shula was still young, at 40, and if he had encountered problems in the playoffs, he had certainly built teams that could be counted on to contend regularly.

“I’m not a miracle worker,” said the new coach upon taking the job. “I have no magic formulas. The only way I know is hard work.”

While not a great deal was initially expected, Shula did have talent to work with. On offense, QB Bob Griese had shown poise and promise in his first three pro seasons, although he had certainly taken plenty of lumps. The second most significant offseason acquisition after Shula had been WR Paul Warfield, who was obtained from the Browns and was well established as one of the best deep threats in the NFL. They also picked up TE Marv Fleming from Green Bay, a further asset to the passing game.

FB Larry Csonka had been considered something of an underachiever after coming out of Syracuse in 1968. He was matched in the backfield with overachieving HB Jim Kiick. The aging offensive line had gained unsung guard Larry Little in ’69.

Defensively, the team had strong performers in second-year DE Bill Stanfill and veteran LB Nick Buoniconti, who had been obtained from the Patriots the year before. DT Manny Fernandez was another rising talent on the line. Dick Anderson had a tough second season at safety, while young players like Lloyd Mumphord and Tim Foley were available in the defensive backfield.

There may not have been any miracles or magic formulas, but the Dolphins did far better than expected. After breaking out to a 4-1 start, three mid-season defeats (two of them crushing shutouts) evened Miami’s tally at 4-4. But they won the remaining six contests to end up with a stunning 10-4 record and wild card spot in the postseason.

The running game was the best in the AFC, generating a total of 2082 yards at a healthy 4.2 yards-per-carry clip. Csonka led the way with 874 yards, finally realizing his potential. Kiick contributed 658 yards and was the only running back to make the Top 10 in both rushing yards and pass receptions in the conference (42 catches for 497 yards). An added bonus was HB Eugene “Mercury” Morris, almost exclusively a kick return specialist in his 1969 rookie season but Shula worked him into the offense as an outside running threat and he averaged 6.8 yards-per-attempt on 60 carries for 409 yards.

Griese suffered growing pains at quarterback, but benefited from the improved ground game and the enhanced receiving corps. Warfield caught just 28 passes (he missed three full games due to injury), but they were good for 703 yards and a whopping 25.1 yards-per-reception and six touchdowns. The much-maligned offensive line of 1969 improved markedly under the guidance of assistant coach Monte Clark, especially Little and Bob Kuechenberg at guard and tackles Norm Evans and Doug Crusan.

The bend-but-don’t-break defense gave up yards but surrendered an AFC-lowest 228 points. Rookies Mike Kolen and Doug Swift became starters at linebacker, flanking Buoniconti, with good results, and newcomers Jake Scott at free safety and cornerback Curtis Johnson helped to upgrade the secondary. Another newcomer, Garo Yepremian, also contributed by connecting on 22 of 29 field goal attempts to lead the league with a 75.9 percentage.

The stage was thus set for Shula to lead the Dolphins to three consecutive conference championships and two Super Bowl victories (finally removing the stigma of failing in big games). Over the course of 26 seasons in Miami, through 1995, his teams accumulated 257 wins against 133 losses with two ties for a winning percentage of .659. The Dolphins went to the playoffs in 16 of those campaigns, going 17-14 while reaching the Super Bowl five times and winning two of them.

Including the years in Baltimore, Shula ended up as the winningest coach in NFL history with 328 victories. He certainly proved to be worth the price Joe Robbie and the Dolphins paid to get him, steep as it might have appeared at the time.