The Miami Dolphins entered Week 13 of the 1972 season with the opportunity to win their 13th game, a feat accomplished only four other times in NFL history at that point (Chicago 1934, Green Bay 1962, Oakland 1967 (AFL), and Baltimore 1968). Cleveland had gone 14-0 in 1948 in the old All-American Football Conference, but those records were not included yet as part of NFL history, while the AFL records were after the 1970 merger.
People were noticing that the Dolphins had something special going on, so much so that an artist’s portrait of Don Shula graced the cover of Time Magazine’s December 11, 1972, issue. The article did not cover a lot of ground that would be unfamiliar to serious football fans, but it served as a good introduction to those who were just coming to hear about him in a context other than the coach who lost to the Jets in Super Bowl III.
The article was titled “Miami’s Unmiraculous Miracle Worker.” Shula describes himself by saying, “I don’t have a magic formula that I’m going to give to the world as soon as I can write a book (although he would write one, “The Winning Edge,” after that season).” He continued, “I’m not a person with a great deal of finesse. I’m about as subtle as a punch in the mouth. I’m just a guy who rolls up his sleeves and goes to work.” It was no coincidence that this description fit his team as well as it did him.
Vince Lombardi, who had passed away two years earlier, was the gold standard that other coaches of that era were measured against. The Time article compared them in this way, “Lombardi taught his men to hate their opponents so much that they occasionally came to hate him even more. Shula tends to think of his opponents as chess pieces to be eliminated.”
Shula’s chess match in week 13 would come against the New York Giants and their head coach Alex Webster. Don Shula’s first game as a head coach was against the Giants on opening day in 1963 when they visited Baltimore. Webster was finishing up his career as a fullback for New York. Shula’s Colts stormed out to a 21-3 lead, but the Giants came back and prevailed 37-28.
This would be Shula’s second visit to venerable (a nice way of saying old and crumbling) Yankee Stadium. He led his Colts into the Big Apple to stomp the Giants 26-0 in 1968, the year Baltimore stomped on most of their opponents on their way to a 13-1 record.
The Dolphins had never visited Yankee Stadium or ever played the New York Football Giants (as they are still sometimes called despite the baseball Giants moving to San Francisco in 1958). In the early 1970s, there were plenty of first-time matchups between the old NFL teams and their new competitors from the former AFL.
This would be Miami’s only journey to Yankee Stadium, which would shut down after the 1973 season to be rebuilt during the next two years. That set the Giants on a brief nomadic journey, playing at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut in 1974 and sharing Shea Stadium with the Jets, Yankees, and Mets in 1975. They settled into the original Meadowlands stadium in New Jersey in 1976.
New York had been one of the surprise teams in the NFL, bouncing back from a 4-10-0 1971 season to contend for the NFC’s lone wildcard playoff spot in 1972. They had been eliminated the day before the Dolphins game when Dallas beat Washington to claim the wildcard, but that did not seem to impact the intensity of the Giants players or the 62,000 fans that packed Yankee Stadium on a dreary December afternoon.
That was clear on the opening possession of the game, when the Giants wasted little time in striking. After Joe Orduna returned the opening kickoff to midfield, quarterback Norm Snead connected with wide receiver Don Hermann for a 34-yard gain. Dolphin safety Jake Scott tripped Hermann up at the one-yard line, but workhorse running back Ron Johnson went in untouched for the opening score of the game. A blocked extra point kept the Giants’ lead at 6-0.
Miami answered with a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive of their own. Quarterback Earl Morrall completed all three of his passes, and Mercury Morris set a team record with his 12th touchdown of the season, a 12-yard sweep around the left side. Garo Yepremian’s extra point gave the Dolphins a 7-6 lead they would never relinquish.
That did not mean that this was an easy win for Miami-not at all. For the third time this season, a New York team gave the Dolphins all they could handle. The Giants could have very well won this game…if they could have held on to the football.
Their turnover problems began on the kickoff following Morris’ touchdown. New York fumbled the kickoff and Charlie Leigh, better known for kick returns, recovered the ball for Miami at the Giants’ 28-yard line. The New York defense sacked Morrall on third down, holding the Dolphins to a 37-yard Yepremian field goal.
The Giants held onto the next kickoff and moved the ball like few teams had on the No-Name defense that season. Snead, with Miami’s Vern Den Herder in his face, slung a pass off his back foot and connected with his leading receiver, tight end Bob Tucker, for a 34-yard gain down to the Dolphin 15. For the second time in the first quarter, a New York receiver got loose and rumbled through the No-Name secondary for a big gain.
On the first play of the second quarter, with rain pounding the Yankee Stadium turf and mud, Giants running back Vince Clements fumbled. Miami safety Dick Anderson collected his seventh fumble recovery of the season at the Dolphins’ eight-yard line, ending the threat.
Some hard running by Miami’s Jim Kiick, playing in front of friends and family from his New Jersey home, twice put the Dolphins in scoring territory in the second quarter. The first time the drive stalled and Yepremian’s 45-yard field goal attempt in the mud was no good. On their next possession, Miami moved ahead 17-6 on a spectacular leaping 34-yard touchdown catch by Paul Warfield on third-and-eight.
Warfield was starting his first game in a month after seeing spot duty the prior week and was clearly back in top form, gaining 132 yards on four catches. Fans and writers had started wondering if the 30-year-old Warfield had lost a step because his numbers were down that season, but his performance in New York silenced those whispers.
The Giants answered with another scoring drive. It had appeared they would have to settle for a field goal from the Miami eight when Snead’s pass for Tucker in the end zone sailed over his head, but Anderson was called for pass interference for tripping Tucker. Ron Johnson snuck in for his second one-yard touchdown to make the score 17-13 Dolphins at halftime.
New York gained 210 yards in the first half, more than Miami had allowed in several games that season. Snead, who was fighting tendinitis in his throwing arm, completed 8 of 12 passes for 147 yards. He was having the best season of his career despite playing for his third team in the last three seasons, but the rest of his career would not wind up so good. After this game, his record as a starter was only 7-19-1.
The second half settled into a defensive slog. New York tried to get cute twice, and both times it cost them. In the third quarter, they lined up for a field goal from the Dolphins’ 16-yard line but ran a fake. The holder, punter Tom Blanchard, had played quarterback in college but threw the pass more like a punter and it fell incomplete, turning the ball over on downs.
After converting a fourth down near midfield early in the fourth quarter with the score still 17-13, the Giants ran a tight end reverse. They messed up the handoff and Bob Heinz recovered at the Dolphins’ 32-yard line. That was the Giants fourth turnover of the game. There would be two more.
One of those turnovers came on a punt by substitute punter Dick Anderson, who was a busy fella that day. He kicked what he called “a sand wedge that hit the pin” that bounced off a New York helmet and was recovered by Miami’s Larry Ball at the Giants 16. Folling the game, Giants coach Webster summed it up, “The turnovers did us in.”
Two Garo Yepremian field goals, the only points of the second half, made the final score Miami 23, New York 13.
This was a game that embodied a quote from Dolphins defensive tackle Manny Fernandez earlier in the week, “We’ve done what we had to all season. We’ll continue to do that.”
Meanwhile, the eyes of Miami were on Bob Griese’s ankle. He was activated for the Giants game, but Shula said, “He wasn’t ready. He can’t put his right foot down completely flat.”
Still haunted publicly for his decision to wait until well into the fourth quarter to replace Earl Morrall with Johnny Unitas in Super Bowl III, Shula would perhaps face a similar decision in the weeks to come. It would be a decision that would likely determine the fate of the Perfect Season.
Coming Next: Part 21-Dolphins Run to Records
Miami completed a 14-0 regular season and set new standards for rushing yards in a season in their 16-0 domination of the Colts.
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