Remembering the Legendary Don Shula — Part III: The Perfect Season

by Mike Ferguson

Associated Press photo

The football world said goodbye to a coaching legend on Monday, May 4 as Don Shula died at the age of 90.

The winningest coach in NFL history, Shula won 347 total games in 33 years with the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins. Shula was a 2-time world champion and played for pro football’s ultimate prize seven times.

In a multi-part series, we’ll be looking back on his legendary career in football. In the third part of our series, we look back on the Dolphins’ rise to championship status:

1972 Begins

In two years under Don Shula, the Miami Dolphins had gone from a losing expansion franchise to within one win of a world championship. Entering the 1972 season, the roster was largely the same — with one key exception.

In the offseason, Miami acquired veteran quarterback Earl Morrall. Morrall played for Shula in Baltimore and had quarterbacked the Colts to an NFL Championship in 1968 before losing Super Bowl III to the New York Jets. Morrall was meant to provide a veteran presence behind starter Bob Griese.

That signing would pay huge dividends.

Down Goes Griese

The Dolphins were off to a 4-0 start as they hosted the San Diego Chargers on Oct. 15, 1972. Early on, Griese went down with a serious leg injury when he was tackled by Ron East and Hall of Fame defensive end David “Deacon” Jones.

Enter Morrall.

With Morrall at the helm, the Dolphins didn’t miss a beat. In his first meaningful action with Miami, Morrall was an efficient 8-for-10 passing with a pair of touchdowns in a 24-10 win over San Diego.

In 1972, the Dolphins would lead the NFL in scoring offense and scoring defense. With Morrall under center, Miami rattled off wins in all nine of his regular-season starts. There were, however, close calls along the way.

In Week 3, the Dolphins trailed the Minnesota Vikings 14-6 in the fourth quarter. After kicker Garo Yepremian made a career-long 51-yard field goal, Miami went ahead on Griese’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Jim Mandich with 1:28 left in a 16-14 victory.

In Morrall’s first start, Miami held off Buffalo, 24-23. On Nov. 19, the Dolphins trailed the Jets 17-7 early and by four in the final quarter. Running back Mercury Morris scored the game-winning touchdown for the Dolphins in a 28-24 victory.

The Playoffs

After finishing the regular season 14-0, the Dolphins faced plenty of resistance on their road to the Super Bowl. The playoffs started with a fourth-quarter rally.

Despite five interceptions of Cleveland Browns’ quarterback Mike Phipps — with two each from Dick Anderson and Doug Swift — and racing to a 10-0 lead, the Dolphins found themselves behind 14-13 in the fourth quarter. With less than five minutes to go, Jim Kiick capped an 80-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown run as Miami prevailed at the Orange Bowl, 20-14.

Although Miami was perfect, it had to travel to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship a week later. The Dolphins trailed the Pittsburgh Steelers 10-7 early in the third quarter and Shula looked for a spark to ignite a stagnant offense.

To that point, Miami’s only touchdown was set up by a 37-yard run by Larry Seiple on a fake punt. Morrall had won 10 straight starts for the Dolphins, but with the offense struggling, Shula went back to the finally healthy Griese.

On his first pass, Griese connected with Paul Warfield for a gain of 52. Later in the drive, Kiick would put Miami ahead for good with a short touchdown run. He would add another one early in the fourth as the Dolphins held off the Steelers, 21-17.

On to Los Angeles

As Miami prepared for Super Bowl VII against the Washington Redskins, Shula had a decision to make at quarterback. Morrall had won 10 straight starts for the Dolphins, but Griese had rallied the team in Pittsburgh. With the season down to one game, Shula went back to Griese.

Despite Miami’s perfect record, the Redskins were a 1-point favorite as the teams met at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Jan. 14, 1973. The decision to go back to Griese paid off early.

With the contest scoreless late in the first quarter, the Dolphins drew first blood as Griese found Howard Twilley on 28-yard scoring strike. Kiick would add a short touchdown run in the second quarter to make it 14-0. The “No-Name Defense” did the rest.

On the afternoon, the Dolphins’ stout defense held Washington to 228 yards. Miami intercepted Washington quarterback Billy Kilmer three times. Two of those came from safety Jake Scott, who was named the game’s MVP.

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All-Pro linebacker Nick Buoniconti also had an interception. Defensive tackle Manny Fernandez was responsible for 15 total tackles.

The Redskins broke up the shutout in the fourth quarter on one of the more embarrassing moments in Super Bowl history. With just over two minutes to play, Yepremian was sent out to attempt a 42-yard field goal. The kick was blocked and caught off the bounce by Yepremian.

Instead of going down, the small kicker tried to throw a pass. The pass went mere inches before Yepremian batted the ball into the air and the arms of Washington’s Mike Bass. Bass returned it 49 yards for a touchdown to cut the Dolphins’ lead in half.

The miscue would be one of the few for the Dolphins that day and during the 1972 season. Miami ultimately won the game, 14-7, to complete the first perfect season in league history.

The Repeat

Miami’s winning streak didn’t make it through September in 1973. In Week 2, the Dolphins were defeated by the Oakland Raiders out west, 12-7.

Miami would start a new streak by winning its next 10 games. The Dolphins finished the regular season 12-2. Thanks in part to a revamped playoff system, they wouldn’t have to travel in the postseason until the Super Bowl.

The 1973 postseason saw the Dolphins face less resistance than during its perfect 1972 season. Miami never trailed in the playoffs. After beating the Cincinnati Bengals 34-16 in the Divisional round, the Dolphins pulled away from Oakland to win a third straight AFC title, 27-10. Miami became the first team to reach three straight Super Bowls.

The Dolphins made their way to Houston for Super Bowl VIII. In the contest, Larry Csonka would rush for a then Super Bowl record with 145 yards and two touchdowns. For a second Super Bowl in a row, the No-Name defense took a shutout into the fourth quarter.

Minnesota quarterback Fran Tarkenton scored from four yards out to break up the shutout. The day however, belonged to the Dolphins. Against a vaunted Vikings’ defensive line, Miami racked up nearly 200 yards rushing. Griese was an efficient 6-for-7 passing in a 24-7 victory.

With the win, the Dolphins joined the Green Bay Packers as the only teams to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Miami was the first repeat champion from the AFC.

Mike Ferguson is the associate editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.

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