There was a great deal of celebrating in Miami last January when the Dolphins announced the names of the players they had chosen in the AFL's expansion draft. Since the AFL allowed its clubs to freeze only 23 men each, the Dolphins were able to pick up 19 AFL regulars among a fairly solid nucleus of 32 players. On the surface they emerged so much better off than any previous expansion team that some AFL observers claimed the new entry was already superior to Denver, which is struggling into its seventh season.
However, what looks lovely in January can lose its glow by September. Four of the original 32—Fullback Jack Spikes, Offensive Guard Ken Rice, Offensive Tackle Jim Davidson and Defensive Tackle Howard Simpson—retired from the game. Rice came back but missed much valuable work. Miami gave up Linebacker Ron Caveness to Houston for negotiation rights to Tulsa Quarterback Bill Anderson, who signed with the NFL. Safety Man Ross O'Hanley ruptured a tendon in his thigh and is out for the season. And there were rumbles of internal troubles, not only among the players but with the franchise itself.
Miami, then, seems destined for the same fate as other expansion teams, which is season-long occupancy of last place. The Dolphins catch Oakland, New York, Buffalo and San Diego in their first four games, and it is not until October 16 that they will have a chance to show whether they are as good as Denver.
That does not mean the Dolphins will be a breeze for their other opponents. Miami is going to be forced to fill the air with passes, and any team that does that can be a problem. Miami will be throwing for two reasons, one good and one bad. The good one is that the Dolphins have some fine receivers. The bad one is that they are very weak on running backs. Billy Joe, 235-pound fullback obtained from Buffalo, suffered from double vision as the result of a concussion and has been slow in coming around. In desperation Miami Coach George Wilson, late of the Detroit Lions, signed former Chicago and Washington Fullback Rick Casares, a 35-year-old free agent. Wilson has little hope that Casares can help much as a runner. But Casares and Billy Joe are big backs and could help quite a bit by blocking for a quarterback who is trying to fling the ball downfield to someone. If that fails, a 219-pound rookie, Sam Price of Illinois, is a running-back possibility.
But in throwing the ball, ah, that is something else again. At quarterback the Dolphins have Dick Wood, an excellent deep passer, along with rookies Rick Norton, the very promising No. 1 draft choice from Kentucky, and George Wilson Jr., the coach's son, who can double as punter. Wood has a chronic bad knee and seems to be boxing the compass in the AFL. But when he has time he can throw the bomb with accuracy, as he proved at New York and Oakland. Wilson has never made it as a regular at Kansas City or Boston, although it must be said in his behalf that he was playing behind Len Dawson and Babe Parilli. Besides being a rookie, Norton also has a bad knee. No Miami quarterback was impressive in preseason games, but that was to be expected, as they were working with receivers who were strangers to them.
Other than the pass-blocking of big backs, the Miami quarterbacks will need protection from their offensive line—most likely Billy Neighbors and Ernie Park at guards, Maxie Williams and Norman Evans at tackles, and either Tom Goode or Mike Hudock at center. Evans is the best prospect of the bunch, but Park and Neighbors have played regularly on winners at San Diego and Boston. Depth is the problem.
If the quarterbacks can get the ball away, there are all sorts of able hands to do the catching. The best proven hands belong to Tight End Dave Kocourek, an All-AFL performer at San Diego, and to Frank Jackson, a fast flanker for Kansas City in 1964. But Jackson has been hurt, and the deep receivers will come from a group that includes Bo Roberson and rookies Howard Twilley of Tulsa and John Roderick of SMU. Twilley, the all-time collegiate pass-catching champion at Tulsa, is small but quick and sure. Roderick runs the 100-yard dash in 9.3 and also has good speed in a football uniform, a talent many trackmen lack.
The key to the defense may be in how fast rookie Middle Linebacker Frank Emanuel of Tennessee learns his job. The Dolphins are going to shove Emanuel into action at once and suffer their lumps along with him. Ex-Jet Wahoo McDaniel has been moved to an outside linebacking position where his lack of speed may hamper pass coverage, although he is a hard tackier. Tom Erlandson, once of Denver, has the other outside linebacking job. Defensive End Mel Branch was a star for several years at Kansas City, although at 230 pounds he may find the game outgrowing him. The Dolphins had hoped for much from Tackle Alphonse Dotson, who has yet to live up to his reputation. Ed Cooke is a seasoned defensive end, and Tackles Tom Nomina and Rich Zecher have put in a lot of playing time.
The defensive secondary figures to be at least adequate. Willie West, a seven-year veteran, and John McGeever are at safety, and Jim Warren and Dick Westmoreland—both of whom came from San Diego in the draft—are the corner backs. "West is the best we have," says Wilson. "He's with the ball all the time. If we can get performances like his all over, we'll be O.K. in the secondary."
The Dolphins will be erratic, a trait typical of new teams. Defensive units must play together for a while to become consistent. Quarterbacks and receivers must work together to perfect timing. But there will be days when things will fall into place, and it should not be a surprise if the Dolphins win two or three games.