In their sixth year of existence, and in the second season under head coach Don Shula, the 1971 Miami Dolphins were seen as a team on the rise. Shula had put the Fish in the playoffs in his first year of 1970. Now, Miami was looking to take the next step. They did just that, reaching the first of what would be three straight Super Bowls. And along the way, they won one of the most famous postseason games in league history.
The Dolphin offense was anchored by four future Hall of Famers. Bob Griese was at quarterback and while his 55 percent completion rate seems low by today’s standards, it was sixth-best in the league in what was a more difficult era to throw the football. Griese’s prime target was the great Paul Warfield, one of the best big-play receivers of all-time. Warfield caught 43 passes and averaged better than 23 yards a pop.
A balanced running game was led by Larry Csonka. The big fullback powered his way to over 1,000 yards in what was then a 14-game schedule. Csonka ran behind a line that was keyed by right guard Larry Little.
In addition to these four great players, Miami had a good second running back in Jim Kiick, who ran for 738 yards and caught 40 balls. Mercury Morris was a change-of-pace speedster in the backfield, rushing for 315 yards and averaging better than five a pop. Howard Twilley was a reliable second receiver, averaging better than 15 yards a catch.
Griese was the league’s All-Pro quarterback in 1971, and the offense ranked fourth in the NFL in points scored. The defense, while not as star-studded, was even more effective. Bill Stanfield was a Pro Bowler at defensive end. Jake Scott, who intercepted seven passes, also got Pro Bowl honors at free safety. Miami’s D was third in the league for points allowed.
The season opened at Denver. The Broncos were a subpar team, but the Dolphins did not play well. They lost four fumbles and Griese was sacked five times. They trailed 10-3 in the fourth quarter. Griese hit Warfield for a 31-yard TD pass to tie the game. In this era before overtime was instituted, the 10-10 tie held. There’s no sugar-coating that this was a poor performance, but escaping with a tie would prove significant before the season was over.
Miami’s running game was able to get going at Buffalo. Kiick and Csonka each cleared the 100-yard mark against a terrible team. Griese threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Warfield that broke the game open in the fourth quarter and the Dolphins got on the board with a 29-14 win.
But another bad game followed. Playing the mediocre New York Jets at home, Miami seemed in control much of the game. They led 10-0 going into the fourth quarter. But a couple missed field goals by Garo Yepremian kept the Jets in it, and the Dolphins paid the price. New York scored twice in the fourth quarter and pulled a 14-10 upset. With a record of 1-1-1, compiled against weak opposition, 1971 was not shaping up as the breakout year Miami was hoping for.
The Dolphins went to Cincinnati, where the Bengals were on their way to a bad season. The Miami defense would struggle, allowing over 200 yards on the ground. But they got stops when they had to, and the big-play passing game got going. Warfield caught four balls for 92 yards and those big plays were the difference in a needed 23-13 win. Miami followed that up by hammering mediocre New England at home, 41-3. Griese threw three touchdown passes in the first quarter, giving Dolphin fans their first really easy afternoon.
Miami went north to old Shea Stadium for the rematch with the Jets. This time, they came ready to muscle up. Csonka racked up 137 yards on 20 carries. Kiick added 121 more yards on 17 carries. The Dolphins got a 30-14 revenge win.
The Los Angeles Rams would contend for a playoff spot to the end, something that was not easy in an era when only four teams per conference qualified for the postseason. A road trip to the L.A. Coliseum would be a good test. Miami passed the test. Griese was sharp, going 13/19 for 209 yards and no mistakes. Warfield caught three balls for 108 yards, including a 74-yard TD strike in the first quarter. The Dolphins led 17-0 after three quarters, then hung on for a 20-14 win.
Four straight home games were up starting on November 7. It started easy enough with Buffalo. The Bills got 90 yards rushing from O.J. Simpson, but not much else. Miami got over 300 yards on the ground as a team, led by 116 from Morris. The result was a 34-0 whitewash.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were a mediocre team in 1971, but this was the core of talent that would emerge one year later as the famed “Steel Curtain”. The Steelers came to the Orange Bowl and put the Dolphins in a 21-3 hole by the second quarter. Griese answered by tossing a 12-yard touchdown pass to Warfield. Before halftime, the Griese-Warfield combo hooked up on an 86-yard scoring play. And in the fourth quarter, they did it one more time—a 60-yard TD strike. Those were Warfield’s only three catches of the day, but they were more than enough. Miami won 24-21.
Now riding high at 7-1-1, the Dolphins were set for the biggest game of the season to date. The Baltimore Colts came in at 7-2. In the divisional alignment that lasted until 2002, the Colts were an AFC East rival, so first place was on the line. What’s more, Baltimore was the defending Super Bowl champions.
The game was hard-fought and tied 14-14 going into the fourth quarter. The difference was that Csonka’s 93 rush yards gave Miami a ground attack. Griese played mistake-free, while the defense intercepted three passes. Yepremian ultimately booted a 20-yard field goal to give Miami a 17-14 win. They had a 1 ½ game lead in the AFC East with just four weeks to go.
A division title and playoff berth seemed even more secure when the Dolphins concluded the homestand by blasting the Chicago Bears 34-3 on Monday Night Football. But in this era of only one wild-card spot, there was not a lot of margin for error. And Miami gave at least some of that error back in a bad loss at New England. Even though Morris returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, everything went downhill from there. There was no running game. There were five turnovers. And there was a 34-13 loss.
So, the Dolphins were 9-2-1, and their lead over the Colts was back down to a half-game. The rematch in Baltimore was up next. Furthermore, with the Oakland Raiders at 7-3-2, and the Kansas City Chiefs at 8-3-1, battling it out in the AFC West, the wild-card was no guarantee.
On a late Saturday afternoon in Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium, the roles from the first game between these teams was reversed. This time, the great Johnny Unitas played the mistake-free game, while Griese threw a couple picks. The Dolphins could not run the ball. They lost 14-3.
Miami did get some good news the next day when the Chiefs won a head-to-head battle against the Raiders. With Oakland slipping to 7-4-2, Miami’s 9-3-1 record at least ensured them a wild-card spot. But they needed help to win the division and get home games in the AFC playoffs.
The Dolphins hosted the Green Bay Packers, who had fallen hard since the retirement of the great Vince Lombardi following the 1967 season. On a windy day, both offenses had a hard time getting going and we were in a 6-6 tie in the third quarter. The Dolphins delivered, with a couple of touchdown drives to open up the game, and then sealed when they blocked a field goal and ran it back for a score. The final was 27-6.
And good news came from New England—the Patriots, a two-touchdown underdog, upset the Colts 21-17. Both Baltimore and Miami were going to the playoffs, but the Dolphins were going as AFC East champs.
At first glance, that honor seemed a disadvantage. Prior to 1975, the NFL used a format that did not seed division winners. While wild-card were always on the road, the 1-2-3 seeds were determined by a rotation system with the East, Central, and West champs. This year, the East was playing at the West. Which meant that not only were the Dolphins and Chiefs, the top two teams in the AFC, having to play right at away, but Miami was going on the road.
The Dolphins’ bad luck proved good fortune for NFL fans generally. Playing in the late afternoon on Christmas Day, Miami and Kansas City staged a classic. The Fish played from behind the entire game. KC took a 10-0 lead after the first quarter. Miami tied it 10-10 by halftime. The Chiefs went up 17-10. The Dolphins tied it. Kansas City went ahead 24-17. Miami tied it again. We went to overtime at 24-all.
Griese was playing well, going 20/35 for 263 yards. Warfield caught seven passes for 140 yards. Kansas City was answering by running the ball a little bit better. The big statistical difference was that the Dolphins won the turnover battle. And when Yepremian booted a 37-yard field goal early in the second overtime, Miami had won what remains the longest NFL game ever played.
The Dolphins were also positioned to reap the rewards of their division title. The Colts had won decisively in Cleveland, so it was Round 3 for Miami and Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game. And it would be in the old Orange Bowl.
Conservative, mistake-free football had been the deciding factor in the two regular season games. So it would be here. Griese only threw eight passes. But one of them was a 75-yard touchdown strike to Warfield in the first quarter. Miami intercepted Unitas three times. And one of them was a 62-yard Pick-6 from strong safety Dick Anderson. Csonka added a short touchdown run in the fourth quarter. The final score was 21-0 and the Dolphins were going to the Super Bowl.
The Dallas Cowboys, who had a lost a heartbreaker to Baltimore in the previous year’s Super Bowl were back for redemption. Playing in New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium, Miami was just overmatched. They were outrushed 252-80, and lost a couple of fumbles on top of it. The 24-3 loss was never really a game.
But 1971 had the feel of it being the Cowboys’ time, with the Dolphins now knocking even harder on the door. That feel would prove to be reality. Miami came back the next year and not only won it all, they racked up what remains the only undefeated season in the Super Bowl era. In 1973, they won a repeat title. The 1971 season was just one part of a gradually escalating era of Miami Dolphins greatness.