The subject was sustained excellence -- the most difficult achievement in team sports -- and Bob Kuechenberg said of the decline, although hardly the fall, of the Dolphins: "The WFL succeeded in doing what the NFL could not. It broke us up."

Clearly, Kuechenberg had given this considerable thought of late, this matter of the best NFL team of the '70s, for when it was suggested the Steelers have captured a decade that seemed destined to belong to the Dolphins, he snapped:

"What if after Pittsburgh won its second Super Bowl it lost Lynn Swann, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier? With no compensation. Just lost 'em. That's the equivalent of our losing (Larry) Csonka, (Jim) Kiick and (Paul) Warfield. Tell me that wouldn't have had a dramatic effect."

We are now in what amounts to the two-minute drill of the '70s and three teams -- the Dolphins, Steelers and Cowboys -- can offer compelling arguments for being the decade's superior team. Which is remarkable considering that one team, the Packers in the '60s and the Browns in the '50s, dominated each of the prior two decades.

Dallas has won the most regular-season games to this point (102); Miami has the best single-season feat in NFL history (17-0 in '72); Pittsburgh has won the most Super Bowls (3), although circumstances could allow either Miami or Dallas to gain a tie this season.

Entertaining and tough as they have been for so long, however, the Cowboys at the moment seem to fall slightly short of the Dolphins and Steelers. They have won more games, but played inferior teams. The major lesson of the '70s, after all, has been that the AFC is vastly better than the NFC.

"I would give half my salary for the Dolphins to have been in the NFC the past nine-10 years," said Kuechenberg. "Look at the Rams in the '70s, the Vikings. The Cowboys can give it a late-season push, play one good game in the playoffs, against a Ram team that will fold, and be in the Super Bowl.

"Our AFC teams that get to the Super Bowl are battered, bruised, torn and barely breathing. Except Pittsburgh. The Steelers have been breathing quite well."

Kuechenberg's credentials for such a debate are impressive. He is the most publicly candid Dolphin and has watched the team rise rocket-like under Don Shula and lose just enough boost -- because of that "Wiffle Whack" -- to watch the Steelers fly by. A blocker capable of manning all three offensive line positions, he is arguably the most underrated player in the league.

For four years, from '71 through '74, Miami was as good as any team in NFL history, winning 47 of 56 regular-season games, winning two Super Bowls, losing in a third and failing to make the '74 AFC title game on Ken Stabler's flukish completion to Clarence Davis.

After the '74 season, the WFL, whose checks frequently bounced higher than its footballs, raided the NFL and pirated Csonka, Kiick and Warfield from the Dolphins. The team has not been the same. It still has won as many games as most teams; it has not had that tiny edge that allows some teams to win important games and keeps other teams from even playing in them.

Those were dizzy years for NFL teams, when the WFL and the courts were bindsiding them time after time. For the Dolphins, no compensation meant the severe interruption of what could have been the orderly patchwork that would have kept them in the Super Bowl for years.

Special football teams thrive on dominant areas, but they rarely stay the same more than a few years. When the Steelers were winning with a peerless front four and fullback, they were bright enough to draft and develop the linebackers and wide receivers who now make them awesome. d

They also were patient enough to wait for quarterback Terry Bradshaw to get past the Sesame Street level of reading defenses.

"For years, Bradshaw was their weakness," Kuechenberg said. "You could count on him to mess up. Now he's their big-play man."

Surprisingly, the major Dolphin void created by the WFL raid was not fullback. The toughest of the trio to replace, according to Kuechenberg, was the wide receiver, Warfield.

"Even though he caught just 25 or so passes a year, his threat dictated an awful lot to a defense," Kuechenberg said."He was nonpareil as a receiver. We always knew the defense would rotate his way, that there would be two men on him.That made it easier for our ball-control offense."

The Dolphins have won at least 10 games three of the last four years, but have made the playoffs only once. And lost last year in the first round to Houston. They are 6-4 at the moment, and where that would put them in fine position for the playoffs in the NFC, it makes them tenuous in the AFC.

In addition, one of those splendid areas that meant so much for so long to the Dolphins -- the offensive line -- has begun to weaken noticeably. It was composed of five free agents, but it made Csonka and quarterback Bob Griese richer and more famous than their own unique skills would be elsewhere.

Three of the five blockers remain. But the center, Jim Langer, is injured and insisting he will not play another year in Miami. In addition to guard, Kuechenberg has played tackle and center, and Larry Little, the most famous of the linemen, is considering retirement after this season.

"Nothing lasts forever," said Kuechenberg, at 32 a 10-year veteran. "All I can say is that we were disappointed Pittsburgh was the first to win three Super Bowls. But I'm wearing that 17-0 ring. The rings get bigger and have flashier diamonds each year, but I don't think there'll be another one like that."