Monday, January 13, 2014

Defending Perfection

Over the years, people have come to speak of the Miami Dolphins' perfect 1972 season in hushed tones.

I don't quibble with that. The 17–0 season was a remarkable achievement, accomplished, to a great extent, with a backup quarterback (starter Bob Griese went out with an ankle injury midway through the season) and a "no–name defense" that put the clamps on the best quarterbacks of the day — Len Dawson, Fran Tarkenton, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas — and then beat an emerging Hall of Famer, Terry Bradshaw, in the AFC championship game.

But I have long believed that what the Dolphins did 40 years ago, in their followup season of 1973, was even more impressive. (Incidentally, until next month's Super Bowl in New Jersey, Super Bowl VIII stands as the third–coldest Super Bowl ever played.)

Heading into the 1973 season, the Dolphins had an enormous bull's eye on their chests. In the eyes of all their rivals, they were the 17–0 Dolphins of the previous year who hadn't lost in a game that counted since Super Bowl VI, when Roger Staubach and the Dallas Cowboys beat them, 24–3.

Every team that faced the Dolphins in 1973 was hoping to be the one to knock them from their lofty perch.

The '73 Dolphins managed to stay up there in the season opener, beating a declining San Francisco team, but they lost to Oakland in the second week. They only lost once more that year, in a meaningless game with Baltimore in the next–to–last week of the regular season, then hammered Cincinnati in the first round of the playoffs and avenged their second–week loss to Oakland in the AFC championship game.

Then, in Super Bowl VIII 40 years ago today, the Dolphins pounded the Minnesota Vikings to become the second team to win back–to–back Super Bowls.

(That's still a relatively rare achievement, by the way. Pro football will play its 48th Super Bowl next month, and teams have won back–to–back Super Bowls only eight times.)

In spite of the constant pressure they faced all season, even after losing that game to Oakland, the Dolphins followed their 17–0 campaign with a 15–2 season. That's 32 wins in 34 games over a two–year period. That's a two–year record that few Super Bowl champions have come close to matching.

For a long time, I thought I was the only one (or at least one of the few) who recognized the accomplishment of the '73 Dolphins.

I remember a conversation I had with my friend Steve. He was a great admirer of the '72 Dolphins, and we often discussed that team. Once, I mentioned to him that I thought the '73 Dolphins were better, and his jaw just about hit the ground. After I explained my reasoning to him, he seemed to agree with me — or, at least, he agreed that I had a convincing case.

Anyway, recently, I read a retrospective article in the New York Daily News by Joe Belock that said what I have been thinking all these years: "Is it possible," Belock asked in his opening paragraph, "for a Super Bowl championship team to be underrated? Underappreciated?"

It's hard to imagine a Super Bowl champion being underrated, isn't it? Yet, that is precisely what the '73 Dolphins were — and still are, to an extent, as Belock's article suggests.

As Belock observes, they were better than the bunch that went unbeaten. "The schedule was tougher," he writes, yet the defense yielded fewer points.

Many coaches have won Super Bowls, but only a few have won two or more — and fewer still have won them back to back. It is so difficult — more difficult now, it seems, than it used to be — to repeat as champions in any sport. (We don't know yet who will play in this year's Super Bowl, but we do know that last year's winner, the Baltimore Ravens, will not be in it.)

I believe the Super Bowl that was won by Miami 40 years ago today was what secured Don Shula's spot in football history.

What happened in the following years added to his reputation, of course — most career wins (347), most Super Bowl teams (six) — but he was already regarded as a coaching legend by sundown 40 years ago.

Shula never won another Super Bowl. His '73 Dolphins were the last to achieve that for him.

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