MIAMI (AP) — Fifty years ago, members of the 1972 Dolphins team lifted fiery coach Don Shula on their shoulders for a victory lap from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, celebrating not only a Super Bowl win over Washington, but an emphatic one. exclamation point on the NFL’s only perfect season.
Not that the dolphins ever spoke of perfection. Just mentioning the word felt taboo.
“I can’t imagine anyone whispering to anyone and Coach Shula just overhearing the fact, ‘Hey, guess what! We’re 11-0’,” said starting offensive tackle Doug Crusan. “Oh my god, that couldn’t be.”
They did the unspeakable anyway, going 17-0 for a score that could hold out for 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 for 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 shone in an era before trades and constant player movement between teams leveled the playing field. However, roster restrictions could have worked against them just as easily.
One serious injury would have derailed that magical season, and one almost did. Miami starting quarterback Bob Griese broke his right leg and dislocated his ankle in Week 5. Luckily for the Dolphins, they had a powerful foot run behind Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris and Jim Kiik.
They were also motivated – not by perfection, but by reconciliation. They had lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl the previous season and sought redemption, proof that the previous season, despite many opinions, was no fluke.
Little did they know at the time that they became one of the NFL’s highest symbols of achievement.
“The confidence that was built every week passed,” Crusan said. “We got stronger and stronger. And of course you go into the play-offs 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.”
To achieve perfection, they strived to be as polished as possible. And Shula, known for his inflammatory temper, pushed them there, often reminding them of that Super Bowl loss.
“Losing was a big motivator for Don Shula. He hated it, and he wanted his players to hate it,” said Joe Horrigan, a professional football historian and former executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “He said, ‘Remember that bad taste in your mouth? Keep it.’ That was his philosophy.”
The training sessions were intensive. They sometimes practiced three or four times a day.
“I was exhausted both mentally and physically,” said defending defender Charlie Babb, a rookie that year. “Just the long season and the kind of training and the kind of pressure Shula and the coaching staff put on you to be perfect.”
As perfect as they tried to be, they also had to be lucky. They didn’t blow up teams and there were a few close calls. One of their biggest tests came in the playoffs against the Cleveland Browns on Christmas Eve.
The Browns had a 14-13 lead with about eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. Miami hadn’t been this late in a game since Week 3.
Behind backup quarterback Earl Morrall, in for the injured Griese, the Dolphins used a 35-yard catch from Paul Warfield to set up an 8-yard touchdown from Kiik to go to 15-0.
“The ball should bounce your way in just about every game,” says Larry Seiple, a gambler. “There were games where we had chances to lose, but also to win.”
Seiple said he doesn’t believe there will be another perfect season, at least not in his lifetime.
Free agency and trades have accelerated the ability to move players, creating more parity. And with 17-game regular seasons, Horrigan believes that staying undefeated isn’t as big a priority as getting into the postseason.
“You hear the cliché ‘One game at a time,'” Horrigan said. “Nobody thinks, ‘Let’s win ten in a row.’ I don’t think anyone would shoot it.”
Horrigan added that it is extremely difficult to stay undefeated with technological advancements, especially replay.
“I once told Don Shula this, I said, ‘You know, if there was an instant replay, you might not have been undefeated,'” he said. “Mistakes were made, just like now, but it would go unnoticed. As close as some of those matches were, one game could have made a big difference.”
The 2007 Patriots, with quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick, were about to match Miami. The New York Giants ruined that in the Super Bowl — ruining the best chance in generations to witness perfection.
“If a team did it, I thought that team with that quarterback would be the one,” said Dick LeBeau, the longtime NFL defense coordinator.
The 1985 Chicago Bears went 18-1 on their way to winning the Super Bowl. The one loss? To Miami, 38-24 wins over the Bears in a Monday night classic where the Dolphins just wouldn’t allow another team to be perfectly on watch.
Akron in 1920 and Canton in 1922 and 1923 were both undefeated champions, but each of those clubs also drew at least one game. They weren’t perfect.
This season, the Eagles are the NFL’s last undefeated team behind quarterback Jalen Hurts. They have victories over the Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys to their name.
With only four teams remaining with winning records remaining, many believe the Eagles have an open road to the Super Bowl. FanDuel Sportsbook currently lists their season win bet at 13.5.
But only the Miami Dolphins can say perfect.
“It’s not easy,” Seiple said. “Most teams start 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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