In 1970, Don Shula took over Miami’s four-year old expansion franchise and immediately put them in the playoffs. One year later, they went to a Super Bowl. The 1972 Miami Dolphins not only took the final step, they did it in historic fashion—the only undefeated season in league history that was capped off with a championship.
That’s impressive enough, but doing it mostly with a backup quarterback is even more impressive. Bob Griese, the regular starter, was injured in the first half of the season. Earl Morrall started the final nine games and played well—a 55 percent completion rate was solid in this era, and Morrall’s 9.1 yards-per-attempt was excellent by the standards of any era.
Big plays in the passing game were made easier by the presence of the great Paul Warfield at receiver. The future Hall of Fame wideout caught 29 balls and again averaged an astonishing 20-plus yards per catch. Howard Twilley was a reliable second target.
But a three-headed monster at running back was what made Miami’s offense go, and a big reason the transition from Griese to Morrall (and back again, in the postseason) was manageable. Larry Csonka, another Hall of Fame talent, ran over 1,100 yards. Even as a fullback running inside, Csonka averaged five yards a pop. So did speedy Mercury Morris, who worked the outside and also delivered 1,000 yards. Jim Kiick ran for over 500 yards, and his 21 catches were second on the team.
Miami[s offense line was anchored by right guard Larry Little, a Hall of Famer for his career, and a 1st-team All-Pro in 1972. The other side of the line had another 1st-team All-Pro in defensive end Bill Stanfield. Veteran linebacker Nick Buoniconti was a Pro Bowler at linebacker. Dick Anderson was the NFL’s best strong safety and free safety Jake Scott, who intercepted five passes, also punched his ticket to the Pro Bowl.
As befits a team that won all of its games, the Dolphins ranked first in the league for both points scored and points allowed.
The Dolphins’ playoff run in 1971 had started with an epic double-overtime win at Kansas City. The league decided a late afternoon rematch back in KC was a good way to open 1972. This year’s Chiefs team wouldn’t be quite as good and would miss the postseason. Miami’s defense forced four turnovers. Csonka rushed for 118 yards on 21 carries. The Dolphins built a 20-0 lead by the third quarter and won 20-10.
The home opener was against the lowly Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans). A balanced ground attack leveled the Oilers. Miami enjoyed a 274-63 edge in rush yardage, led 27-0 in the third quarter and the final score was 34-13.
Another marquee late afternoon game was up in Minnesota. The Vikings were a top team in the NFC, and would be so throughout this decade. And even though 1972 would be their odd-year out, the one time in the 1970s, they missed the playoffs, the Vikes gave the Dolphins all they could handle.
Miami trailed 14-6 in the fourth quarter. With the two-point conversion still over two decades in the future, and playing in an era where throwing the ball was much harder than it is today, being eight points down at this stage of the game was a big deficit. But the Dolphins got a 51-yard field goal from Garo Yepremian, followed by short TD pass from Griese and escaped the Twin Cities with a 16-14 win.
A road trip to New York and old Shea Stadium to play the Jets was up next. Griese played his best game of the season, going 15/27 for 220 yards and no mistakes. Csonka rushed for 102 yards on 18 carries. Miami won comfortably, 27-17.
The subpar San Diego Chargers came to Miami. In the early part of the game, Griese was knocked out with a dislocated ankle. Morrall came off the bench, with the score tied 3-3. Anderson turned the tide of this game with a 35-yard return of a fumble for a touchdown. Morrall played well, going 8/10 for 86 yards and two touchdown passes. The Dolphins won 24-10. But the injury to Griese had altered their season’s trajectory.
If anyone was prepared to step in though, it was Morrall. He enjoys a reputation as one of the best backup quarterbacks in NFL history. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but don’t forget that the man he backed up in Baltimore was Johnny Unitas. Morrall had led the Colts to Super Bowl III after Unitas was injured, before losing in a famous upset to Joe Namath and the Jets. In 1970, Morrall came off the bench for the injured Johnny U in Super Bowl V and helped Baltimore beat Dallas. Now, Morrall was in charge of a Miami Dolphins team that had their own high expectations.
Morrall’s first start, against a bad Buffalo Bills team, did not go well. He threw an early Pick-6 and the passing game in general was non-existent. But the defense and running game were both locked in, and the Fish won 24-3.
A late afternoon road visit to Baltimore followed. The Dolphins and Colts had both been at the top of the AFC for the past two years, including playing in the previous year’s AFC Championship Game. But this year’s Baltimore edition would fall under .500. Miami’s ground game pounded out 286 rushing yards in an easy 23-0 win.
The Dolphins came home to host another bad AFC East rival, the New England Patriots. Before the first half was out, Morris scored three touchdowns, while Csonka added another. Morrall went 7/13 for 162 yards and no mistakes. The starters were able to be lifted early in a 52-0 rout.
Miami was now 9-0. The New York Jets were 6-3 and the only team still chasing in the division. With the league schedule being only 14 games, a head-to-head win over the Jets on November 19 would clinch the AFC East.
Facing Joe Namath’s team, the Dolphins fell behind 17-7 in the second quarter and still trailed 24-21 going into the final period. The running of Morris was the difference. He produced 107 yards and his 14-yard TD scamper in the fourth quarter delivered a 28-24 win.
Miami was division champs. It took until 1975 for the league to use merit to decide homefield advantage, and the AFC East was already designated to be the #2 seed in the playoffs. This meant there was nothing to play for. Except some momentum. And, of course, a run at history in these final four regular season games.
The Dolphins hosted the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday Night Football. Csonka’s 114 yards keyed a 200-51 edge in rush yardage and a 31-10 win. The next week in New England, Morrall went 11/19 for 201 yards, while Morris and Csonka ran for a combined 222 yards. The final score was 37-21. The defense took over the final two weeks. Miami collected six turnovers against both the New York Giants, and against Baltimore. The Dolphins beat the Giants 23-13 and shut out the Colts 16-0 on a late Saturday afternoon to close the perfect regular season.
It would be of note that Griese got some mop-up duty against the Colts, completing two of his three passes. Morrall was still the starter, but Griese was getting ready.
There were only four teams per conference in the postseason prior to 1978, so Miami rolled right into the Divisional Round a week later. On Christmas Eve, the wild-card Cleveland Browns came south to the Orange Bowl. When the Dolphins blocked a punt for an early touchdown, then added a Yepremian field goal, it looked like this might be an easy game.
But the offense was not going anywhere. Morris ran well, with 72 yards on 15 carries. But Csonka was being shut down and Kiick couldn’t get loose. Morrall went 6/13 for 88 yards and was sacked four times. The Browns took a 14-13 by the fourth quarter.
Christmas was looking grim as we moved into early evening. But the Miami defense was keeping their team in the game. The Dolphins intercepted five passes, with two apiece from Anderson and linebacker Doug Swift. Finally, an eight-yard TD run from Kiick gave Miami a 20-14 lead and they held on for the win.
The previous day, the Pittsburgh Steelers had beaten the Oakland Raiders in a historic playoff game that ended on a dramatic and controversial touchdown. The homefield rotation system had put the Steelers on the top line, so Miami’s reward for their undefeated season was a January trip to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship Game.
A tough game was tied 7-7 at the half. Morrall wasn’t able to get anything going, and when the Steelers nudged out to a 10-7 lead, Shula made the move. Griese came into the game.
The QB change paid off. Griese only threw five passes and completed three of them. But they went for 70 yards and opened up the running game. Miami got a couple short TD runs from Kiick and took a 21-10 lead. Pittsburgh cut the margin back to 21-17 and had two possessions where Terry Bradshaw could have won it. But the Miami defense came through. Buoniconti and linebacker Nick Kolen each intercepted a pass. The Dolphins were going back to the Super Bowl.
Miami’s last hurdle to championship perfection was the Washington Redskins and MVP running back Larry Brown. The Dolphins were a narrow one-point favorite at the Los Angeles Coliseum. .
Griese connected with Twilley on a 28-yard touchdown pass to get the lead. Kiick’s 1-yard TD run made it 14-0 in the second quarter. And the Dolphin defense was dominating. Brown couldn’t find any room. They intercepted Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer three times, twice by Scott. The two-touchdown margin seemed like it might as well have been 50 points.
Late in the game, Yepremian was lined up for a field goal try. It would seal the game and give a 17-0 season a fitting end with a 17-0 win. Instead, it nearly turned into a historic disaster. The kick was blocked. Yepremian picked the ball up and threw an awkward looking pass to no one in particular. It ended up an interception in the hands of Washington’s Mike Bass, who ended up with a touchdown.
The lead was now 14-7 and theoretically a game. But the Dolphin defense wasn’t giving up anything and they sealed the deal. Yepremian’s flub could be an amusing sidebar to a dominating afternoon. Scott, having intercepted Kilmer twice, was named the game’s MVP.
Miam was more than Super Bowl champions. They had a unique place in history. And that historical place would be augmented in 1973 when the Dolphins won a repeat title.