MIAMI — Fifty years ago, members of the 1972 Dolphins team lifted fiery coach Don Shula onto their shoulders for a victory lap out of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, celebrating not just a Super Bowl victory over Washington, but an emphatic exclamation point on the NFL‘s only perfect season.
Not that the Dolphins ever spoke of perfection. Mere mention of the word felt taboo.
“I can’t imagine somebody whispering to somebody and Coach Shula happening to overhear the fact that, ‘Hey, guess what! We’re 11-0,’” said starting offensive tackle Doug Crusan. “Oh my goodness, couldn’t do that.”
They did the unspeakable anyway, going 17-0 for a mark that could stand another 50 years or more given the parity and length of the modern NFL season. The 2007 New England Patriots came close, going 18-0 before a Super Bowl loss. This year, the 6-0 Philadelphia Eagles are the last remaining threat - with a long way to go.
Those ‘72 Dolphins shined in an era before trades and ongoing player movement between teams leveled the playing field. Roster restrictions could have just as easily worked against them, though.
One bad injury might have derailed that magical season, and one nearly did. Miami starting quarterback Bob Griese broke his right leg and dislocated his ankle in Week 5. Fortunately for the Dolphins, they had a powerful running game behind Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris and Jim Kiik.
They were also motivated - not by perfection, but atonement. They’d lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl the season before and sought redemption, proof that the previous season, despite many opinions, wasn’t a fluke.
They didn’t know at the time they were becoming one of the NFL’s highest symbols of accomplishment.
“The confidence built as each week went by,” Crusan said. “We got stronger and stronger. And of course, you go into the playoffs and you never know what’s going to happen with those three games. We just got better and better and better as the season went on.”
“Losing was a great motivator for Don Shula. He hated it, and he wanted his players to hate it,” said Joe Horrigan, a pro football historian and former executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “He said, ‘You remember that bad taste in your mouth? Keep it.’ That was his philosophy.”
Training was intense. They’d sometimes practice three or four times a day.
“I was worn out mentally as well as physically,” said defensive back Charlie Babb, a rookie that year. “Just the long season and the type of practices and the type of pressure that Shula and the coaching staff put on you to be perfect.”
As perfect as they tried to be, they also needed to be lucky. They didn’t blow teams out, and there were a couple close calls. One of their biggest tests came in the playoffs against the Cleveland Browns on Christmas Eve.
The Browns held a 14-13 lead with about eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. Miami hadn’t trailed that late in a game since Week 3.
Behind backup quarterback Earl Morrall, in for the injured Griese, the Dolphins used a 35-yard catch by Paul Warfield to set up an 8-yard touchdown run by Kiik to move to 15-0.
“The ball has to bounce your way in just about every game,” said Larry Seiple, a punter. “There were games that we had chances to lose, as well as win.”
Seiple said he doesn’t believe that another perfect season will happen, at least not in his lifetime.
Free agency and trades have expedited the ability to move players around, creating more parity. And with 17-game regular seasons, Horrigan believes going undefeated isn’t as big a priority as getting to the postseason.
“You hear the cliché ‘One game at a time,’” Horrigan said. “No one’s thinking, ‘Let’s win 10 in a row.’ I don’t think anybody would be shooting for it.”
Horrigan added that it’s especially hard to go undefeated with the advances in technology, especially replay.
“I told Don Shula this once, I said ‘You know, if there were instant replay, you might not have been undefeated,’” he said. “There were mistakes made just as there are now, but it would go unnoticed. As close as some of those games were, one play could have made a big difference.”
The 2007 Patriots, with quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick, got to the brink of matching Miami. The New York Giants ruined that in the Super Bowl - and with it, spoiled the best chance in several generations to witness perfection.
“If any team was going to do it, I thought that team with that quarterback would be the one,” longtime NFL defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said.
The 1985 Chicago Bears went 18-1 on their way to winning the Super Bowl. The one loss? To Miami, 38-24 victors over the Bears in a Monday night classic where the Dolphins simply would not allow another team to be perfect on its watch.
Akron in 1920, and Canton in 1922 and 1923, both were undefeated champions - but all those clubs also tied at least one game. They weren’t perfect.
With a remaining schedule that includes just four teams with winning records, many believe that the Eagles have an open path to the Super Bowl. FanDuel Sports Book currently lists their season win over-under bet at 13.5.
But only the Miami Dolphins can say perfect.
“It’s not easy,” Seiple said. “Most teams, you start out with that idea, and as the season goes on you start to lose some players because of injuries, it kind of slips through your fingers.”
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