“Kiick’s Pride Stung by Lack of Activity”
That headline appeared on the front page of the Miami Herald sports section during the week following the Dolphin’s opening win at Kansas City.
Running back Jim Kiick was responding to his lack of touches against the Chiefs, only seven out of Miami’s 42 rushing attempts and no pass receptions. Mercury Morris started and played most of the game beside stalwart Larry Csonka.
Kiick shared his disappointment with Herald beat reporter Bill Braucher, “I wouldn’t have any honesty or guts if I didn’t say I feel very disappointed. I have feelings, too. It hurt my pride not to start in Kansas City after four years as a regular. What have I done not to deserve it?” He added, “I’m just very disappointed. I haven’t contributed to the team at all.”
After dancing around the issue all week, referring to “three number one backs,” Head Coach Don Shula started Kiick in the home opener against the Houston Oilers. While it was unclear if it was a direct response to Kiick comments, Kiick proved he was still ready to contribute to the Dolphins’ success. He gained 55 yards on nine carries, caught three passes, and scored two touchdowns in Miami’s 34-13 whipping of the hapless Oilers.
Houston’s visit was a return to the Orange Bowl for their new head coach Bill Peterson. He had previously been the head man at Florida State and enjoyed great success against the University of Miami there. His only trip to Miami as a pro coach, however, was certainly forgettable, as was his brief NFL career. Peterson would be relieved of his duties early in the 1973 season after coaching 19 games and winning only one of them. He would never coach at any level again.
Things went south in a hurry for the visitors. After receiving the opening kickoff, quarterback Dan Pastorini, being rushed by Dolphins second-year defensive end Vern Den Herder, lofted a swing pass to running back Hoyle Granger (pronounced Granjay). He slipped and fell on the wet Poly Turf, giving Den Herder time to turn around and catch him. Den Herder stripped him of the ball, and fellow end Bill Stanfill recovered it for Miami at the Houston 14. It took only two running plays, both by Jim Kiick, for the Dolphins to score.
It quickly got worse for the Oilers. After the Miami defense held Houston to a three-and-out, Pastorini, the quarterback who doubled as the punter, could not handle the wet ball on the snap and fumbled. Jim Mandich recovered for Miami at the Oilers’ 30-yard line. The Dolphins kept the ball on the ground and punched it in on the fourth play, a two-yard run by Mercury Morris. Garo Yepremian continued his shaky start to the 1972 season when his extra point was blocked, but the Dolphins led 13-0 with 6:44 remaining in the first quarter.
There had been a light rain falling since before the opening kickoff, but after Miami’s second touchdown it really started coming down. The Dolphins began having their own problems holding onto the ball, prompting Pat Summerall’s comment on This Week in Pro Football, “The normally mistake-proof Dolphins started looking like a carnival act.” Each team would wind up with four fumbles. The Dolphins had an odd combination with their three running backs each coughing up a fumble and scoring a touchdown.
Bob Griese would match his backfield mates, scoring a two-yard touchdown following a crushing block by Csonka, and committing a turnover, an interception at the Houston one-yard line in the second quarter when Miami was threatening to make the score 20-0.
They accomplished that two possessions later, with Griese finding Paul Warfield on a 39-yard strike the key play, and that remained the score at halftime.
Despite the foibles by the offense, the Dolphins’ defense completely shut the Oilers down in the first half, allowing only one first down and 28 total yards, -10 passing.
Miami appeared to put the game away by taking the second-half kickoff and marching 76 yards in nine plays, seven of them runs, to stretch their lead to 27-0.
Yet there were a few uneasy moments later in the third quarter for the soggy Dolphins fans. Pastorini, under a heavy rush once again, launched a pass to Charlie Joyner who had perfectly split the seam in the Dolphins’ vaunted zone defense. Pastorini’s pass hit Joyner in stride, and he outran safeties Dick Anderson and Jake Scott for an 82-yard touchdown. Or, as Summerall referred to it in TWIPF, “an 82-yard consolation prize.” That would be little consolation for Joyner on that day, but he would achieve a measure of revenge nine years later when his San Diego Chargers won the epic overtime playoff battle against the Dolphins in the Orange Bowl.
Three plays later, Griese and Morris failed to connect on a handoff, and the Oilers recovered at the Miami 26. Houston scored three plays later to draw within 27-13 (they had missed the first extra point), then Miami gave the ball right back on a Kiick fumble, still late in the third quarter.
At that point, the Dolphins ended that foolishness. Summerall summed it up on TWIPF, “Miami had all the horses when they held onto the ball.”
Miami’s defense forced another three-and-out, then the Dolphins embarked on one of their soul-crushing late-game drives. They marched 93 yards, taking 14 plays and running over seven minutes off the clock to pad their lead on Kiick’s second touchdown, a four-yard pass from Griese.
Following an interception by Tim Foley, the Dolphins brought in the second-team backfield of Morrall at quarterback and Hubert Ginn and Charlie Leigh at running backs. They ran off the final 6:33 of the game, allowing the clock to run out at the Houston four-yard line.
Following the Dolphins’ win Shula said, “It’s the kind of game you’re glad when it’s over. Mainly I was uneasy because with the field in such poor condition, the play was so sloppy that anything could happen. Whoever was in there was dropping the ball.”
While Shula may have been fretting, the opposing coach Peterson was marveling, “Miami wasn’t a good football team today, they were a great one. They executed, they had discipline, and that discipline gives them the winning attitude.”
Once again, the slipper turf was the big post-game story. Lest you think I’m overstating it, there were three turf-related stories in the Monday Miami Herald and one on Tuesday. It was a big deal.
Larry Csonka was perhaps the most passionate critic in the Dolphins locker room, “It’s depressing. I haven’t been hit, just landed on. Technology and the damned artificial turf have advanced to the stage where they’re capable of finishing all the players in the NFL years before their time.” Csonka also said he felt “like my ribs were coming out my throat,” and called the Poly Turf “an engineering disgrace.” Not being one just to complain, he volunteered to “dedicate my time to organizing a bunch of guys with jack-hammers and coming out and ripping out the Poly-Turf.”
Guard Larry Little called the conditions “embarrassing” after bruising his knee, thigh, and shoulder in falls on the rug and said he was “ashamed of our home field.”
Even Mercury Morris, who had another productive game, said “You have to discipline yourself to run flat-footed. You can never go full steam.”
Later, Vern Den Herder said, “the turf was like ice skating.”
Remember, this was the second version of Poly-Turf laid in the Orange Bowl. The original version installed in 1970 had done well with wet conditions, but the intense ultraviolet rays in South Florida gradually made the turf very slick. That was not expected to be a problem with version 2.0, but it was very difficult to get water off of it, and was very, very slippery when wet. Herald sports editor Edwin Pope said the change “was something like jailing Bonnie and Clyde only to have Charles Mason escape.” Not good.
While this concern loomed over the Dolphins’ 1972 home schedule, home game #1 had nonetheless been a convincing win, albeit over a very bad team. Tom Brookshier said on This Week in Pro Football, “They (Miami) do it in searing heat or driving rain. They look almost unbeatable under any conditions.”
That would be severely tested in Week 3 when the Dolphins traveled to Minnesota for a highly anticipated nationally broadcast meeting with the Vikings. It would be a beautiful day in Bloomington, a day that would nearly be the Dolphins’ undoing.
Coming Next Week: Part 10-Narrow Escape in the North
If there was a game the Dolphins should have lost in 1972, this was the one. Instead, they showed the mettle of a champion and found a way to remain undefeated with a thrilling come-from-behind victory.
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