For Veteran quarterback Bob Griese and his Miami Dolphins, a long season of frustration became Paradise Regained tonight. For the New England Patriots, it was another evening of hell in their private Purgatory, the Orange Bowl.
Griese, 34, the 13-year man from Purdue who was demoted to backup signal caller for the first time in a dozen years, last week, came off the bench in the second half and completed eight of 10 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown as the Dolphins humiliated the long-suffering Patriots, 39-24, in a rugged and sometimes ragged showdown for first place in the AFC East.
Griese, starring in relief for the second straight game after reversing roles with his former understudy Don Strock, rallied the Dolphins from a 17-13 halftime deficit, leading them to their first victory this year in a big game and their first over a team with a winning record.
The Dolphins (9-5), whose chances of making the NFL playoffs seemed remote until New England lost a 16-13 overtime game to Buffalo last Sunday, are now overwhelming favorites to win their division. They can clinch the tile by beating the New York Jets the final weekend of the reular season (Dec. 15) even if they should lose to Detroit (2-11) a week from Sunday.
Meanwhile, the exasperated Patriots -- who had blown one-game leads in the AFC East race three times in the last five weeks -- fell to 8-6 and seem destined to miss the playoffs.
New England has lost 12 straight games at the Orange Bowl since 1966, and the team's performance in tonight's "one-night season" brought to the ears of groundswell listeners some rumblings that Coach Ron Erhardt might be fired after his rookie season, even though he has two more years left on his contract.
The Patriots, stunned by their stumbling against Buffalo at home four days ago, brought an entourage inculding players' wives and office personnel to Miami as guests of owner Billy Sullivan. They hoped to see a repeat of New England's 28-13 victory over Miami at Foxboro, Mass., six weeks ago.
But the holiday atmosphere of the group evaporated as the Orange Bowl again became a Patroit chamber of horrors.By game's end, the Pat party wasas shocked and forlorn as those vacationers in TV commericials who find their travelers' checks missing.
The turning point in the game took place in the locker room at halftime, when Miami Coach Don Shula decided to replace starter Strock -- he was dreadful in the first half, completing only three of 12 passes for 62 yards -- with the eager Griese. The bespactaled veteran's vindication came soon enough.
Griese, benched while healthy for the first time in 12 years, had come in as a relief pitcher early in the second quarter last Sunday when Strock was dazed by a blow to the head and led the Dolphins to a 28-24 victory over Baltimore.
Strock played tonight as if he were still woozy, but Griese showed quickly that he would be superb coming out of the bullpen again, and in the process earned back his starting job. Shula said after the game that Griese would start against the Lions Dec. 9.
Passing with the old accuracy that seemed to have gone south this season -- somewhere around Venezula or thereabouts -- Griese ignited the Dolphin offense that for many weeks had been a sadly unreasonable facsimile of its former self.
Mixing opportune passes with a ground game solidified by his old fullback Larry Csonka -- who bulldozed for 88 yards on 22 carriers, scored the 8,000-yard mark in rushing for his 11-year career -- Griese rekindled memories of the Dolphin glory days of the early and mid-'70s, when he was their flipper and Csonka and kiick their battering rams.
New England quarterback Steve Grogan completed 21 of 39 passed for 350 yards and three touchdowns, but Griese upstaged him in the most important way: he was the winning pitcher.
After Grogan had spurred the Patriots from a 10-0 deficit to a 17-10 lead in a glorious 10-minute stretch late in the first half -- hooking up with wide receivers Stanley Morgan (five catches, 124 yards, 38-yards touchdown) and Harold Jackson (five catches, 105 yards, 16-yard TD) in a thrilling aerial circus -- Griese came in and pumped life into his team.
The Dolphins had shown a flicker of pulse just before the end of the half, after looking as good as dead when Grogan hit Morgan with a perfect scoring pass with 23 seconds left. On that play, Morgan simply ran by frequently-beaten Dolphin cornerback Norris Thomas and safety Mike Kozlowski to get wide open.
But Speedy Tony Nathan ran back the ensuing kickoff 41 yards to the New England 49, Strock scrambled and hit wide receiver Jimmy Cefalo -- who had caught an underthrown 30-yard pass, his first reception in nine games, to set up Miami's first socre -- over the middle for 23 yards. Rokkie Uwe Von Schamann kicked the second of his three field goals, giving him 17 in his last 19 attempts, from 43 yards out as time expired.
Griese seized on that small flame of regained momentum and whipped it into a raging fire at the beginning of the second half.
In the first minute of the final period, New England's bitter frustration was captured in a crysetolling moment as tight end Russ Francis (three catches, 49 yards) suffered a concusion diving for a pass at the Miami two-yard line (he was carried from the field on a stretcher, but reportedly was all right after the game), and Grogan fumbled on the next play when sacked by right end Doug Betters.
In Miami's next drive, 62 yards in 11 plays, Csonka became the sixth NHL back to exceed 8,000 yards in career rushing and Von Schanann kicked a 27-yard field goal to make it 32-17 with 8:05 left.
The Patriots outgained the Dolphins for the night, 420 yards to 322, but not when it counted -- in the second half. Then Griese, Csonka and the Miami lines were spectacular, and the New England wives, employes and friends went home emotionally devastated by another horror story in the Orange Bowl, with little to look forward to but a long visitor of nightmares.