The Dolphins took their 7-0 record up to Buffalo to start the second half of the 1972 season. Only two weeks earlier, these teams had played a strange game down in Miami, one in which the Dolphins prevailed over the Bills by a single point.
This was Miami’s last visit to Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium, where the Robert Redford movie “The Natural” would be filmed eleven years later. The stadium was less than affectionately known as “The Rockpile” because of its poorly maintained field. Writer Brock Yates said about the venerable stadium in Sports Illustrated in 1969, “it looks like whatever war it was a memorial to had been fought within its confines.”
The new home of the Bills, Rich Stadium, would open in nearby Orchard Park, New York the next season. Not coincidentally, that was the year that the Bill’s star running back O.J. Simpson broke Jim Brown’s single-season rushing record and became the first NFL player to run for 2,000 yards in a season (2,003 to be exact).
O.J. was in the midst of his breakout season when the Dolphins arrived for this 1972 rematch. He would win the first of his four NFL rushing titles with a total of 1,251 yards. He had yet to post a 100-yard game against Miami in six tries, however, and he would not come close in this, his seventh. That would also have to wait until the new stadium, with its fast artificial turf, was open.
The Dolphins began the scoring with a field goal, but Buffalo responded with a 12-play, 62-yard touchdown drive to take the lead. Quarterback Dennis Shaw, who played so poorly in Miami that he was benched, was off to a good start. He mixed runs and passes to steadily move the Bills down the field. On third and eight from the Dolphins 13-yard line, he saw that running back Randy Jackson had a step on Miami’s linebacker Doug Swift. Shaw’s pass hit Jackson at the eight, and he ran past the lunging Swift for the touchdown. Buffalo’s extra point was blocked, holding their lead at 6-3.
A big kickoff return by Mercury Morris was the first of several big plays he would make in the finest game of his career to that point. His second big play was when he took a handoff from quarterback Earl Morrall at the Buffalo 22-yard line and bounced all the way out to the right side. He dashed around the Bills defenders for his first touchdown of the day, putting the Dolphins back in the lead, 10-6, on the first play of the second quarter. This play had a wow factor to it, as Morris kept churning, kept his balance after being spun completely around, and found the end zone.
It was here that Miami’s No Name Defense started flexing its collective muscle, holding Buffalo to three-and-outs on their next two possessions. The Dolphins’ offense twice stalled out inside the Bills’ ten-yard line, though, and settled for Garo Yepremian field goals to move ahead 16-6.
After the second field goal, Yepremian put his kickoff out of bounds not once but twice. The rule at the time for that infraction was a five-yard penalty and a re-kick. After the second one, Yepremian was backed up to the Miami 30, and a short kick gave Buffalo good field position. They drove into field goal range, only to have their kicker John Leypoldt miss a 27-yarder. That happened back then much more often that it does today.
Having seemed to dodge a bullet, the Dolphins reloaded the gun for the Bills. From the Miami 24-yard line, Morrall threw a pass high enough to clear the outstretched arms of an oncoming defensive lineman. Unfortunately, it also cleared his receiver, Paul Warfield, who had slipped on his route. Waiting for the ball was Buffalo defensive back Tony Greene, who intercepted it at the 39 and ran in untouched for a score. This was the lowlight of a rough first half for Earl Morrall, who completed only two of his ten passes for 44 yards.
The Bills held the Dolphins to a three-and-out and got the ball back at their 44 with a minute left in the half. An 18-yard run by Simpson, his only significant play of the game, quickly moved Buffalo into scoring territory, but their threat ended when Miami defensive back Tim Foley tipped a Dennis Shaw pass, it bounced off of Doug Swift, then back into Foley’s hands for the interception.
Miami escaped the first half clinging to a 16-13 lead. In the second half, there would be no escape for Buffalo.
The Dolphins opened the half with one of their soul-crushing drives. They ran the ball on the first nine plays, with all three running backs sharing the load. On play ten from the Bills’ six-yard line, Morrall found tight end, Marv Flemming, in the end zone for a touchdown. Flemming was surrounded by defenders, but Morrall found the narrow window to get him the ball and delivered the pass flawlessly. It was one of only four he would attempt in the second half.
To their credit, Buffalo did not quit. They kicked a field goal on their next possession to move back within one score, 23-16.
That was it for the Bills. Shaw was later intercepted on a pass that was deflected by defensive back Curtis Johnson, who had blanketed Dwight Harrison, the intended receiver. Jake Scott gobbled up the interception, which set up the Dolphins’ final score of the game. Appropriate, it was Mercury Morris again, who was flipped up in the air but broke the plane of the endzone (and nothing else, fortunately) to score from four yards out.
With 3:43 to play, the game had been decided. All that was left was for Miami defensive end Vern Den Herder to pick up another sack, his third of the game, and for the Dolphins to run out the clock.
After an uncomfortable first half, Miami restored order on both sides of the ball to dominate and put Buffalo away. As Pat Summerall said on This Week in Pro Football, “Although they are in the same division as Miami, they (Buffalo) are not in the same class”
The Dolphins won using their now-familiar formula of smothering defense and a punishing ground game. The No Names held the big name, O.J. Simpson, to 45 yards rushing. The Bills only gained 172 yards of total offense, the third consecutive game Miami had held their opponent under 200 yards, with Buffalo being the victim twice.
On the other side of the ball, the Dolphins piled up 254 yards rushing on 45 attempts, an outstanding 5.6 yards per carry. It was the third consecutive game they had gone over the 250-yard mark on the ground. Are you seeing a trend here? I bet the rest of the league was.
Mercury Morris was awarded a game ball for his 106 yards rushing on only 11 attempts, two touchdowns, one reception for 26 yards, and a 30-yard kickoff return. He didn’t want to keep it. “I wanted to give it to the offensive line. Those guys did a great job. But Shoes (Coach Shula) told me to keep it.” Shoes? I suppose Morris could get away with that nickname after the kind of game he had.
The defensive star, Vern Den Herder, also deflected credit for his three sacks. “Our defensive backs were doing a good job of covering. It seemed that whenever Shaw found his primary receiver covered, which was most of the time, he had problems. That gave us time to get at him.”
If you wonder why I call this series “The Perfect Team,” I suggest you read those two quotes again.
The Dolphins now enjoyed a three-game lead in the AFC East after the Jets fell to the Redskins. Defensive captain Nick Buoniconti noted that after the game, “Three up and six to go.”
This was a team that did not get ahead of itself. First thing was first; win the AFC East and secure that playoff spot. They were obviously well on their way to that, and much, much more.
Coming Next-Part 16: An Early Celebration
The Dolphins welcomed the New England Patriots to the Orange Bowl seeking to earn Don Shula his 100th career coaching victory. They were able to celebrate early and often, and a 52-0 thrashing of the Patriots gave everyone a chance to join the party.
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