“Our objective this year is to go undefeated.” Dolphins Head Coach Don Shula announced that to his team in one of the first meetings of the 1972 training camp.

While Shula was already being hailed by many as the savior of the Dolphins franchise, star running back Larry Csonka took a somewhat different view of his coach. After hearing Shula’s statement/challenge, Csonka said later, “I remember thinking to myself, ‘oh my God, this guy is possessed. He is the devil.’”

During a Don Shula training camp, most if not all his players would likely have agreed with Csonka’s assessment. Decades before the restrictions negotiated in recent collective bargaining agreements, there were days Shula would have his team practice four times in the Florida heat. Back in those relative dark ages, players were not allowed water during practices, often taking salt tablets to help their bodies retain what fluid they could. There was also plenty of hitting in camp to prepare for the rigors of the season.

For many years there was a myth that pieces of coal could be turned into sparkling diamonds with the right amount of pressure. That turned out not to be scientifically true, but Don Shula was no scientist.

The pressure Coach Shula applied to his team in that training camp and throughout the 1972 season took the lump of coal that was the Super Bowl VI loss and used it to turn his team into a sparkling diamond. Although Shula could always find flaws, to the rest of the world, it would look perfect.

The rest of the world would need some convincing, however. Despite winning the AFC Championship in 1971, the Dolphins were not even a consensus pick to win the AFC East in 1972.

Street and Smith’s Official Yearbook, the gold standard of season preview magazines for many years, picked Miami to finish second in the division behind the Baltimore Colts, who they had defeated 21-0 in the AFC Championship game the previous season.

Writing the prediction piece for Street and Smith’s was veteran AFL/AFC reporter Larry Felser. He liked the Colts to win because “The Colts are defensively superior to the defending AFC champions.” He also stated, “The only first-rank Miami defenders are middle backer Nick Buoniconti and safeties Jake Scott and Dick Anderson.” His pick to win Super Bowl VII was the Chiefs, who the Dolphins had defeated in Kansas City in the prior year’s playoffs.

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Sports Illustrated’s NFL expert Tex Maule concurred with Felser, relegating Miani to second behind Baltimore. The magazine’s scouting report set these limited expectations, “It is unreasonable to expect that the Miami Dolphins again will enjoy the kind of success that, apart from mid-January, they experienced last season. Oh, Don Shula’s club should make the playoffs for a third consecutive year, but for the team to prevail as before…begs much of logic and more of fate. Such was the uncommon good health of the AFC champions in 1971 that one can only suppose they have been living on borrowed Blue Cross.” SI did not pick a Super Bowl winner-probably just as well.

For the Sporting News, NFL scribe Bob Oates also chose Baltimore to win the division, saying that vote was “hesitantly cast” over Miami. He did at least list Miami among eight teams that could win the Super Bowl. Oates was clear, however, that he believed if Roger Staubach had not suffered a separated throwing shoulder that required surgery, that the Dallas Cowboys would have been his choice for the best team in the NFL.

Renowned Las Vegas odds maker Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder, in his days before CBS’ The NFL Today, also picked the Dolphins to finish second in the AFC East, behind the New York Jets. The Greek had Minnesota beating Kansas City in Super Bowl VII. Synder’s friends at Harrah’s Tahoe had listed odds favoring Baltimore to win the AFC. The Colts were at 3-2, followed by Oakland at 3-1 and Miami and Kansas City both at 7-2.

Not much of a year for NFL prognosticators, was it? In 1972, when TV weather forecasters were still using magic markers to draw their weather predictions on a map, they were still ahead of their NFL counterparts.

Despite these forecasts, Miami fans were showing their excitement in a way very pleasing to managing partner Joe Robbie; they were buying tickets at a record pace. In May, Robbie announced the team had exceeded 65,000 season ticket sales for the first time. Only three years earlier, in 1969, the team had sold 17,478.

The franchise that fired Flipper had come a long way. Yes, the dolphin who was a TV star at the time used to cavort in a tank in the open end zone. She (her real name was Patty, one of four who appeared on the show) was let go by Robbie because the city and the Miami Seaquarium refused to pay for tank repairs and the cost of transporting Flipper to and from the Orange Bowl. Money was very tight for the Dolphins in their early days.

The fans had clearly forgiven Robbie. Winning will do that for you.

Befitting the Dolphins surge in popularity, the Miami City Commissioners had agreed to add a 4,680 seat grandstand in the open (east) end of the Orange Bowl, bringing the capacity up to about 80,000. These seats had previously been erected specifically for the New Year’s Day Orange Bowl Classic, Super Bowl III, and the 1971 AFC Championship game. They would stay up throughout the season this time.

Don Shula had kept busy during the offseason, taking speaking engagements from coast-to-coast, wrapping up as the Grand Marshall of the Firecracker 400 NASCAR in Daytona the week before training camp opened. He found plenty of time for football activities, too, not only picking up quarterback Earl Morrall on waivers but trading the team’s 1973 first-round draft pick for wide receiver Marlin Briscoe from the Buffalo Bills. The 26-year-old Briscoe had led the AFC in catches and yards in 1970, dropping off a bit in 1971 while the Bills suffered through a dismal 1-13 season.

One thing Shula did not do was pursue free agents. Even back in 1972, players could technically become free agents by not signing a contract and “playing out their option” for a season. This theoretically gave them the right to sign with another team after that one season, but in reality, they remained tethered to their original team.

Dolphins beat writer Bill Braucher explained in the Miami Herald, “Shula is not about to risk signing veteran free agents. Such a move would necessitate “compensation” to the free agent’s former employer in the judgment of Commissioner Pete Rozelle.” This was known as the “Rozelle Rule,” which achieved its goal of restricting player movement and therefore keeping salaries low. Briscoe had played out his option in Buffalo, but Miami had to reach an agreement with the Bills about compensation lest the decision wind up with Rozelle.

Therefore, teams had to be built through the draft, trades, and working the waiver wire. The 1972 Dolphins were assembled effectively using all three of those tools.

It had also been a busy summer in Miami. The city played host to the 1972 Democratic National Convention, the first to be held after the chaotic 1968 convention in Chicago. Although there were protests held outside the convention center (standard operating procedure of the times), most of the chaos was confined to the disorganization and political infighting inside the building.

Additionally, more often than not that summer, Miami residents would pick up their Herald or Sun-Sentinel newspapers in the morning and see the latest headline about the Vietnam war on the front page.

Football would be a welcome refuge from the news of the day.

The Dolphins opened camp to rookies on July 9, with veterans following on July 12. They once again convened at Biscayne College, a private Catholic school now known as St. Thomas University. Shula had relocated the camp from St. Thomas School in Boca Raton when he came to Miami in 1970, and the Dolphins would remain there for 23 years.

The Dolphins traveled to Detroit on August 5 for the first of six(!) preseason games. Playing in front of a sellout crowd at Tiger Stadium, Miami fell to Detroit. Bill Braucher summed it up in the Herald, “The Detroit Lions won the shoddy game, 31-23, mostly because of errors of omission by Miami’s defense and of commission by Earl Morrall.”

Miami had fallen behind 24-3 in the second quarter, and newly acquired Morral was the main culprit. He completed only four of thirteen passes for 42 yards and threw two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. After the game, Morral said, “I’ve had better nights, certainly.” Braucher added, “Morrall has given few more dismal performances.”

There was one bright note from Dolphins radio play-by-play broadcaster Rick Weaver. In the post-game summary, he said, “Well, we lost the opening ball game last season too in the preseason by a lopsided score at the Orange Bowl, if you recall, to Cincinnati 27-10, so maybe this is a harbinger of good things to come. You lose the preseason opener and go on to the Super Bowl.”

Could be Rick. Could be.

Coming Next Week: Chapter 3-An Imperfect Beginning

The Dolphins return home to the Orange Bowl for their first game on the stadium’s new Poly-Turf. Mistakes are again costly in their game vs. the Packers, and one of eighteen(!) unsigned players is seriously injured.