Bum Phillips is uniquely eloquent. Asked to name the best of his National Football League coaching colleagues, he drawled: "Shula. Don Shula, 'cause he can take his'n and beat your'n, or he can take your'n and beat his'n."
Shula's Miami Dolphins have the NFL's best record in the '70s; he is the popular successor to Vince Lombardi as the best in the league, if not all of football. The Bear, after all, still casts sports' largest shadow.
But Shula's pedestal has been shaken a bit. The quiet driver in Pittsburgh, Chuck Noll, has won more Super Bowls than Shula; Tom Landry has won more games (with a three-season head start). Difficult as it may be to believe, Shula's Dolphins have not even made the playoffs three of the last four years, and have not won a playoff game since the '74 Super Bowl.
And his'n are hurtin' this year.
The Dolphins' best runner, Delvin Williams, and best blocker, center Jim Langer, have been injured and the once peerless Bob Griese has been tentative and erratic all season. And despite a splendid defensive effort against Phillips' Oilers Monday night, the Dolphins still proved incapable of beating a team with a .500 or better record.
"That's the biggest disappointment," Shula said today, quietly. At times, Shula seemed a 6-foot walking explosive, ready to detonate at the slightest friction. He was subdued during a locker room press conference, saying:
"I'd thought we were an improved team over last year. This (Houston) was a big test for the defense because last year (in 35-30 and 19-7 losses) they handled the defense, the first time with the run and the second time with the pass."
But the "defense held up -- and we couldn't score (a touchdown). New England, Oakland and now Houston. We've got to beat teams in playoff contention to get to the playoffs ourselves. And we've lost 'em all."
Although the Dolphins still are 6-4, they are a game behind three times for the two AFC wildcard spots and a game behind the Patriots for first place in the AFC East. Inevitably, there have been verbal snipers, mostly from Dolfans. Today came a shot from a Dolphin.
"We just choked up," wide receiver Duriel Harris told Miami columnist John Crittenden after the Oilers' 9-6 victory. "We didn't challenge them with our play calling. We played it tender and we choked up. It reminded me of the New England game. We just sat on the ball.
"We've got two guys who can't be stopped" -- referring to himself and the other wide receiver, Nat Moore -- "but we don't use them. We weren't involved in the game. When you take us out of the game, you have no passing attack."
Several hours after the quotes hit the streets, Shula offered his defense. In truth, he went on the offensive, though on an end run instead of the expected loud charge up the middle.
It came when somebody wondered if Griese made a wise call on the interception that ended the Dolphins' chances at victory or overtime in the final two minutes, when Houston linebacker Gregg Bingham stepped in front of Miami running back Gary Davis at the Oiler 15 grabber the short pass.
"The call he made was an individual to Duriel," Shula said. "He was looking for Duriel down and out -- and if the linebackers drop back or the backs are tough on Duriel, Bob goes to Gary.
"Duriel didn't have it; Gary was breaking and Bingham read the play, although the ball was slightly underthrown. It could have been a glorious ending, if we made the play. But we made the only mistake we couldn't make."
Griese's ineffectiveness has been especially frustrating. After playing so well for so long, he has thrown 11 interceptions this season. He was bothered by a hamstring injury, then returned sooner than he wanted when backup Don Strock was injured.
Against Green Bay the week before, Griese had been splendid, and Shula said, not as icily as it might seem: "We looked like we were putting things together for a good effort against Houston, but we didn't get it. Receivers always want more balls thrown their way (Harris caught 10 passes agaisnt Green Bay) and we welcome suggestions from receivers.
"But I just can't blame the loss on Bob Griese.There were too many things happening by too many other people: linemen breaking down assignments not as noticeable as the (two) fumbles and (two) interceptions."
The redskins' Jack Pardee and most other NFL coaches may quietly enjoy watching Shula squirm a bit, for it makes their own positions seem more plausible when even the best have trouble winning without exceptional players playing exceptionally.
Larry Csonka is back -- and regarded as a savior by some. By with Langer, the man who made so much of that up-the-middle yardage possible, injured, Csonka was used just seven times against Houston, for 31 yards.
"We just couldn't figure to go in there and jam it down their throat," said Shula, realizing that his anonymous reserve center was more important than his glamorous fullback at this point in both careers.
It was a telling statement, though perhaps not as significant as Griese saying, not long after the Monday night defeat: "I'm tired of hearing grumbling from my own team."