"It felt like old times out there . . . . It was reminiscent of the good old days." -- Bob Griese
It was a night for the old Miami Dolphins, a throwback to the glory days for beleaguered quarterback Bob Griese, recycled fullback Larry Csonka, and an aching, creaking offensive line which found out that, as guard Ed Newman put it, "emotion can make the old young again."
The local media has begun calling the Dolphins "the new Over the Hill Gang." Following their spirited 39-24 victory over their arch-rival, the New England Patriots, Thursday night in the Orange Bowl. Suddenly, unexpectedly, almost miraculously, Miami (9-5) appears headed for the National Football League playoffs as the AFC East champions for the first time since the salad days of 1971-74.
Griese, 34, much maligned this season and recently demoted to No. 2 quarterback for the first time in a dozen years, played super substitute for the second straight game, He completed eight of 10 passes for 101 yards and a 38-yard touchdown to Nat Moore in the second half, arousing an attack that had been nonexistent under starter Don Strock.
Csonka, 32, the 11-year warhorse who was signed by his old team after the New York Giants waived him at the end of the 1978 season, gained 88 yards in 22 bruising carries and scored three touchdowns. In increasing his rushing stats for the year to 783 yards -- 151 of them in the last two crucial games -- "the Zonk" became the sixth player in NFL history to exceed 8,000 yards rushing.
The ailing but willing offensive line -- rallying around veterans Newman, Bob Kuechenberg, Larry Little, and Mike Current, who have 43 years of pro experience among them -- protected the quarterback splendidly and opened holes for Dolphin runners to gain 170 yards against the NFL's leading defense.
"If somebody had told me we were going to take the Patriots apart by running the ball, with Bob at quarterback, I would have questioned their sanity," said Kuechenberg, 32. "That is one team you just don't run against, yet we were able to pound away at them. I can't really explain it."
"Our defense was barely on the field in the second half," said 13-year veteran linebacker Bob Matheson, noting Miami's 7:12 advantage in time of possession after the Patriots had build a big first half margin in that department.
"Our 'Over-the-Hill' offensive line went against the best defense in football and chewed them up."
Griese and Csonka were voted the two game balls. But Griese -- who surpassed 24,000 yards in career passing and is second only to Jim Hart among active NFL quarterbacks -- was quick to share the credit.
"The offensive line gave us time to throw tonight," he said, "Up there (in Foxboro, Mass., where the Patriots beat the Dolphins, 28-13, on Oct. 21) they didn't. I think that might be the difference in the ball games."
That and Csonka's jarring rumbles when ground yardage was needed most. It was like the '70s, when "The Zonk" and Jim Kiick were twin Mack trucks behind Griese, a Rolls-Royce quarterback.
"It's a pleasure blocking for Csonka . . . He's one of the toughest men I've ever met," said left guard Newman, 28. "He's a Bronco Nagurski. There's no other fullback like him in the league."
Csonka joined Jim Brown, O. J. Simpson, Joe Perry, Jim Taylor and Franco Harris in the NFL's exclusive 8,000-yard club, but retreated quickly to the trainer's room after the game.
He had an abrasion over his left eye and bruised thighs from his concussive running, plus a painfully swollen big toe on his right foot as a result of a mishap in the pregame drills. Team-mate Kim Bokamper, a 6-6, 245-pound linebacker, inadvertently stepped on Csonka's tootsies.
Still, Zonk was smiling through the pain. "We turned the corner in the second half," he said. "Our offensive line did a great job. We finally executed ball control. At halftime our old guys were saying, 'hey, we got to get mean.' Then some of our younger fellows started showing their teeth."
But no one gnashed at the Patriots' jugular more effectively than Griese, the second-oldest Dolphin.
Nine days ago, he was benched because he had been erratic and disappointing all season.
Thursday night -- after Strock had embarrassingly bounced his first two passes, completed only three of 12 and had two intercepted in the first half -- Griese came in again. He promptly made Fran Tarkenton, the great Minnesota quarterback turned TV commentator, look foolish for having said publicly that Griese's skills appeared irretrievably diminished.
"Just because they put somebody else in there doesn't mean I lost confidence in myself," said Griese, who won back his starting job for the Dolphin's next game, Dec. 9 at Detroit (2-11). Even if they should lose that, they can clinch the division title by beating the New York Jets at home on Dec. 15 because their superior conference record is paramount in the complicated tie-breaking procedure that determines playoff berths.
"I don't think we're home free, but I got the great feeling that our football team is on the upswing," said Miami Coach Don Shula, who confirmed that Griese would start again, "and there is no better time of the year for that."
Just like the old days.