Don Shula enjoys the spotlight after a perfect season comes to a close.
January 14, 1973
In his distinguished career as a football coach, Don Shula had never faced a more difficult decision. Who should be the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII against the Washington Redskins? Should it be Bob Griese, who suffered a fractured ankle in the fifth game of the season, or Earl Morrall, who led the Dolphins to nine consecutive victories and into the playoffs until Griese returned late in the AFC title game and pulled out a 21-17 triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers?
Favoring the direct approach, Shula summoned Griese to his office in Miami and inquired, "How do you feel, how's the ankle?"
"I feel fine," Griese replied. "The ankle feels the best it's felt since I hurt it."
"I'm thinking of starting you in the Super Bowl," Shula explained.
Revealing his decision to Morrall was just as tough as making it. When a quarterback figures in 11 straight victories, he has every right to expect the starting assignment in the game that decides the championship of professional football.
"I explained to Earl that I thought the team would be stronger if we started a healthy Griese," said Shula. "We had been having some trouble scoring lately and I wanted Morrall ready to come in in case something should happen to Griese.
"I preferred having Morrall in reserve, because we couldn't be sure what Bob would do because of his inactivity."
Morrall accepted the decision in stride. At 38, Morrall had grown accustomed to such disappointments. Before he was acquired for $100 from the New York Giants two years earlier, Morrall had played for the Baltimore Colts, with whom he had experienced his share of peaks and valleys as "the other quarterback" behind Johnny Unitas.
"Of course, I don't agree with the decision," said Morrall, "but I'll abide by it. I thought I had a good year and should get the starting spot. Coach Shula told me the staff had a meeting and agreed we'd be stronger with Bob starting. I'll be ready. I'll watch the Redskins' defense and try to figure out what they're doing. And how they're reacting to our offense. It generally takes a period or two to get the feel of the defense."
Asked why he had decided on a starting quarterback before the Dolphins enplaned for Los Angeles and their January 14, 1973, engagement, Shula responded, "Because you don't fool around with men the stature of Bob and Earl."
Was Shula prepared for the second guess?
"I'm always prepared for the second guess, said Shula. "Earl was brought here as a backup to Bob. That's the way we started the season and that's how we'll end it."
"Nobody's going to question Shula, he's made too many correct decisions," Griese observed. "Somebody might question his
views on social activities, but not on football."
At the moment no NFL coach's name was more readily recognizable than that of Shula. Just four seasons after losing Super Bowl III, and one year after losing Super Bowl VI, the one-time defensive back out of Painesville, 0., and John Carroll University had coached the Dolphins to 16 consecutive victories, an unprecedented feat in professional football.
In their triumphant march, there had been only two squeakers, a 24-23 decision over Buffalo and a 16-14 victory over Minnesota. Despite a 52-0 humiliation of New England, a team that defeated Washington, 24-23, the Dolphins were established initially as three-point underdogs, a line that wavered only slightly during the two weeks prior to Super Sunday.
One of the factors weighing in the Redskins' favor, many thought, was a superiority at quarterback, manned by free-spirited Billy Kilmer.
A former All-America at UCLA, Kilmer was drafted No. 1 by the San Francisco 49ers, for whom he labored as backup to John Brodie. In an expansion draft, Kilmer was selected by the New Orleans Saints, but was acquired by George Allen for the Redskins before the start of the next season.
Kilmer violated most of the accepted rules of proper training, but somehow he got the job done, leading the Skins to an 11-3 regular-season record and playoff victories over Green Bay, 16-3, and Dallas, 26-3.
"Some of his passes," joshed one journalist," "follow the wobbly pattern of a loaf of bread thrown by your maiden aunt at the church strawberry festival." Kilmer would be the last to deny such a metaphor. During the season he had thrown the football 225 times and completed 120 passes for 1,648 yards and 19 touchdowns.
On or off the field, Kilmer was highly visible. He numbered among his acquaintances President Richard M. Nixon, a friendship attested to by a pin bearing the presidential seal and a letter presented by the Chief Executive to Billy's 13-year-old daughter, a cerebral palsy victim in California.
In uniform, Billy was the leader of the "Over the Hill Gang," the band of Redskin oldsters assembled by Allen in exchange for future draft choices.
Defensive tackle Diron Talbert was one of the graybeards acquired by Allen from Los Angeles after George left the Rams to accept the Redskins' post.
Like fans, Talbert could enjoy a laugh over Allen's proclivities for ice cream.
"I'm captain of the huddle," Talbert joked. "And every once in a while we'll scream. 'I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.'
Life with the "Over the Hill Gang" was a rewarding experience for the geriatric set.
"I've never been better prepared for a football game," said 34-year-old Ron McDole, a defensive end obtained from Buffalo two years earlier. In the playoff games we held Green Bay and Dallas without a touchdown. But that's expected of us. The offense expects us to do it, we expect the offense to score."
"We're older and we're expected not to make mistakes. When I was with Buffalo we had a lot of kids. One week we'd look like Superman, the next week we'd look like nothing."
The Redskins were not alone in the area of nicknames. A year earlier Tom Landry unwittingly bestowed on the Dolphins' defense a name that caught on immediately. Preparing for Super Bowl VI, the Dallas coach exclaimed, "I can't recall the names of the Miami defensive unit, but they're a big concern to me."
Overnight the Dolphins' defensive unit became the "No Names" and they reveled in the designation. When a contest was proposed to select a more colorful handle, members of the unit arose in righteous indignation and with demands to "knock it off, we're happy the way it is."
One person impressed by the unbeaten Dolphins was Allen, who proclaimed them "the soundest team we have faced in my coaching career . . . there isn't a weakness on the ball club." Allen added that "the Redskins are the strongest team we've ever had."
In returning to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, site of the first Super Bowl, the Dolphins and Redskins faced logistical problems foreign to pro football teams. The Dolphins were quartered in Long Beach, 25
miles from the Coliseum, the Redskins in Santa Ana, 36 miles distant. Media headquarters were at Newport Beach, equidistant between the camps.
The Monday practice routine was interrupted by a one-hour session for photographers. Tuesday through Thursday, the coaches and players were on call for interviews. On Friday the coaches were required to be in Newport Beach for a mass media interview. Conditions were not favorable for total concentration.
The trip to Newport Beach, Allen maintained, caused him to miss his first team meeting in 25 years of coaching. Shula appeared so tense to Jim Mandich that the tight end cracked, "Can you imagine what Don will be like if he loses another Super Bowl?"
"If I had my selfish way," said Allen, "I'd have come out here on Friday (two days before the game)." Later he conceded, "But this is good for the game."
Shula was not above having a little joke at the expense of his coaching rival, noted for his extreme security measures at his own practices and alleged attempts at counterespionage at opponents' workouts.
At an interview, Shula quipped, "We've thought of moving our last practice sessions to Tijuana so that George can start now to scour the area for our practice field."
Later Shula cracked, "George says that he has never lost a game played in the rain. So, if it rains on Sunday, we plan to forfeit."
Turning serious, Shula added, "When you go against an Allen-coached team it's tough. They play strong defense. They are strong offensively, able to strike quickly, and they have a fine kicking game. This is a team that is strong in all departments, and that's our main concern. Going into the game we know that we have to scrap and battle and come up with the plays that somehow will win for us.
"We feel that the run is our main strength and even though Washington is strong against it, we think we can get our running game going. We feel we have the offensive weapons to take advantage of a five-man line if Washington plays it."
"Both teams live by the run," said Allen, whose teams had won three, lost four and tied one in eight previous engagements with Shula teams. "Both teams pass sparingly. They gave up the fewest points in their conference, and ours the fewest in our conference. The teams are almost exactly alike."
Washington's running game was spearheaded by Larry Brown, who gained 1,286 yards in 285 carries, and Charlie Harraway, with 567 yards in 148 rushes.
Miami's ground assault featured Larry Csonka, 1,117 yards in 213 carries, and Mercury Morris, 1,000 yards in 190 attempts. Jim Kiick added 521 yards in 137 tries.
Allen was well aware of Morris' talents, admitting that he had discussed a possible trade for Mercury the previous winter, but added ruefully, "All I had to offer was future draft choices, and Don didn't want to wait until 1977."
In the midst of preparations for his Sunday encounter, Shula received two disturbing pieces of information. In a midweek wire service story, Carroll Rosenbloom, Shula's former boss at Baltimore, was quoted as saying, "There are two coaches who have broken all the rules of football." Allen, he said, "was guilty of nothing more than violating some waiver rules." Rosenbloom implied that Shula was guilty of a more grievous offense.
Shula fretted at length over the situation until Commissioner Pete Rozelle assured him that his fears were groundless.
On the day before the game another story surfaced, reporting that Allen had been fined $2,000 for failing to report an injury before a playoff game. Such an announcement, Shula reasoned, would serve as a unifying influence on the Redskins.
A phone call to Rozelle assured Shula that no such penalty had been assessed. If a fine were contemplated, Rozelle made it clear, it would be levied after the Super Bowl game, not before it.
If the report had been true, Shula remarked later, "I was going to tell him it was the dumbest thing anybody ever did the day before a big game. Can you imagine Allen telling his players the day before the game, 'Look what they're doing to me and I'm only trying to protect you.'
When the National Broadcasting Company television cameras flashed on at 12:30 p.m. -- commercials went for $200,000 a minute -- Memorial Coliseum showed 8,472 vacant seats among its 90,182. The no-shows, it was contended widely, resulted from the lifting of the TV blackout in the L.A. area.
After receiving the opening kickoff, the Dolphins failed to make a first down and had to punt, a development that Griese and his teammates accepted with perfect aplomb. A year earlier the reaction would have been completely different, Griese conceded.
"Last year (when the Dolphins lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl) we fell for the theory that the first team on the scoreboard would control the tempo of the game," he said. "Last year we departed from form to try to get a quick score. I threw on the first two downs and both times the receivers were covered. When we didn't score it hurt us psychologically. Then when Dallas scored we were really shook."
More battle-wise this time, the Dolphins awaited their turn, which came on their third possession. Starting from their own 37-yard line, and with 2:55 remaining in the first quarter the Dolphins moved to the Washington 28, where Griese faced a third-and-four situation.
Griese went to Howard Twilley, his 5-10 wide receiver, who faked Pat Fischer into a 180-degree turn at the 5-yard line, caught the pass and scored.
Garo Yepremian's conversion gave the Dolphins their first Super Bowl lead.
"On third-and-short I thought they'd be in man-for-man coverage," reported Griese. "They had (Paul) Warfield doubled. Howard and I had talked about this often. All year we had gone on a slant to the inside for the sure first down and we felt that Fischer would be expecting that. Howard made an inside move, three full steps, and Fischer went for it. Howard made a great move and Fischer did well to get back to make the tackle at the goal line."
Fischer credited Twilley with running a perfect pattern. "He kept running down and inside for about 15 yards," explained the cornerback. "Then he changed directions. He was trying to make me commit myself. When I made my move he cut to the outside. I didn't think he'd have time to do that. When the ball was coming down I thought I could get underneath him and knock the ball away. I think I could have tackled him short of the goal line, but I attempted to hit him high and dislodge the ball."
An apparent Miami touchdown, on a 47-yard pass from Griese to Warfield, was nullified by an illegal procedure penalty against wide receiver Marlin Briscoe and a promising Washington drive came up empty when Nick Buoniconti picked off a Kilmer pass and returned it 32 yards to the Washington 27.
Kiick and Csonka gained three yards apiece and Griese, who completed all six of his first-half passes, connected with tight end Jim Mandich, who rolled out of bounds on the 2-yard line. On his second smash into the line, Kiick went across and Yepremian added the extra point.
Opening the second half, the Redskins invaded Miami territory for the first time, moving from their own 30 to the Dolphins' 17 as Kilmer engineered four first downs.
The drive fell short, however, when two passes fell incomplete, Kilmer was sacked for an eight-yard loss by Manny Fernandez and Curt Knight, who had kicked seven consecutive field goals in the playoffs, missed to the right from 32 yards.
Later in the third period, the Dolphins unleashed a 78-yard march, Csonka accounting for the Dolphins' longest run of the season, a 49-yard scamper.
From the 5-yard line, Griese attempted to pass to tight end Marv Fleming, but safety-man Brig Owens intercepted in the end zone.
The Redskins' longest sustained drive in the 80-degree afternoon consumed 79 yards and more than seven minutes on the clock in the fourth quarter. From his own 11, Kilmer guided the 'Skins to the Miami 10, picking up five of the team's 16 first downs on the way.
This drive, too, failed to produce points because a Kilmer pass intended for Charlie Taylor was picked off by Jake Scott, who returned the ball from three yards deep in the end zone to the Washington 48, a 55-yard runback aided in a large measure by Bob Heinz' devastating block on Kilmer.
In five plays the Dolphins marched to the Redskins' 34, where the most bizarre play of the game took place.
Yepremian, attempting to increase the Miami lead to 17-0 with a 42-yard field goal, kicked the ball squarely into charging tackle Bill Brundige.
Instead of falling on the ball, Yepremian picked it up and made a feeble attempt to throw a forward pass. The ball was batted into the air and into the hands of cornerback Mike Bass, who sprinted 49 yards for a Washington touchdown. Knight's conversion made the score 14-7.
One minute and 57 seconds remained when the Redskins kicked off. As the Dolphins headed for their last series, Csonka addressed his teammates. "This is what we've been waiting for since last July," said Zonk. "We have to kill the clock and keep the ball away from them."
Added tackle Norm Evans: "We don't have to say it. We all know what we have to do now. So let's just do it."
Less than a minute remained when the Dolphins were forced to punt and the Redskins were about to draw their last gasp. Two Kilmer passes fell incomplete, a swing pass to Larry Brown lost four yards and then Kilmer, culminating an afternoon of frustration, was sacked for a nine-yard loss by Bill Stanfill as time ran out.
Exactly seven years, four months and 26 days after Joe Robbie was granted a franchise in the American Football League, the Dolphins were Super Bowl champions, completing the first perfect season in the history of the 53-year-old NFL.
Form had held true. The Dolphins were the fourth consecutive team to win the Super Bowl after losing on their first appearance. Others were Kansas City in 1970, Baltimore in '71 and Dallas in '72.
"There's no empty feeling this year," exulted Shula, freed from the double-loser stigma.
The most popular post-game question was directed at Allen. Why did the Redskins disdain the onside kickoff after Bass' TD run?
"We had all our timeouts remaining," explained the coach, "and we couldn't run the risk of giving them good field position. We tried to kick the ball deep, hold them and come back and tie the game."
The Redskins' game strategy, Allen added, "was to get on the scoreboard early because when they get ahead they have the talent to hold the ball and grind it out.
"There was great pressure on Kilmer because we were unable to run as we would have liked to. It was a difficult day for him, but he brought us to where we are today. They stopped our running better than I thought they could.
"It doesn't do any good to play in the Super Bowl if you don't win. We just lost to a team that played a better game."
In the coach's opinion, two plays were particularly damaging. "The biggest play of the first half was our failure to recover the punt fumbled by Scott," he said. Six plays later the Dolphins scored their first touchdown.
"The other play that hurt us was the ruling against Harold McLinton (linebacker) for slapping the ball."
The action forced a fumble by center Jim Langer on a fourth down on Miami's 27 in the first quarter. An illegal procedure call restored possession to the Dolphins.
"Interceptions were the big difference," said Kilmer, who was intercepted three times while completing 14 of 28 passes for
104 yards. "Buoniconti's interception set up a touchdown for them and Scott's cost us three points, at least.
"That's a swing of 10 or 14 points and that's all it would have taken."
Kilmer admitted that "I did not throw well today, I wasn't sharp. But you know Miami has as strong a defense as any we've played against all season and their two safeties (Scott and Dick Anderson) are super athletes. They're the heart of the pass defense.
"We felt we had to run against them, but their overall defense is so good that we couldn't get anything started."
The Redskins gained 141 yards on the ground, with Brown, their leading rusher in the season with 1,217 yards, held to 72 yards in 22 rushes.
"Griese read our double coverage extremely well throughout the game," said Fischer, victim of the Twilley touchdown. "We try to conceal our coverage when we double up on certain receivers. But Griese picked it up and always seemed able to go to the man with single coverage."
"We should have whipped them by more than 30-0," declared Fernandez, richer by $15,000 as a member of the winning team. "We call ourselves the 'No Names,' but I don't think there's a defense in the league with as many guys so good at their positions."
Informed that Scott, who had two of the Dolphins' three interceptions, had been named the outstanding player of the game, Fernandez agreed wholeheartedly with the selection.
"That's great, he's the guy who stopped 'em," said the defensive tackle. "Those two interceptions, those fair catches in traffic, not letting the ball bounce around. . . .
"We call him 'Big Play Jake' and the award couldn't have gone to a more deserving fellow. He's made the big plays all season. First he gets hell knocked out of him by Bob Matheson (on a collision), then he dives
after the ball and comes up with it. Then he makes the big interception in the end zone."
Scott performed his heroics despite bone chips in his wrist that required post-season surgery and despite an injection of a painkiller in his right shoulder.
"I didn't practice for two weeks," he related, "but my shoulder hurt only once, when I fell on it while covering a pass."
Scott's ground-covering abilities should not have been surprising. A native of South Carolina, he attended school in Virginia and went to the University of Georgia. He played a season of football in Canada before joining the Dolphins at a $5,000 cut in pay.
"I was lucky on the first interception," said Jake. "I batted the ball in the air and caught it. On the second Lloyd Mumphord (cornerback) and I were covering Charlie Taylor. Kilmer didn't see me coming across and the ball came right to me."
Shula said, "This is the greatest team I've ever been associated with. It's hard to compare it with other great teams but this team has gone into an area no other team has ever gone into before. It went through the season undefeated and won it at the end. And they have to be given credit for that achievement. There was always the feeling of not having accomplished the ultimate. This is the ultimate.
"Remember, they didn't score against our defense. We knew they were tough to run against. We came out with the run, mixed in some passes to take advantage of their stacked defense. On defense, we made them lay the ball up. We figured if we made them do that we'd come down with something. Griese's fine performance (8 of 11 for 88 yards) didn't surprise me. If he were 18-for-18, I wouldn't be surprised."
Shula's lavish endorsement of the new world champions was given a hearty endorsement by tight end Marv Fleming, who had been a member of Green Bay's first two Super Bowl champions.
"This team is greater than the Packer championship teams I was on," announced the tight end. "Shula deserves a lot of credit for the way he handled the team. We never had an unbeaten season at Green Bay and that's why this is a better team."
For several heart-pounding moments in the fourth quarter, however, there were growing suspicions that the Dolphins would fail to measure up to Fleming's lofty appraisal. Yepremian's debut as a Super Bowl passer sent shock waves through Miami partisans and created fears of total disaster in the final two minutes.
"It made you sick to think about it," said Scott.
"We had the game in control, we didn't even have to use the clock."
Still shaking with relief that his error had not cost the Dolphins the title, Yepremian admitted that "I had never prayed so much. God came through for me.
"I thought I was doing something good, something to help the team. Instead it was almost a tragedy. I almost caused a disaster."
Garo reported that he looked on "in horror" as Bass sped to the touchdown, but added that Shula never raised his voice to him when he returned to the bench, advising only that "you should have fallen on the ball."
"I thought I saw some white jerseys downfield, that's why I decided to throw the ball," Yepremian explained. "But the ball just slipped out of my fingers.
"Wouldn't it have been terrible after we win 16 games in a row if we had lost because of that play?"
Howard Kindig's snap for the attempted field goal was low," revealed Morrall, the holder. "Garo hit it good, but they broke through to block it."
Concerning his effort to tackle Bass, Yepremian said, "Mike ran right by me, then he came over and laughed and said, 'What were you trying to do, tackle me? You know better than that.'
"Then I told him, 'You just ruined my big break.' Really we're good friends. We were teammates at Detroit."
"I heard the thump when the ball was blocked," related Bass. "And it's my job to get the ball when it's blocked.
"Then I saw Garo with the ball and I knew from our years in Detroit that he wasn't going to run with it. He picked up the ball and it slipped out of his hand when he tried to throw it. When he tried to get it back, he kinda batted it into the air. That's when I got it. Somebody threw a good block on Morrall and that opened up the way for me.
"It was pretty much a straight line after that and I knew Garo wasn't going to tackle me. I'd never let that happen to me or I'd never hear the end of it back in Detroit."
Like others, Griese could laugh at the near-calamitous moment. "I've got to work with Garo," cracked Griese. "His throwing technique isn't what it should be. I don't even think he can throw, but he sure can kick."
Both coaches received telegrams from President Nixon, who watched the telecast at Key Biscayne, Fla.
Shula's wire read: "Today's victory was a smashing climax to a truly perfect season. You and all the Dolphins have my heartiest congratulations. It was a great victory for all of your players, for all of your devoted followers throughout the country and especially for you - Don -- the man who brought the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Miami. Once again, my congratulations and warmest personal regards to you and all the Dolphins."
Allen was told by the President that the defeat "was a keen disappointment to all Redskin fans but it certainly has done nothing to diminish the admiration and love for the team that you have coached so masterfully this season.
"The Redskins played gallantly from the opening kickoff this fall through the final seconds in the Coliseum, bringing a new sense of pride to the entire Washington community. You will never be 'over the hill' in our book and we'll all be in there rooting for you next season, fully confident you can go all the way."