The Miami Dolphins are marking the golden anniversary of their perfect season this year, and barring a team going 20-0 in 2022-23 (spoiler alert: it won’t happen) they’ll remain the lone National Football League franchise to accomplish the feat.
Don Shula’s 1972 club was impressive across the board; the Dolphins’ “No-Name Defense” registered three shutouts in a 14-game regular season, and only three opponents managed to score 20 or more points.
Offensively, running backs Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris each eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark – a league first – while Paul Warfield shined when Bob Griese or Earl Morrall decided to work the skies.
Still, even the best teams need a bit of good fortune to go along with their great play. And if you take a look at Miami’s 17-game slate, you’ll find a handful of games that were a break or two away from going the other way.
During the regular season, three games were decided by four points or less. The Fins defeated the Minnesota Vikings, 16-14, (October 1); edged the Buffalo Bills, 24-23, (October 22); and beat the New York Jets, 28-24, (November 19).
Their entire playoff run featured tight scores: 20-14 (Cleveland Browns in the AFC Divisional Playoff); 21-17 (Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game); and 14-7 (Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII).
So, how close did the perfect team come to being imperfect?
In the win over Minnesota, Miami was held scoreless over the first two quarters and then managed three Garo Yepremian field goals in the second half to cut the Vikings’ lead to 14-9. With just 1:28 remaining in the game, Griese hit Jim Mandich on a three-yard scoring toss to save the day. Although just the third week of the season, the victory was a harbinger of things to come as it left Miami as the only unbeaten team in the league.
“I’d like to get the reputation that we are a come-from-behind team,” Shula told to Associated Press following the “W” in Bloomington, Minnesota. “Of course, everybody likes to get way ahead and not get caught, but a team that can come from behind has a great advantage.”
In the one-point conquest of the Bills in Miami, the Dolphins trailed 13-7 at the half. However, a Csonka TD in the third quarter made it 14-13 and the eventual winners never trailed the rest of the way.
The score was 24-16 before Buffalo added a late TD (there was no two-point conversion option at the time, so Shula’s squad effectively had a two-score lead at that point).
The last regular season scare came against the division rival Jets. That game I remember well because I watched it with my dad on Channel 13 in Birmingham, hoping Joe Namath and company could engineer an upset. New York led 24-21 early in the fourth quarter to give me some hope, but Morris scored a 14-yard touchdown later in the frame, wrapping up the AFC East title at home for his 10-0 team.
“We’ve won 10 in a row,” Shula told AP. “We’re happy … everything’s positive. We’ve got to get this football team ready to start the playoffs.”
The Dolphins outscored their final four regular season foes 107-44, capped off by 16-0 blanking of the Baltimore Colts.
The postseason, however, would test their championship mettle.
After racing out to a 10-0 halftime lead over Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs, Miami found itself trailing, 14-13, with 8:11 left in the fourth quarter of the Christmas Eve clash in the Orange Bowl.
But the Dolphins took the ensuing kickoff and marched 80 yards in eight plays, highlighted by Jim Kiick’s eight-yard scoring run to extend the winning streak and season.
“That last drive was for all the believers in the Dolphins,” Morris told the Miami Herald.
Due to a weird (and, thankfully, now defunct) rotating playoff format, the 15-0 Fins had to travel to the 12-3 Steelers for the AFC Championship Game.
Pittsburgh used the home field to its advantage early on in the New Year’s Eve battle, taking a 7-0 lead and playing the unbeatens even at halftime, 7-7 (a fake punt by the Dolphins’ Larry Seiple set up the tying score for the visitors).
Miami took charge over the final two quarters, holding a 21-10 lead in the fourth frame before the Steelers made things interesting with a touchdown 5:11 from the finish.
Griese came off the bench to throw two touchdown passes in the conference clincher; he played in only nine games due to injury while Morrall parlayed his opportunity into an All-Pro season. Morrall was pleased with the outcome, but hardly happy about being pulled.
“We were trying to think about the Steelers,” he told reporters. “You don’t try to think about yourself, just the other team and winning. But, no, I wasn’t overjoyed about it.”
The coronation came in Los Angeles on January 14, 1973, with a 14-7 victory over Washington in the Super Bowl.
The defensive struggle is probably best remembered by a blocked field goal attempt and comical “pass-punch” by Yepremian that resulted in a 49-yard TD for the Redskins.
Miami had dominated all day and the fluke play spoiled a shutout. It also made a game that was never really in doubt look much closer than it was.
Afterwards, Shula said he didn’t want to compare his team with any other, but knew the Aqua and Orange had earned a special place in history.
“This is the greatest team I’ve ever been associated with,” he said. “It’s hard to compare it with other teams in the past. This team has gone into areas that no one has ever gone before. It went undefeated and won it at the end, and they have to be given credit for their achievement.”
In just their seventh season, the Miami Dolphins did what no other NFL club has done before or since. And while all great teams usually find a way to victory, this bunch found a way every single game.
Fifty years later, that’s a magnificent achievement still worthy of celebrating.