Not to worry, stat buffs, the record is safe. By losing in overtime to the San Diego Chargers last Sunday, the 1984 Miami Dolphins dropped out of the race toward immortality and once again -- for this season at least -- assured their 1972 counterparts of their line in the history books as the only perfect team in NFL history.
As in my-oh-my.
"I don't know how it happened," Bob Kuechenberg said today on the telephone from Chicago. Kuechenberg was a Dolphin then and, albeit on injured reserve, a Dolphin still. "It was perfection, a miracle, a fantasy. But we didn't dare dream it, because we all thought it was impossible. What happened in '72 was just that -- a happening. None of us aimed at going undefeated; we just aimed at winning the championship, because Dallas had humiliated us, 24-3, the year before in the Super Bowl." Kuechenberg allowed himself a slight giggle. "Along the way, we just forgot how to lose."
For 11 straight games this season these Dolphins, too, were perfect -- the NFL's best start since '72. Naturally, comparisons were being made. Unfair, perhaps, since football now is a far cry from what it was then; rule changes in the late 1970s opened up the game, emphasizing scoring, rewarding pass offense at the expense of pass defense. But comparisons were made nonetheless. Were these Dolphins, with Dan Marino, Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, as good as those Dolphins with Bob Griese, Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield? Was this real, or was it Memorex?
"It started when we were 5-0," Doug Betters, a defensive end, said today at practice. "We had a great streak going, but it put a lot of pressure on us -- and I don't know if it was good for us. After a while, it kind of got to be counterproductive. You find yourself thinking about the string more than the game."
"It's a natural inclination for the fans to make the comparisions," Kuechenberg admitted. "But it's a distraction for the players. You didn't hear Don Shula or any of the players making them, did you?"
Players and coaches like to say they just play them one at a time, and, as Dolphins guard Ed Newman said today, "That's really the only healthy way to approach it." But that doesn't mean their minds don't wander toward the sublime every once in a while. Of course these Dolphins considered the possibility of perfection, even as they dared not engage in such speculation publicly. "It's an opportunity to be really special," Newman said as he repeatedly pumped 315 pounds of iron during a lunch break. "Everyone was aware of that. If you go undefeated you'll be immortalized. Everyone wants that." Said Betters: "We entertained the possibility, but never openly. We didn't want to set ourselves up. As it was, everyone was coming after us, trying to break the streak."
But was there any point this season when Betters actually thought these Dolphins might do it? Might pitch the shutout?
"Not really. It's damned near impossible now. Washington couldn't do it last year, and they were real strong. The Raiders couldn't do it, and they were real strong. The fact is, we'd been lucky to win the last two games before San Diego. Teams were gaining momentum against us."
And Newman, did he think perfection possible?
The 12-year veteran just smiled. By this time he knows a fast ball from a curve. "Not me," he said. "I was more concerned with keeping guys off my quarterback."
Regardless of how nice an unbeaten record might be, it's the playoffs -- not the regular season -- that matters most to elite teams like the Dolphins, Raiders, 49ers and, yes, the Redskins. "Winning it all is much more important than winning them all," Kuechenberg said. "The real goal is the second season -- that's where you can't lose. The biggest heartbreak would be to end the season 16-1."
The Miami line, at least for public consumption, is that the loss to San Diego not only was not a tragedy, but might possibly be a blessing in disguise. "I'm glad it's off our heads," Betters said. "It's disappointing to lose, but we might have needed something like this to get us up."
That kind of talk is music to Kuechenberg's ears. "At least the comparisions to the '72 team will die," he said. "The pressure resulting from those comparisons is never comfortable." As a case in point, Kuechenberg remembered the 1973 season: "We were actually a better team in '73 than in '72," he said. "But we lost our second game that season, 12-7, to the Raiders. I was upset initially, but a few days later I was relieved. We'd won 19 in a row up to that point, and the streak had become too important; it was adding undue pressure. We lost one more meaningless game late in the season, then went on to win the Super Bowl again."
It may seem silly in retrospect, but Kuechenberg was sort of hoping the '72 Dolphins would lose one regular season game. "We'd locked up the division title after our 10th game, when we beat the Jets, 28-24," he said. "I remember sitting with our center, Jim Langer, in the locker room afterwards, joking about what game we wanted to lose -- just to take the monkey off our backs."
These Dolphins no longer have that worry. Their monkey -- real or imagined -- is gone. Now what they want to believe is that one monkey don't stop no show. Still, it's hard for everyone to accept a loss, even if, as Kuechenberg says, "You've got to taste defeat occasionally to appreciate victory."
When asked about the loss, Newman, normally an insightful, loquacious man, suddenly turned to stone. "Sorry, I've got to go," he said, politely, but firmly. "I just don't want to talk about losing."
It may be easier for Kuechenberg to talk about the psychic benefit of a midseason loss. He's got 1972 to keep him warm, doesn't he? He'll always have Paris. "Several of my ex-teammates have made comments to the effect that they're pleased to still be the only unbeaten team," Kuechenberg said. "That's honest, of course. That's an exclusive club we're in. To some degree, that feeling exists in me. However, I was particularly tortured by this loss because I'm also a member of this year's team. If you're asking me how I feel not to see the record equaled, I'd like to sidestep it. You understand, don't you?"