March 31, 2010

1974: Warfield, Csonka, and Kiick Sign with the WFL

The Miami Dolphins had barely finished celebrating a second consecutive championship when the stunning announcement was made on March 31, 1974 that three key members of the offense, FB Larry Csonka, HB Jim Kiick, and WR Paul Warfield, had been signed by the Toronto Northmen of the newly-organized World Football League. They would not play in the WFL until 1975, as each was in their final contract year with the Dolphins for ’74.

It was a major coup for the new league that would sign several significant NFL players to contracts, some that would take effect in the first season (QB Virgil Carter by the Chicago Fire, RB Charlie Harraway by the Birmingham Americans, DT John Elliott by the New York Stars), others that, like the three Miami stars, would take effect in 1975 (TE Ted Kwalick and RB Calvin Hill by The Hawaiians, QB Daryle Lamonica by the Southern California Sun), and still others that would never occur at all due to the league’s demise (QB Ken Stabler by the Birmingham Americans for 1976).

Unlike most of the new league’s franchises, Toronto, owned by media executive John Bassett, had strong and stable financial backing. A joint contract was negotiated for the trio and totaled $3 million over three years, with Csonka getting $1.4 million, Warfield $900,000, and Kiick $700,000.

The team never played in Toronto, however - the introduction of legislation by the Canadian parliament that would have banned the WFL from fielding teams in Canada forced the relocation of the franchise to Memphis. Renamed the Southmen (not a popular nickname with the locals, who preferred to refer to the team as the “Grizzlies” due to the bear logo on the helmet), the club had the best record of the chaotic 1974 season at 17-3, winning the Central Division but losing to Florida in the first round of the playoffs.

The Dolphins, who had won the Super Bowl following the 1972 and ’73 seasons, went 11-3 in again winning the AFC East but lost in a thrilling divisional playoff game to Oakland. In their last season in Miami, Csonka had his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl-year as he gained 749 yards rushing; Warfield caught 27 passes for 536 yards (a 19.9-yard average gain), also gaining Pro Bowl recognition, in his case for the seventh straight year; and Kiick, a reserve at this point, gained 274 rushing yards and caught 18 passes while splitting time at halfback with Benny Malone and Mercury Morris.

Joining the Southmen (or “Grizzlies”) in 1975, the Miami trio at least had the good fortune of joining a stable club coming off of a winning season. However, the health of the league as a whole wasn’t good – financially rickety during the ’74 season, the lack of a television contract made the situation even more untenable and the WFL folded on October 22 after thirteen weeks.

Kiick was the star of the season opening game, scoring three touchdowns that included the game-winner with 38 seconds remaining. He also gained 106 yards rushing in a win over The Hawaiians and ended up outgaining Csonka with 462 yards on 121 carries with nine touchdowns; he also caught 25 passes for 259 yards and another TD.

Csonka had a high of 114 yards rushing in the club’s second game but missed time due to injury during the season. He ended up gaining 421 yards on 99 rushes with one TD and caught five passes for 54 yards and a score (holdover RB Willie Spencer led the club with 581 yards on 100 carries).

Warfield caught 25 passes for 422 yards and three touchdowns, second on the team to WR Ed Marshall, who had 31 catches for 582 yards.

After the demise of the WFL, all three players returned to the NFL in 1976. Csonka spent three nondescript seasons with the New York Giants before returning to the Dolphins for one last, solid year in 1979 (837 yards rushing with 12 TDs). Kiick went to the Denver Broncos, where he gained just 114 yards rushing and caught 10 passes in ’76; he appeared in four games for the Broncos and Redskins in 1977, his last season, running the ball only once and catching two passes. Warfield returned to his original club, the Cleveland Browns, and played two seasons in which he caught 58 passes for 864 yards and eight touchdowns.

The Dolphins went 10-4 in 1975, but missed the postseason for the first time since 1969 (the year before Don Shula took over as head coach). They dropped to 6-8 in ’76 but rebounded to a 10-4 mark in 1977 and returned to the postseason in ’78. During that period, Don Nottingham, Norm Bulaich, and Leroy Harris took the place of Csonka at fullback. In Warfield’s absence, WR Nat Moore emerged as a productive receiver, along with Duriel Harris and, to a lesser extent, Freddie Solomon.

The abbreviated 1975 season in the WFL provided a footnote to the Hall of Fame careers of Csonka and Warfield, and was a last hurrah for Kiick. As gate attractions for the doomed WFL, they also provided something of a last hurrah for the league as well.