1972 had been a historic year, for both football in Miami, and in the NFL. The Dolphins not only won the Super Bowl in their seventh year of existence, they did with an undefeated season. The 1973 Miami Dolphins didn’t run the table, but they did win a repeat championship. And given the fact they did it against a tougher schedule, with more postseason dominance, and with a target clearly on their back the whole way, there’s a good case that the ’73 team was even better than the undefeated 1972 edition.
A defense that allowed the fewest points in the league led the way and Miami had the game’s two best safeties. Dick Anderson and Jake Scott were each 1st-team All-Pro. Anderson intercepted eight passes from his strong safety spot, while Scott roamed at free safety and picked off four more. The front seven was led by Pro Bowlers at defensive end and linebacker, with pass-rusher Bill Stanfill, and veteran leader Nick Buoniconti.
Miami’s offense was run-heavy and led by another 1st-team All-Pro in fullback Larry Csonka. Csonka rushed for just over 1,000 yards and averaged 4.6 yards a pop. Mercury Morris was explosive on the outside, generating 954 yards and averaging over six yards per carry. Jim Kiick was a reliable pass-catcher out the backfield, his 27 catches being the third-most on the team. The line they worked behind was led by Hall of Famer and 1st-team All-Pro guard Larry Little.
Bob Griese, the Hall of Fame quarterback, had missed most of 1972 before returning midway through the AFC Championship Game. Griese was healthy and enjoyed a Pro Bowl campaign. Although his numbers—53 percent completion rate, 6.5 yards-per-attempt and 17-8 TD/INT ratio—were above average by the standards of the era, they weren’t quite what they had been two years earlier.
What Griese did have was one of the great big-play receivers of all-time, Paul Warfield, on the outside. Warfield averaged over 17 yards a catch and was 1st-team All-Pro. Marlin Briscoe emerged as a reliable target, and his 30 catches actually led the team. Miami’s offense ranked fifth in the NFL in points scored.
The season opened home against the San Francisco 49ers, who were fresh off winning three straight NFC West titles. But this year’s 49er team would slip under .500 and it started in the fourth quarter of this Week 1 game. The Dolphins trailed 13-6. Griese threw a touchdown pass to tie it. Two field goals and a safety sealed the 21-13 win.
A road trip to a good Oakland Raiders team, a playoff perennial under John Madden was next. And it was here that the winning streak, now at 18 games, came to an end. Miami’s defense kept it close by getting red-zone stops, but the Raiders booted short field goals and took a 12-0 lead into the fourth quarter. A late TD from the Dolphins made it close, but it ended a 12-7 defeat.
The offense was not playing well, but that was about to change with a home date against a subpar New England Patriots team. In the second quarter, Miami erupted and Morris was the reason. He ripped off touchdown runs of 24 and 70 yards, then added a 35-yard TD jaunt in the second half. Morris finished with 197 yards on just 15 carries and the result was a 44-23 blowout.
Another home date with a weak divisional opponent, the New York Jets, gave Griese a chance to open up. He threw three touchdown passes, two of them to Warfield. Briscoe caught six balls for 98 yards and the Dolphins coasted home, 31-3.
Miami went to Cleveland for a Monday Night Football appearance. The Browns were a good team, but not a playoff squad in this era when only four teams per conference qualified for the postseason. The Dolphin offense spent the first half back in its shell, trailing 6-3. Griese only completed three passes on the night. But the running game took over after halftime. Csonka finished with 114 yards, Morris added 94 and Miami won 17-9.
Buffalo was emerging as the top challenger in the AFC East. O.J. Simpson was having a spectacular year, one that would end with a historic crossing of the 2,000-yard threshold and an MVP award. The great Dolphin defense limited the Juice to 55 yards. Griese threw a couple touchdown passes to tight end Jim Mandich in the second quarter to open the game up. Miami was sloppy, turning it over five times, but they still won easily, 27-6.
The return visit north to New England started shaky, and the Dolphins trailed the Patriots 14-13 at the half. But when you dominate the ground game, the second half is often going to be yours. That’s what happened here. A 238-94 edge in rush yardage, keyed by 100 from Morris, paved the way to a 30-14 victory. The Jets again followed the Patriots on the schedule and Miami completed another season sweep behind the running game. Csonka’s 107 yards led a 24-14 win.
Miami came home to host the Baltimore Colts. In the alignment that existed until 2002, the Colts were an AFC East rival. They had been the prime obstacle the Dolphins had to overcome as they rose to contention in 1970 and 1971. But the Colts had slipped in ’72 and kept slipping this year. Miami’s Tim Foley brought back two blocked punts for touchdowns. Morris’ 144-yard day led a 44-0 romp.
The Dolphins were riding high at 8-1. The Bills were in second place at 5-4. Miami was going to Buffalo on November 18. Prior to 1978, the schedule was only 14 games. So by winning this game, Miami could clinch the AFC East.
This time, Buffalo got its running game going. Simpson ran for 120 yards and backfield mate Jim Braxton added 119. But the Bills could not throw the ball, and the Dolphins kept getting stops at the point on the field when they had to. They also jumped out to a 17-0 lead and spent the second half just salting that lead—and another division title—away.
Homefield advantage for the playoffs was determined on a rotation system among the division winners, rather than merit, so Miami had nothing to play for. The good news was that—unlike 1972, when they had to go on the road to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship—the AFC East winner was going to be the #1 seed.
In the meantime, there were four games left. The Dolphins went to play a very good Dallas Cowboys team on Thanksgiving Day. An early TD run by Csonka was followed by a 45-yard Griese-to-Warfield scoring pass. The game was turned over to the defense and Miami won 14-7.
Another tough opponent, the playoff-bound Pittsburgh Steelers, who were a year away from starting this decade’s greatest dynasty, came to the Orange Bowl on Monday Night. It turned into the Dick Anderson Show. The strong safety started the scoring with a Pick-6, then did it again in the second quarter. Anderson intercepted four passes on the night. The Dolphins were ahead 30-3 by halftime, then fended off a furious Steelers rally to win 30-26.
The penultimate regular season game in Baltimore was basically mailed in. Griese didn’t play and Miami lost 16-3. The starting quarterback was back in the lineup for the finale at home against mediocre Detroit. Griese finished the season by going 11/15 for 141 yards, no mistakes and four touchdown passes—all to Warfield. With the 34-7 triumph, the Dolphins were 12-2 and primed to repeat.
With only eight teams overall in the playoffs, the league jumped right into the Divisional Round a week later. On December 23, Miami hosted the Cincinnati Bengals. The offenses of both teams were humming in the first half. Griese threw a 14-yard TD pass to Warfield. Csonka and Morris both ran for touchdowns. While the Dolphin defense was having problems, they were forcing field goals. Miami led 21-16 at intermission.
The defense tightened up in the second half. The ground game kept pounding, concluding with a 241-97 edge in rush yardage. Morris carried 20 times for 106 yards. Griese tossed a TD pass to Mandich, kicker Garo Yepremian nailed a couple long field goal attempts and the Dolphins won 34-16.
A chance to avenge the Week 2 loss to Oakland awaited in the AFC Championship Game. The Raiders came to the Orange Bowl for a 4 PM kickoff on December 30. Miami came humming out of the gate, scoring two quick touchdowns, both short TD runs from Csonka. Griese was able to manage the game and threw just six passes on the day. The Raiders closed to within 17-10 by the third quarter. But Csonka was pounding away, going for 117 yards. He added another touchdown. Yepremian kicked a field goal. Miami finished with a decisive 27-10 win.
The last step would take place in Houston, where Rice Stadium was the host for the Super Bowl. The Minnesota Vikings were the opponent. The Vikes had their own great defense, the famed “Purple People Eaters”, and they had their own Hall of Fame quarterback in Fran Tarkenton. But they were nowhere near as good as the Dolphins.
Super Bowl VIII started much like the AFC Championship Game. The Dolphins put two quick touchdowns on the board, with Csonka and Kiick going for short TD runs. Then the defense took over. Minnesota could get nothing going until a meaningless fourth quarter touchdown. Csonka muscled his way to 145 yards, then a Super Bowl record. He added another touchdown in the third quarter to put the Dolphins up 24-0. The final was 24-7. Csonka was an easy choice for game MVP, the first running back to win the honor.
Miami was a dynasty. They had three straight AFC titles and two straight Super Bowl championships, one of which was a perfect season, and the other which concluded with complete dominance of the playoff field.
That the bid for a three-peat would come up short was disappointing, although not surprising. Even the fact that the Dolphins then briefly stepped back, missing the playoffs from 1975-77, isn’t incredibly shocking. What’s perhaps more surprising is this—a franchise, with one of the game’s great head coaches in Shula still in his prime, and a future that would include an all-time great quarterback in Dan Marino, has never won the Super Bowl since. 1973 was the last time the Lombardi Trophy made its way to South Beach.