“14 and 0, Three to Go”
That headline on the front page of the Miami Herald’s December 17, 1972 sports section succinctly summed up the Miami Dolphins’ accomplishment from the day before and the task still ahead of them.
Miami completed the first 14-0 season in NFL history with a 16-0 domination of the Baltimore Colts and broke a 36-year-old league record in the process. Sounds like a cause for celebration, right?
Not so much, it appeared.
Even the sold-out Orange Bowl was reserved. Extra security had been added for the game, anticipating fans rushing the field following a Dolphins win and perhaps trying to tear down the goalposts, but they needn’t have worried. In the words of one policeman quoted by the Herald, “This is a much more disciplined crowd than any I’ve seen here before.”
The reporting cited the weather as a contributing factor. The temperature was a Miami-chilly 64 degrees at kickoff, with a stiff breeze making it seem cooler. I suspect there was a more important reason, however.
As the wins had piled up during the season, Shula acknowledged how special it would be to win every game, but if and only if that was followed by a Super Bowl championship. His players bought in as demonstrated by a relatively muted locker room celebration following the Colts game, but it appeared Shula’s message had permeated the entire community.
There was much to be proud of, if not celebrate, after this game. Not only had Miami completed the regular season without a single blemish on their record, but they had also set a new NFL team mark for most rushing yards in a season. Previously, the 1936 Detroit Lions had run for 2,885 yards out of their single-wing offense during a 12-game season. They were led by stalwart running backs Ernie Cadell and Ace Gurowsky and quarterback Dutch Clark, household names only in their own household.
The Dolphins exceeded that total in the third quarter when quarterback Earl Morrall, the only Dolphin player born prior to the old record being set, gained five yards on an impromptu scramble. They finished with a total of 2,960 yards rushing, an average of over 211 per game. Offensive line coach Monte Clark received the game ball on behalf of his unit, “Why this is so meaningful to us-what else could better show our accomplishment than such a record.”
It was not a big surprise that the team rushing record fell during the 1972 season. A rule change prior to that season moved the hashmarks further in from the sidelines, making the short side of the field much wider. This modification factored into Miami’s record falling the following season to the O.J. Simpson led-Buffalo Bills. O.J. set the individual mark that year with his 2,003 yards, and the team averaged nearly ten additional yards per game than the Dolphins had the prior season.
Miami’s mark would be exceeded twice more in a 14-game season, by Buffalo again in 1975 and Pittsburgh in 1976. The New England Patriots broke Buffalo’s record in 1978, the first 16-game season. That mark stood until the Baltimore Ravens ran for a record 3,296 yards in 2019. That trend is why the mid-to-late 1970’s are sometimes referred to as the “dead ball” era in the NFL, where teams ran more, passed less, and scored less. Rules changes restricting defenders’ ability to make contact with receivers were made in 1978 to open up the passing game.
The Dolphins also had they eyes on another first, seeking to become the first team to ever have two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season. A 1,000-yard season was a big deal at that time-as recently as 1969 only one player had exceeded that total in a season. Larry Csonka had hit the magic number for the second time already that year, and Mercury Morris was on the cusp.
As badly as Morris and his teammates wanted that milestone, the Colts Mike Curtis and his teammates wanted to deny it. Morris said after the game, “Every time I lined up in the I formation, I could see Curtis and his boys looking back at me and just waiting for that pitch.” For his part, Curtis reportedly approached Morris during pre-game stretching and said, “Hey, Merc, you’re not getting no bleeping record off me today!” It was charm like that which helped Curtis earn the nickname “Mad Dog.”
When the game ended, Morris had gained 86 yards on 26 carries and been helped off the field twice due to his bum ankle. He had also slipped on the Poly Turf field several times, raising the ire of his running mate Csonka afterwards.
This left his season total at 991 yards and brought the only disappointment of the day for the Dolphins and a small sense of accomplishment for Baltimore, which had little to celebrate in 1972. They were only able to enjoy even that until the following Thursday, when the commissioner’s office made a ruling.
Back in the Dolphins’ 24-23 win over Buffalo in Week 6, there had been a hotly disputed play where Morrall was ruled to have lateraled the ball to Morris. The ball hit the ground and Morris was charged with a nine-yard loss while Morrall, Shula, and others complained that it was an incomplete forward pass. The scoring was changed to a fumble by Morrall, and Morris had the nine-yard loss taken away to reach exactly 1,000 yards for the season.
This was the third consecutive time Miami had shut out the Colts. It took a missed 20-yard field goal by soon-to-be-ex kicker Jim O’Brien, the hero of Super Bowl V, to keep Baltimore off the scoreboard. Another big factor was the six Baltimore turnovers, one of them coming from an unexpected source.
In the second quarter, Colts quarterback Marty Domres, who was installed as starter following the team’s 1-4 start, was shaken up. Out trotted legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas, widely regarded at that time as the best to ever play the game. His final pass in a Baltimore uniform was intercepted. Unitas acknowledged the standing ovation he received from the Orange Bowl crowd as he jogged onto the field, “That was very nice of them. I was very nice to them too. I threw the interception.”
Unitas’ former backup Earl Morrall, on the other hand, finished atop the AFC passing leaderboard for the season. This along with a perfect 9-0 record as a starter had Morrall feeling pretty good about things, “It has been the greatest season of my career.”
Another quarterback received a big ovation from the crowd in the fourth quarter. Bob Griese saw his first playing time at the site of his injury nine weeks earlier. Shula described him as “looking sharp.” Griese completed two of his three passes and took a sack with no ill effects.
Griese was adamant about not starting a quarterback controversy with his appearance. Afterward, he said, “Earl’s healthier than I am, and until I’m ready altogether, there should be no doubt about who starts.”
There was still doubt being expressed about how good the Dolphins were. On his radio show the previous week, Howard Cosell was interviewing renowned football writer Dan Jenkins, who was plugging his new novel, “Semi-Tough.”
Jenkins asked, “Don’t you agree there are no great teams any more? I don’t think Miami is a great team. Do you?”
Cosell, apparently not feeling threatened by Dolphins fans any more, agreed, “No, I don’t.”
The Miami Herald’s executive sports editor, Ed Storin blamed this on the “old New York media syndrome-if it doesn’t happen in New York City it can’t be great.” Trust me, that was indeed a thing at the time.
Storin added, “Certainly if the Dolphins go through 17 games undefeated, which means they would be world champions, then they would be described in years to come as one of the great teams of pro football history.”
Now there was somebody with a sense of history before it happened. After all, this was a team that had led the NFL in most points scored, most yards gained, fewest points allowed, and fewest yards allowed-an amazing feat.
Miami safety Jake Scott reflected on the 14-0 record afterwards in the locker room, “Maybe we don’t realize the importance of it right now. We’re thinking of the playoffs. But I reckon in 10 or 15 years or so, when the money’s spent, we’ll look back on this day with warmth.”
That turned out to be an understatement. His fellow defender Nick Buoniconti, however, would have none of that forward thinking yet. “I really can’t get too excited even now over it,” he said. “We have an awful lot to atone for from last year.”
Not much in the 1972 season had been easy or pretty for the Miami Dolphins, and that would not change in the playoffs.
Coming Next: Part 22 – Flirting With Disaster
The Dolphins path to redemption began, and nearly ended, when they hosted Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs.