Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins were riding high, having won three consecutive AFC championships and two straight Super Bowl titles. But there was a lot of rockiness in the waters of South Beach, from player dissatisfaction off the field and some injuries in it. The 1974 Miami Dolphins were still very good, and it took one of the great playoff games of all-time to end their bid for another Lombardi Trophy. But the signs of slippage were there.
It began in March of 1974, shortly after the team capped off their 1973 campaign with a dominant Super Bowl win over the Minnesota Vikings. The fledgling World Football League announced it had scooped up two big Dolphin stars—fullback Larry Csonka and running back Jim Kiick. Along with Mercury Morris, Csonka and Kiick formed a great three-headed monster in the backfield that controlled tempo.
Csonka and Kiick wouldn’t join the WFL until 1975, but the disruption of a great team was underway. Injury problems with Morris, and wide receiver Marlin Briscoe, would move them in and out of the lineup and add to the discontinuity.
But problems are all relative and most teams in the NFL would have gladly signed up for the chance to deal with Shula’s issues. The Dolphins still had a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Bob Griese. Griese’s 60 percent completion rate and 7.8 yards-per-attempt were both in the top five among starting QBs and earned him a Pro Bowl spot.
Paul Warfield was another future Hall of Famer, one of the league’s best big-play receivers of all-time. With 27 catches at 19.9 yards a pop, Warfield made the Pro Bowl. Although, he too, would eventually land in the World Football League.
In the meantime, Griese integrated young Nat Moore into the passing game and Moore’s 37 catches led the team. Jim Mandich was a reliable tight end and Howard Twilley continued to be a steadying force at wide receiver. And with the running game up in the air, Benny Malone and Don Nottingham each stepped into be solid contributors when the injury situation required it. Even with the disruptions, the Dolphin offense ranked third in the NFL for points scored.
Miami’s defense was led by its great safety combo of Dick Anderson and Jake Scott. Anderson made the Pro Bowl, and Scott, with eight interceptions was a 1st-team All-Pro. Up front, the Dolphins had a Pro Bowl pass rusher at defensive end with Bill Stanfill. The D as a whole was sixth-best in the league for points allowed. Like the team overall, the defense was still very good, but they slipped from elite status.
Issues with defense and the running game showed up immediately when the season began at mediocre New England. In spite of good work from the passing game—both Warfield and Briscoe had 100-plus yards receiving—Miami only ran for 89 yards and lost 34-24.
There was no time to lose in getting the defense shored up, because a road trip to Buffalo was next. The Bills were the prime challenger to the Dolphins in the AFC East, with O.J. Simpson coming off an MVP year in 1973. Miami was able to hold Simpson to 63 yards on the ground, while Morris ran for 88 yards and Csonka chipped in 68 more. The Dolphins won 24-16.
A road-heavy early schedule continued with a Week 3 trip to San Diego. Facing a subpar Chargers team Miami dug themselves a 21-7 hole after three quarters, as the rush defense again sprung holes. Griese responded with a touchdown pass to Moore to make it a game. Csonka and Kiick added short TD runs to escape with a 28-21 win.
The home opener would be on Monday Night against the New York Jets. Miami’s old physicality up front returned. They won the rush yardage battle, 159-41, shutting down John Riggins. The Dolphins took an early 14-0 lead and ultimately won 21-17.
A difficult road trip to Washington was up next, where the Redskins were bound for their fourth straight playoff appearance. Miami led 10-0 going into the fourth quarter. But they couldn’t run the ball and salt the game away. And the pass defense was getting carved up by Sonny Jurgensen. Play opened up in the fourth quarter and the Dolphins fell 20-17.
With a 3-2 record, it would be a stretch to say that Miami was in trouble. Especially with four of the first five games on the road. But in this era when only four teams per conference made the playoffs, they had to play with more urgency than would be the case in our own day. The good news was that the Fish had four soft opponents ahead, three of them at home.
Miami’s play was far from inspiring against Kansas City. The Dolphins trailed 3-2 in the fourth quarter, as Griese was intercepted three times. But Csonka was able to pound out 80 yards on 17 carries and his fourth quarter touchdown produced a 9-3 win. Another uninspiring win over the Baltimore Colts followed. Down 7-3 in the third quarter, the Dolphins were at least running the ball well. Behind a 252-89 edge in rush yardage, Miami took over and won 17-7 behind 100-plus yard games from Malone and Nottingham.
The Malone-Nottingham combo got rolling again the next week in Atlanta, and this time Miami put it together and gave the home fans an easy afternoon. Malone ran for 108 yards, Nottingham added 87, and the final was 42-7.
That concluded the three-game homestand. The four-game run against weak teams concluded with a trip to New Orleans. The Dolphins were sharp—no turnovers—and Griese threw three touchdown passes, two of them to Mandich, in a 21-0 win.
Miami was now 7-2 and they were tied for first with Buffalo. A head-to-head showdown with the Bills in the Orange Bowl was up on November 17. A Dolphin win would not only give them sole possession of first place, it would also give them the tiebreaker. And in an era when the regular season was only 14 games, they would be in firm control with four weeks to go.
A touchdown run from Csonka and 49-yard TD pass from Griese to Warfield gave the Dolphins early control, with a 14-0 lead at halftime. Griese would go 11/18 for 237 yards on the afternoon. But the Miami defense had trouble closing and a lost fumble gave Buffalo a gift touchdown. The game was tied 21-21 in the fourth quarter. The Dolphins, though, were battle-tested and they responded. Nottingham ran for touchdowns from 11 yards and 23 yards. It was the difference in a 35-28 win.
Now in firm control, the Dolphins gave at least some of that control back a week later in New York against the Jets. There was no running game and Joe Namath beat Miami 17-14 with a 45-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. The Bills won, pulling back into a tie with the Dolphins at 8-3.
Miami hosted Cincinnati on Monday Night Football on December 2. Buffalo had won the day before, so there was no slack for the Dolphins. They captured the form of the previous two years. Csonka ground out 123 yards on 24 carries. Griese was ruthlessly efficient, completing 11/13 passes for 118 yards and no mistakes. Miami held serve atop the AFC East with an easy 24-3 win.
Malone was the focal point of the ground game in Baltimore a week later, going for 104 yards and helping the Dolphins build a 17-3 lead. With the margin at 17-6 in the fourth quarter, the Colts were on the march. The Miami defense forced a short field goal attempt. With no two-point conversion in effect, keeping the lead at 17-9 was enormous. The Dolphins preserved a 17-16 win.
Meanwhile, the Jets were doing some more damage to the AFC East contenders. New York beat Buffalo. Miami was 10-3. Buffalo was 9-4. While the Bills would get the wild-card, the Dolphins had clinched another division title.
1974 was the last year where the NFL determined homefield advantage for the postseason on a preset rotation between the divisions. Once the AFC East was clinched, there was nothing to play for. Miami was going to be the #3 seed no matter what.
So, backup quarterback Earl Morrall got the start in the finale at home against New England. The game started poorly, with the Patriots returning both an interception and fumble for a touchdown. Miami trailed 24-0 by the second quarter. Then, in a rally that would prefigure what happened at this same venue in a historic 1981 playoff game against San Diego, ,the Dolphins came storming back. They cut the lead to 24-17 by halftime. Morrall finished 15/23 for 288 yards and he completed the comeback, all the way to a 34-27 win.
Whatever flaws the Dolphins had shown, they were still 11-3. They had the second-best record in the AFC, but the playoff format of the time meant they were going to play the 12-2 Oakland Raiders, and their MVP quarterback, Ken Stabler, in the divisional playoffs.
That late Saturday afternoon in Oakland’s Alameda-Coliseum would be a game for the ages. Miami got their running game going, rolling up 213 yards on the ground, compared to 114 for the Raiders. Stabler countered by giving Oakland an edge in passing yardage, even though Griese did play well. In a back-and-forth game, Oakland had the ball last.
Miami was holding a 26-21 lead, but in the closing seconds, Stabler flipped an eight-yard touchdown pass to running back Clarence Davis, who snagged the ball while surrounded by Dolphin defenders. It became known as “The Sea of Hands” game in NFL lore and it ended Miami’s bid for a three-peat.
The Dolphins run at the very top of the NFL was over. And so, at least for a short time, was their status as a regular playoff team. Warfield joined Csonka and Kiick in playing with the WFL in 1975. Anderson suffered an injury that kept him on the sidelines during that ’75 campaign. While Miami went 10-4 in in 1975, and again in 1977, the higher standards for postseason play left them at home. In between, there was a disappointing 6-8 season. While the World Football League didn’t last, it existed long enough to inflict damage on this early 1970s dynasty.