The 1972 NFL season was a historic one. It was marked by a historic playoff game and ended with a historic champion. 1972 saw the arrival of new dynasties and franchise breakthroughs.
Don Shula made the expansion Miami Dolphins a winner as soon as he set foot in South Beach. The Dolphins made the postseason in 1970 and the Super Bowl in 1971. There was one last step to take.
A powerful running game was keyed by Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris. Paul Warfield was one of the game’s great big-play receivers. Even though starting quarterback Bob Griese was injured after five games, backup Earl Morrall stepped in and made 1st-team All-NFL. Other All-Pro starters in 1972 included Larry Little at guard, Bill Stanfill at defensive end and strong safety Dick Anderson.
Miami had both the best offense and the best defense in the league. On top of all that, the AFC East was not particularly good. Buffalo had a running back named O.J. Simpson and the New York Jets were adequate, but no one besides the Dolphins won more games than they lost. Miam swept their two games with the Jets in October and November and rolled through to a 14-0 regular season record.
While Miami was looking for the next step, the Dallas Cowboys were looking to repeat. But those hopes were badly damaged when quarterback Roger Staubach hurt his shoulder in the preseason. Craig Morton would end up as the starter. The Cowboys still had a good offense, with Calvin Hill and Walt Garrison in the backfield, and John Niland and Rayfield Wright leading the way up front, but it was no longer an elite offensive attack without Staubach.
The door was open in the NFC East and George Allen’s Washington Redskins barreled through it. Running back Larry Brown had an MVP season. Chris Hanburger anchored the league’s third-best defense. On October 22, the Redskins beat the Cowboys 24-20. Washington rolled on to win the NFC East with a conference-best 11-3 mark. Dallas was still in the playoffs at 10-4 and hoping for one last crack at the upstart ‘Skins.
Green Bay and San Francisco rounded out the four-team NFC playoff field. The Packers were coached by Dan Devine, who had enjoyed great success in college at Missouri and would do so again at Notre Dame. The Packers had a potent backfield combo of John Brockington and MacArthur Lane. They had the fourth-best defense in the league, led by All-Pro corner Ken Ellis. And if a game got tight, Green Bay kicker Chester Marcol was the NFL’s best in 1972.
The Packers also benefitted from a strange year up in Minnesota. The Vikings had become the established class of the old NFC Central division in the aftermath of Vince Lombardi’s retirement. They addressed their biggest weakness in the offseason by trading for quarterback Fran Tarkenton. We know from the perspective of history that this trade and this team would do spectacularly well in the 1970s.
But 1972 in Minnesota was what sports people call “one of those years”. Nothing clicked for the Vikes. Detroit played well and provided some competition for Green Bay. The Packers won a 24-23 Monday Night game over the Lions in mid-October. Green Bay blew out Detroit 33-7 in the early December rematch and took home the division title at 10-4.
San Francisco had no shortage of front-line talent. Five players were 1st-team All-Pro—Gene Washington at wide receiver and tight end Ted Kwalick were the keys to the offense. Center Forrest Blue anchored the offensive front. Dave Wilcox at linebacker and cornerback Jimmy Johnson led the defense. But quarterback was an issue—John Brodie, an MVP as recently as 1970, missed much of the season with injury.
With two weeks to play, San Francisco was muddling at 6-5-1. The upstart Atlanta Falcons led the division with a 7-5 record. In a head-to-head battle, the 49ers beat the Falcons 20-0. A week later, San Francisco edged Minnesota 20-17 and escaped with the NFC West crown.
The NFL’s best division in 1972 was the AFC Central. The Cleveland Browns had been the class of the Central in recent years. The Cincinnati Bengals were coached by the great Paul Brown. The Pittsburgh Steelers, after having done next to nothing for their entire franchise history, chose 1972 to break out.
All three teams played solid defense. The difference was that Pittsburgh had the single best player on any of those defensive units—tackle Joe Greene, who won the first of two Defensive Player of the Year honors in his Hall of Fame career. The Steelers also drafted running back Franco Harris, who won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and gave the Pittsburgh attack some badly needed help.
Pittsburgh and Cleveland were able to get separation from Cincinnati by mid-November. Both Steelers-Browns game were still ahead. Cleveland got the first one, 26-24. The second one, at old Three Rivers Stadium, in early December, was decisive. Pittsburgh delivered a 30-zip walloping. Both teams ended up making the playoffs, but that Steeler victory marked a change in the AFC Central’s balance of power, one that would hold for the balance of the decade.
The Oakland Raiders were coached by John Madden and had one of the league’s top receivers in Fred Biletnikoff. An early 20-14 win over the Packers got Oakland off to a good start. Kansas City, traditionally the key Raider rival in the AFC West and defending division champ, didn’t have a vintage year, but they stayed in the race.
Kansas City’s 27-14 win over Oakland in early November kept the division race tight. But a week later, the Raiders knocked off the Bengals, while the Chiefs lost to the Steelers. It was a parlay that would go a long way towards shaping how the AFC playoff bracket ultimately looked. Oakland’s 26-3 smackdown of KC on the Sunday after Thanksgiving was the final blow.
So, we had an AFC field with the undefeated Dolphins being challenged by the Steelers, Raiders and Browns. The NFC had the Cowboys and Redskins, along with the Packers and 49ers. And the first day of the playoffs, Saturday December 23, would be one for the ages.
Pittsburgh’s breakthrough season looked ready to end when they trailed Oakland 7-6 on a bitter cold day in Three Rivers Stadium. There was time for one more play from the Steelers’ own 40-yard line. Terry Bradshaw threw it over the middle towards John “Frenchy” Fuqua.” The ball was deflected by Raider safety Jack Tatum and went into the air. Harris, running all the way, snared it at his shoestrings and raced into the end zone.
It was a controversial play at the time. There was a rule stating that once the ball hit an offensive receiver, the play was dead. Oakland ferociously argued that the ball touched Fuqua, who was right next to Tatum at the point of deflection. Whether officials disagreed with the Raider assessment or were simply loathe to antagonize the Steeler crowd remains the subject of considerable historical debate. Madden remained angry to his dying day that officials let the touchdown stand. Pittsburgh had a stunning victory.
Brodie was back for the playoffs in San Francisco and looked like his old self. The 49ers took a 28-13 lead over the Cowboys in the fourth quarter. In this era before the two-point conversion, the lead looked insurmountable. Landry had inserted Staubach into the game and Roger led a stunning comeback. Dallas got a field goal, Staubach threw two late TD passes and the Cowboys pulled it out, 30-28.
On Sunday, Washington spotted Green Bay a field goal and then took the game over defensively, with the Redskins churning out a 16-3 win. The final game of Divisional Round Weekend started Miami’s final push for history. In their first game all year against a playoff opponent, the Dolphins trailed 14-13 in the fourth quarter. But their 5-2 turnover edge was too big and they ended up getting the touchdown needed to survive, 20-14.
It wasn’t until 1974 that the NFL implemented rules awarding homefield advantage based on who had the better record. The rules of the time called for the divisions to rotate hosting. Thus, undefeated Miami had to go to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship Game. The Dolphins were able to take a 21-10 lead in the fourth quarter. The Steelers cut that lead to 21-17, but Miami picked off Bradshaw a couple of times to seal the win.
Washington now had to validate their regular season success in a third game against Dallas, this time with Staubach behind center. No problem. It was a Redskins year, at least in the NFC. Veteran quarterback Billy Kilmer threw a couple touchdown passes to the great Charley Taylor. Allen’s defense spun another gem. An easy 26-3 victory sent the ‘Skins on to the Super Bowl.
Doubts over Miami’s schedule and their close games in the playoffs meant the Dolphins were only a one-point favorite in the Super Bowl. You might look at their ultimate 14-7 victory and assume a close game. You would be wrong. Miam’s defense dominated and their 14-0 lead into the fourth quarter might as well have been a thirty-point margin.
Late in the game, Garo Yepremian lined up for a field goal—it would have been fitting, to conclude a 17-0 season with a 17-0 win. That didn’t happen—the Redskins blocked the field goal, Yepremian picked the ball up and attempted a clutzy pass that ended up returned for a touchdown. But it didn’t matter. Miami closed out the win and closed out history.
The 1972 NFL season remains the only time a team has completed both the regular season and playoffs undefeated. The Steelers-Raiders rivalry that would define the 1970s was ushered in. Allen’s Redskins weren’t going anywhere and Staubach’s Cowboys would most certainly be back. As for Miami, this was the first of consecutive Super Bowls that Shula would win. All in all, 1972 produced great games and stories in the moment and the perspective of history has only deepened the excellence of this season.