Most football fans have experienced memorable moments, championships, games, and even bitter losses in the postseason over the last 87 years. But, many people only remember the champion or the runner-up in the last game of the NFL season, the NFL championship or Super Bowl. The December 18, 1932 playoff game featuring the Portsmouth Spartans (now known as the Detroit Lions) and the Chicago Bears was a memorable event as the NFL’s first postseason game with the Bears winning 9-0. In this special 32 part series, I will analyze each NFL team’s best championship season and the one season where they finished just short of claiming the NFL’s ultimate prize. The second team to be analyzed is… the MIAMI DOLPHINS!
The 1972 Dolphins: Miami’s Perfect Season When the AFL and NFL officially merged in January 1970, the Miami Dolphins were a struggling AFL franchise that had only won 15 games in their first four seasons under head coach George Wilson. But, in the same month, the Dolphins replaced Wilson by signing former Baltimore Colts head coach Don Shula to reverse their fortunes. In his first two years in Miami, Shula led the Dolphins to back-to-back 10 win seasons along with two postseason appearances including an AFC conference title in 1971. However, after defeating his former team in the AFC Championship, Shula and the Dolphins fell short against the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl VI and failed to score a touchdown in a crushing 24-3 loss.
Despite their humbling Super Bowl loss to Dallas, the Dolphins used the 1972 off-season to upgrade their team by signing key free agent quarterback Earl Morrall from Baltimore, wide receiver Marlin Briscoe and offensive lineman Howard Kindig from Buffalo, free agent offensive lineman Al Jenkins, and defensive lineman Jim Dunaway from Buffalo. Shula also used the 1972 NFL Draft to acquire linebacker Larry Ball from Louisville and safety Charlie Babb from Memphis to join Miami’s “No-Name Defense” led by defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger. With these new additions, the 1972 Dolphins became the first team in Super Bowl history to go 14-0 in a season. Led by six future Hall of Famers (QB Bob Griese, FB Larry Csonka, WR Paul Warfield, OG Larry Little, C Jim Langer, MLB Nick Buoniconti), the Dolphins had the NFL’s No. 1 ranked offense and No. 1 ranked defense in 1972.
Don Shula also had nine Pro Bowl selections on his roster and replaced his Hall of Fame quarterback with Earl Morrall after Griese was injured early in the season. With Bob Griese still sidelined at the start of the playoffs, Earl Morrall led the Dolphins to a 20-14 victory versus the Cleveland Browns in the divisional round before Griese relieved Morrall in the AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh and led Miami back to the Super Bowl with a 21-17 win. In Super Bowl VII, Bob Griese and the Dolphins offense scored two touchdowns in the first half before Miami’s defense shut out the Washington Redskins for most of the game. Despite a late mishap by kicker Garo Yepremian, Don Shula became the first head coach to go 17-0 in a season as the Dolphins won their first Super Bowl by the score of 14-7.
Strengths: Rushing offense and lack of turnovers. After working as an offensive assistant under Hall of Fame coaches Bear Bryant at Alabama and George Allen with the Los Angeles Rams, Miami’s offensive coordinator, Howard Schnellenberger, had the NFL’s No. 1 ranked rushing attack in 1972 led by Pro Bowl selections Mercury Morris and Larry Csonka. Morris, Csonka as well as running back Jim Kiick combined for over 2,900 rushing yards and scored 23 touchdowns for the Dolphins offense while Morris and Csonka became the first duo in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
The 1972 Dolphins also had the 5th fewest turnovers in the league (28; 12 interceptions, 16 fumbles lost) due to their three-headed backfield, and averaged only 19 pass attempts/game. Miami’s offensive line, led by All-Pro right guard Larry Little and Pro Bowl right tackle Norm Evans, also played a big part in the Dolphins offense by allowing 21 sacks (6th fewest in the NFL) and the 2nd highest yards/carry average in 1972 (4.8 yards per carry).
Weaknesses: Passing attack. Despite having the NFL’s No.1 ranked offense in points scored and yards gained, the 1972 Dolphins had the league’s 16th ranked passing attack, but led the NFL in passer rating (86.9). Miami’s quarterbacks, Earl Morrall as well as Bob Griese, were limited by Schnellenberger’s backfield unit and threw just under 2,000 combined yards along with 15 touchdown passes in the regular season. However, Miami’s receiving corps took advantage when their opportunity came as the Dolphins had the 3rd highest yards/catch average in the NFL (15.5 yards on 144 receptions). Paul Warfield, the Dolphins only Pro Bowl selection in their WR group, led Miami in receptions (29) as well as yards (606 yards) and the Dolphins had eight different players with at least 10 receptions in 1972.
DOLPHINS DEFENSE/SPECIAL TEAMS
Strengths: Overall defense and takeaways. After working as a defensive assistant coach when Don Shula was the head coach in Baltimore, Miami’s defensive coordinator, Bill Arnsparger, had the NFL’s No.1 ranked defense in points scored and yards allowed in 1972. With only four Pro Bowl selections, Arnsparger’s “No-Name Defense” allowed the fewest first downs in the NFL (186) and had the league’s 5th ranked passing defense as well as the NFL’s 3rd ranked rushing defense in 1972.
The 1972 Dolphins also had the 2nd most takeaways in the NFL (46; 20 fumble recoveries, 26 interceptions) and 10 different players on Miami’s defense at least had one interception. In their three playoff games, the Dolphins defense forced 10 more interceptions (including two off of Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw) and Pro Bowl safety Jake Scott had two interceptions in Super Bowl VII to earn MVP honors.
Weaknesses: Overall special teams. Despite having the NFL’s No.1 offense and defense in 1972, the Dolphins did not have a great special teams unit, but kicker Garo Yepremian was the league’s 4th leading scorer with 115 points. However, Yepremian only made 64.9 percent of his field goals (24 of 37 FG’s) and punter Larry Seiple had the fewest punts in the NFL (36) along with the lowest yards/punt average in the league (39.9 yards). Miami’s special teams also lacked a solid kick/punt returner with backup running back Charlie Leigh as well as safety Jake Scott splitting punt return duties and Mercury Morris’s transition into Miami’s offense limited his kick return duties in 1972.
UP NEXT… THE STORY OF THE 1984 MIAMI DOLPHINS!