The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

50 years later, ‘no one else can top’ the 1972 Dolphins

Miami Dolphins players carry Coach Don Shula off the field after Miami completed its undefeated season. (AP)
12 min

The Miami Dolphins capped their undefeated season 50 years ago with a 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII, the conclusion of the NFL’s first spotless campaign. That moment cemented the Dolphins’ place in pop history, which might have obscured some of the grittier details of the game; Miami was actually an underdog in the Super Bowl, and star fullback Larry Csonka said the impetus for Miami’s triumph was a blowout loss in the previous Super Bowl.

After the Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowl VI, 24-3, Csonka recalled in an interview this week, Miami Coach Don Shula told his players, “I want every one of you to remember how you feel right now. I will constantly remind you of this moment in the coming season because we’re going to draw on this. We’re going to use this as an asset, not as a liability. We’re going to be even more attentive to detail than we were before.”

The next season, the already intense Shula took it up to 11, and the team responded with a perfect season, the only one in NFL history. Miami’s 1973 Super Bowl victory — a half-century ago Saturday, when this year’s playoffs are just getting started — wrapped up a 17-0 record, including three postseason wins.

Fifty years ago, Washington ‘could do no wrong’ in NFC title game rout of Cowboys

“He was possessed that entire season,” Csonka said. “And he did just as he promised. He brought it up. He talked about it constantly throughout the ’72 season. And that’s why that season was undefeated. The only one.”

“We still kind of joke between ourselves about the old man being about half nuts,” he added. “But he wasn’t as nuts as he had seemed at the beginning.”

Miami’s accomplishment marked the apex of a remarkable turnaround for a franchise that began play in 1966 with four consecutive losing seasons, including a 3-10-1 record in 1969, worst in the old American Football League that year. The following season, Shula took over as coach and led the team to a 10-4 record and its first playoff berth, followed by the AFC championship in 1971, the season that ended with the Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys.

In his new memoir, “Head On,” Csonka recalled that at training camp in the summer of 1972, “Shula made us watch every painful minute of our Super Bowl VI loss. It was as depressing a classroom exercise as I’ve ever endured.”

'You can’t spell ’em and you can’t stop ’em’

That August, Sports Illustrated put Csonka and running back Jim Kiick on the front of the magazine, dubbing them “Miami’s Dynamic Duo.”

“Jim Kiick likes to run where there are holes, Larry Csonka where there are people. Either way, bring help,” read the cover story, which included this quote from a rival coach: “Kiick and Csonka. You can’t spell ’em and you can’t stop ’em.” The previous season, the 237-pound Csonka led the NFL with 5.4 yards per carry, and Kiick was tied for sixth with 4.6. Along with halfback Eugene “Mercury” Morris, they would form the nucleus of the Dolphins’ fearsome ’72 rushing attack.

After two relatively easy wins to start the season, the Dolphins had a close call in Week 3, failing behind the Vikings by eight in the fourth quarter in Minnesota, but Miami came back to eke out a 16-14 victory.

A bigger challenge came two weeks later, when starting quarterback Bob Griese was carried off on a stretcher and fitted for a cast after he suffered a broken right fibula and dislocated right ankle.

Backup Earl Morrall took over and threw a pair of touchdown passes to lead the Dolphins to a 24-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers, improving Miami to 5-0. The 38-year-old Morrall would guide the team to nine straight regular season wins as a starter, leading the NFL in passer rating.

That marked something of a repeat relief performance. In 1968, while also playing for Shula, Morrall led the Baltimore Colts to a 13-1 record after Johnny Unitas suffered an injury in the team’s final exhibition game. Morrall was named the NFL MVP that year, but Joe Namath led the New York Jets to an upset win over the Colts in Super Bowl III. In April ’72, the Dolphins claimed Morrall on waivers for $100.

“There’d be no perfect season without Earl Morrall,” Griese said in a telephone interview this week. “There’s no mistake about that.”

In Morrall’s first start, Miami edged the Buffalo Bills, 24-23, but the rest of the regular season was a relative cakewalk, with only one other game decided by less than 10 points.

Miami dominated on both sides of the ball, with the league’s top-ranked offense and defense, averaging 27.5 points and giving up just 12.2. Csonka and Morris both rushed for at least 1,000 yards, and Morris led the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns. Linebacker Nick Buoniconti anchored the team’s “No Name Defense.”

A postseason quarterback change

The playoff field was much smaller then, with only four teams per conference (the three division winners and one wild-card team). In the first round, the Dolphins beat the wild-card Cleveland Browns, 20-14. Morrall was just 6 for 13 with 88 yards and no touchdowns in the victory.

Miami then faced a tough Pittsburgh Steelers team in the AFC championship game. In the first round of the playoffs, the Steelers had defeated the Oakland Raiders thanks to the “Immaculate Reception,” one of the most improbable finishes in NFL history, when rookie running back Franco Harris caught a ball that ricocheted off another player and scooted down the sideline for the winning touchdown in the closing seconds.

Remembering Franco Harris’s ‘Immaculate Reception,’ the NFL’s greatest play

In the Dec. 31 championship game against the Steelers, arguably the biggest play came on a fake punt by Miami’s Larry Seiple, who scampered for 37 yards when he noticed that the Steelers’ special team players had turned their backs on him to set up for a return. Seiple’s surprise run got the Dolphins all the way to the Pittsburgh 12-yard line; two plays later, Morrall threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Csonka to tie the score at 7.

Morrall started the game, but Shula brought in Griese in the second half. Morrall had gone 7 for 11 with 51 yards with one touchdown and one interception. In relief, Griese threw just five passes but racked up 70 yards on three completions, leading Miami to a 21-17 victory.

Griese said that he had no trouble getting back into rhythm after the long layoff.

“I was ready to go,” he said. “Shula saw me in practice, and the players saw me, they saw how well I was moving. My body was fresh. I hadn’t been hit in four or five months.” But he added: “I didn’t want to take it away from Earl. He deserved to take us there if he could.”

Shula then decided to go with Griese in the Super Bowl.

“That probably had to be the toughest decision that I had to make in my coaching career,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2014.

“He told me, ‘You did a good job, but we’re going to go with Bob,’” Morrall recalled years later. “A young guy might have created waves. Being a little older, I wasn’t going to sit there and sulk. I knew from experience that we had to win that game because if we didn’t, the whole season would go down the drain.”

Unlikely underdogs

The Super Bowl was held at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the first one that the NFL allowed to be televised locally after it blacked out the first six Super Bowls in the host market. Commissioner Pete Rozelle initially planned to black out this game in Los Angeles, too, but under pressure from Congress and President Richard M. Nixon, he agreed to an “experiment” that would lift the blackout if it sold out 10 days before game day (it did).

Despite their undefeated season, the Dolphins entered the game as underdogs to the Redskins. Washington had gone 11-3 in the regular season and had routed the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys, 26-3, in the NFC championship game. Some national sportswriters wrote off the Dolphins’ chances.

“The Redskins are sure to hand them their shoes and ask that they bring them back by morning shined and leave them outside the door,” Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote, mocking the Dolphins as “40 of the world’s least-famous performers, the intruders in the Super Bowl, that funny little team from that funny little conference, the ones with the mahi-mahis on their helmets, the — Psst. What’d ya say yer names were again, kids?”

Washington brought some serious firepower to the game. Running back Larry Brown, the league MVP, led the NFL with 101.3 rushing yards per game. Quarterback Billy Kilmer tied Namath for tops in touchdown passes with 19.

But the Redskins couldn’t get anything going offensively, and the Dolphins took a 7-0 lead on a 28-yard Griese touchdown pass to Howard Twilley in the first quarter. Just before halftime, Buoniconti intercepted a Kilmer pass, setting up Miami’s second score, a one-yard touchdown run by Kiick that gave it a 14-0 lead.

And even when Washington started moving the ball in the second half, the team couldn’t cash in. On their first drive after halftime, Kilmer drove the Redskins to the Miami 25, but Curt Knight missed a 32-yard field goal attempt.

Then in the fourth quarter, Washington drove deep into Miami territory again, but an early-1970s NFL timepiece wreaked havoc on the offense. Kilmer threw a pass over the middle to tight end Jerry Smith, who was open in the back of the end zone. But the ball caromed off the goal post, which in those days was on the goal line, leading to an incompletion. And the next play, Miami free safety Jake Scott intercepted Kilmer — Scott’s second pick of the game — and returned it 55 yards.

The Dolphins then had a chance to clinch the game with a 42-yard field goal. Instead, it ended in one of the most infamous plays in Super Bowl history. Washington’s Bill Brundige blocked the kick by Garo Yepremian, who picked up the loose ball, whiffed when he tried to throw it, then batted the ball in the air in an ill-fated attempt to knock it out of bounds. Mike Bass snatched it and returned it for a touchdown, giving the lifeless Redskins a shot.

“What a kooky play it was,” announcer Curt Gowdy said on the broadcast, after Yepremian, a 5-foot-7 Cyprus-born soccer player, attempted to salvage the blocked kick. “Garo Yepremian lost his head and tried to throw a pass.”

Yepremian acknowledged later he had been drilled to fall on the ball in those types of situations, “but then my mind went blank. I guess I thought I was a quarterback.”

After the touchdown, the Redskins passed up the opportunity for an onside kick, forced Miami to punt, and got the ball back at their 30-yard line with 1:14 left. But as was the case for most of the afternoon, they couldn’t move the ball, and their last chance fittingly ended on a sack.

The Dolphins would repeat as champions the next year, defeating the Vikings, 24-7, in Super Bowl VIII.

Yepremian, meanwhile, had a hard time living down that one play in the fourth quarter. Even President Barack Obama had some fun at Yepremian’s expense, handing him a football at a White House event in 2013 commemorating the team and asking, “Can you still throw it, Garo?”

Csonka and other members of the 1972 Dolphins have celebrated when subsequent undefeated teams lose their first game, which has irritated some fans. After the Washington Commanders handed the Philadelphia Eagles their first loss this season — Philadelphia was the league’s last unbeaten team Csonka tweeted, “Thank you #WashingtonCommanders As in 2020 when you knocked out the #Steelers I’m a Washington fan tonight!”

“It keeps us involved — what a great thing to have,” Csonka said. “That no one else can top it. All they can do is match it. So we’re sitting on top of the mountain and somebody starts climbing up, we start looking at them, and it’s like we’re competing again, a bunch of old men sitting around, crabby. You’re going to compete with us, you’re going to have to earn it.”

Frederic J. Frommer, a writer and sports historian, is the author of several books, including “You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals.”